Do you believe in psychic phenomena? Are they likely to be able to explain consciousness?

April 5, 1996

Susan Blackmore is sceptical. If you took a time machine and travelled back anywhere in parapsychology's 60-year history you might hear parapsychologists say something like this: "The old experiments had problems - but we've really found the repeatable experiment this time." I first heard this in the early 1970s. After a dramatic out-of-body experience I had found myself in states of consciousness that were completely ignored by ordinary psychology. It seemed logical then, though it certainly does not now, to turn to parapsychology. When I decided to become a parapsychologist I had no idea it would mean 20 years of failing to find the paranormal.

At that time card-guessing experiments were still the norm. Samuel Soal's famous telepathy experiments at Queen Mary College, London, providing odds against chance of millions to one, had not yet been exposed as a fraud. Results with children in classrooms seemed promising, as did experiments with telepathy during dreams.

Until recently the latest "real thing" has been the ganzfeld. Subjects in this experiment lie comfortably, listening to white noise or sea-shore sounds through headphones, and wear half ping-pong balls over their eyes seeing nothing but a uniform white or pink field (the ganzfeld). Meanwhile, a sender in a distant room views a picture or video clip. After half an hour or so the subject is shown four such pictures or videos and is asked to choose which was the target. Several researchers have claimed positive results, and meta-analyses have combined the results of many experiments to show that the results are consistent, do not depend on any one experimenter, and reveal regular features of extrasensory perception.

The ganzfeld reached scientific respectability in 1994 when Cornell psychologist Daryl Bem and parapsychologist Charles Honorton published a report in a prestigious journal, Psychological Bulletin. They reported impressive new results with a fully automated ganzfeld procedure, claiming to have demonstrated a repeatable experiment. So had they?

My own conclusion is biased by my personal experience. I tried my first ganzfeld experiment in 1978, when the procedure was new. Failing to get results myself I went to visit the laboratory in Cambridge where some of the best results were being obtained. What I found had a profound effect on my confidence in the whole field. The experiments, which looked so beautifully designed in print, were easily open to fraud or error. Eventually the experimenters and I all published our different views of the affair, and the main experimenter left the field. I turned to other experiments.

This depressing incident is only still relevant because the Cambridge data is all there in the Bem and Honorton review. Indeed, out of 28 studies included, nine came from the Cambridge lab, more than from any other laboratory. Yet not a word of doubt is expressed, no references are given, and a reader could not guess there was such controversy.

Of course the new auto-ganzfeld results are even better. Why should I doubt them because of events in the past? The problem is that my personal experience conflicts with the succeses I read about in the literature and I cannot ignore either side. The only honest reaction is to say "I don't know".

Now that the CIA has released details of more than 20 years of research into remote viewing the spotlight has left the ganzfeld. "Oh yes, the old ganzfeld experiments had problems", we might soon hear "but we've really found the repeatable experiment this time". But what if they have? What if my doubt is misplaced and there really is extrasensory perception after all? What would this tell us about consciousness?

The popular view seems to be something like this - if ESP exists it proves that mental phenomena are nonlocal, or independent of space and time. If psychokinesis exists, it proves that mind can reach out beyond the brain to affect things at a distance. If you equate mind with consciousness - hey presto - ESP and PK prove the power of consciousness.

It is a desire for this "power of consciousness" that fuels much enthusiasm for the paranormal. Parapsychologists have often been accused of wanting to prove the existence of the soul, and denied it, so I will instead accuse them of wanting to prove the power of consciousness. Will they succeed?

First they need to make their case that any effects they find really involve consciousness. For example, recent PK experiments apparently show "the effect of consciousness" on random-number generators, computers or dice. Yet what they have really shown is correlations between instructions given to subjects and the physical system being tested. The really interesting questions concerning consciousness are about subjectivity. There are no controls in the PK experiments to show that subjective experience is involved in any way.

As our understanding of conscious experience progresses, this desire to find the "power of consciousness" sets parapsychology ever more against the rest of science (which of course is part of its appeal). The more we look into the workings of the brain the less it looks like a machine run by a conscious self. There is no place inside the brain where consciousness resides, where mental images are "viewed" or where instructions are "issued". There is just massive parallel throughput and no centre. There are even a few crucial experiments suggesting that conscious experience takes some time to build up and is much too slow to be responsible for making things happen. Indeed the brain seems to be a machine that runs itself very well and produces an illusion that there is someone in charge. This illusion is just what meditators and spiritual practitioners have been saying for millennia; that our ordinary view of ourselves, as conscious, active agents experiencing a real world, is wrong - an illusion. Now science seems to be coming to the same conclusion.

Parapsychology is going the other way. It is trying to prove that consciousness really does have power; that our minds really can reach out and "do" things, not only within our own bodies but beyond. Odd, then, that so many people think of parapsychology as more "spiritual" than conventional science. I think it could be the other way around.

I look forward to the kind of psychology that can bring together the spiritual insights with the scientific ones - that can reveal what kind of illusion we live in and how it comes about, and perhaps even help us to see our way out of the illusion. This would indeed be progress in understanding consciousness, and in being conscious in a different way. And as far as this hope is concerned parapsychology is going nowhere. This is why my answers to the two questions are "probably not", and definitely "no".

Susan Blackmore is senior lecturer in the department of health and community studies, University of the West of England.

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