Mistress of the mind

May 30, 2003

"When my editor said, 'What are you going to do next?' I just blurted it out: 'A textbook on consciousness'," says Susan Blackmore describing her surprise next move after just finishing her controversial bestseller The Meme Machine. Her trademark red and green-tinged hair was already familiar to TV popular-science audiences the world over and she had a secure academic base as reader in psychology at Bristol's University of the West of England. Why then had she turned to the dull business of textbook writing?

The telephone almost jumped out of my hand as the words tumbled out at the other end. "Dull? Not at all dull. I never enjoyed any other work so much. It's a challenge, an honour, a joy. No scholar wanting to understand consciousness could do better than to write the first textbook."

Wanting to understand consciousness. That is the key not only to the textbook project but also to the whole of Blackmore's career. In her student days at Oxford University she had a dramatic out-of-body experience that triggered a lifelong obsession (her word) with the nature of consciousness. Having completed a degree course in physiology and psychology, she was convinced that parapsychology (psi) held the secret. She embarked on her "25-year detour into psi", confident that she would "prove all the boring old scientists wrong and show them that mind reached beyond the body". But she was the one to change her views.

"Having an open mind really means being prepared to change it in the face of the evidence," she says. "That can be extremely hard, but I think it is essential to being a good scientist. I was forced to do it and I am now glad I did. At first the evidence threw doubt on my own theory of ESP [extra-sensory perception] but I was sure other psi phenomena were still real. Gradually I kept moving on until there were no paranormal claims left that seemed convincing."

Psi might have been out of her system, but the drive to understand consciousness was not. Progress required tackling the subject in two different ways: intellectually and by looking directly into her own experience. Western science does not have good methods for doing the latter, so alongside scientific research, Blackmore has for the past 20 years adopted the Zen practice of calming the mind until it is still enough to see clearly. As she says at the start of her textbook, in a warning to her student readers: "Studying consciousness will change your life."

The writing of Consciousness: An Introduc tion certainly brought her changes. The most spectacular and immediate was throwing up her university job. There were other less welcome developments. The first year she tried to keep doing other things - talks, travelling and so on. As she now admits: "It doesn't work." Her original concept had been something more limited that would have allowed room for extracurricular activities. But once she began to work, "I knew it had to be the whole thing, a total commitment". So the second year she devoted herself to the book.

It was unlike anything she had ever tackled. Her previous writings - autobiography, pet theories - had been perhaps a little self-indulgent. But this time it had to be strict discipline, writing for others. This would be a course book for third-year undergraduates, and their needs had to be paramount. Textbook writers typically interpret this requirement in terms of a safe middle-of-the-road presentation, but in a field with so little consensus Blackmore did not even attempt to make a core statement on consciousness to which no one could take exception.

"Rather, I tried to map out the lines of disagreement and clarify the natural groupings people fall into. This way I hope students will be able to position their own beliefs within a useful structure. The science and theories will change as time goes on but if I have done my job well the students will have acquired a useful structure within which to understand those changes."

She took various topics, such as attention, vision and the unity of consciousness, and tried to provide an overview of how people seek to understand them. This meant explaining sympathetically theories with which she had no sympathy, writing to convey enthusiasm without allowing her bias too much free rein. She accepts that her own preferences inevitably show through in the experiments she has chosen to describe in detail and the emphasis she has laid on different theories. "Anyone reading the book will guess that I enjoy Daniel Dennett's radical deconstruction and am not much enamoured of the very popular global workspace theories." The work entailed "sitting alone for days on end, surrounded by books, reading, thinking, getting confused and writing". And getting more deeply perplexed.

As she says herself, with a degree of understatement: "This life would not suit everyone." And one of the people it ought not to suit is the Sue Blackmore regularly on show at conferences. High-octane presentations, life and soul of the party after hours, this character is familiar to all on the consciousness circuit. But those public lectures are a calculated and costly performance. "I get a kick out of entertaining a large audience," she says, "but it takes a lot of energy and concentration to do it." There speaks one willing and able to perform in the lecture theatre but much more herself in a writer's solitude.

Solitude has its limits, however, and Blackmore has a bonus as an author because her words are brought to life by some 40 cartoons drawn by her son and collaborator Jolyon Troscianko. Nor has his contribution been merely artistic. He is an undergraduate, and as he worked with his mother on the text and drawings, she found he spontaneously came up with all the questions students regularly ask about consciousness. "Having an illustrator in the next room who does that is just what you need."

There were also more formal scrutineers. Her publisher had more than a dozen readers look at the 60-page synopsis, and their reactions ranged "from the ecstatic to the insulting". When it came to the completed manuscript, the number of peer reviewers was cut by more than half. Their comments mostly related to small points, tightening up arguments, clarifying terms and adding a few extra references. "No," she says, "they were still not all positive but nearly all."

As publication day draws near, Blackmore appears excited and with a sense of achievement. Like Tony Benn leaving the House of Commons to devote more time to politics, she left the academic establishment to gain a true academic life. Her textbook is the rewarding first fruit of this latest stage in her drive to understand consciousness.

Consciousness: An Introduction is published by Hodder and Stoughton on May 30.
Susan Blackmore will speak at the Cheltenham Festival of Science on June 4.

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