EVERYONE THINKS they are open-minded.
Scientists in particular like to think they have open minds, but we know
from psychology that this is just one of those attributes that people
like to apply to themselves. We shouldnt perhaps have to worry about
it at all, except that parapsychology forces one to ask, "Do I believe
in this, do I disbelieve in this, or do I have an open mind?"
The research I have done during
the past ten or twelve years serves as well as any other research to show
up some of parapsychologys peculiar problems and even, perhaps,
some possible solutions.
I became hooked on the subject
when I first went up to Oxford to read physiology and psychology. I began
running the Oxford University Society for Psychical Research (OUSPR),
finding witches, druids, psychics, clairvoyants, and even a few real live
psychical researchers to come to talk to us. We had Ouija board sessions,
went exploring in graveyards, and did some experiments on ESP and psychokinesis
Within a few weeks I had not
only learned a lot about the occult and the paranormal, but I had an experience
that was to have a lasting effect on mean out-of-body experience
(OBE). It happened while I was wide awake, sitting talking to friends.
It lasted about three hours and included everything from a typical "astral
projection," complete with silver cord and duplicate body, to free-floating
flying, and finally to a mystical experience.
It was clear to me that the doctrine
of astral projection, with its astral bodies floating about on astral
planes, was intellectually unsatisfactory. But to dismiss the experience
as "just imagination" would be impossible without being dishonest
about how it had felt at the time. It had felt quite real. Everything
looked clear and vivid, and I was able to think and speak quite clearly.
You can imagine the intellectual
conflict I experienced (and of course I had no idea it was only a prelude
to far worse mental conflicts!). The psychologists and physiologists who
were teaching me made quite different assumptions about human nature from
those made by the people I met through the OUSPR. The latter, for the
most part, assume that there is "another dimension" to man,
that we can communicate directly mind to mind, that there are "other
worlds" waiting to be explored in altered states of consciousness,
and even that consciousness is separable from its physical home and might
survive the death of its body. The conflict was a challenge to me and
I conceived the objective (I think naively, rather than purely arrogantly)
of proving my teachers wrong, or at least showing that psychologists were
closed-minded in ignoring the most important of human potentialsthe
Even at that very early stage
I made a crucial mistakeor a series of crucial and related mistakes.
First, I assumed that all these odd and inexplicable thingsESP,
PK, OBEs, mystical experiences, ghosts, poltergeists, and near-death experienceswere
related and that one explanation would do for all. Second, I assumed that
there had to be a paranormal explanation that we were looking for
psi. Third (and I dont know whether this was just cowardice or an
attempt at being sensible for a change), rather than launching straight
into what really interested methe OBEI thought it was more
"scientific" to begin with psi. After all, there had been research
done on ESP and PK and, though generally rejected, it had some basis in
scientific research. It seemed far easier, and safer, to start there.
I didnt notice what I was doing. I can only point it out with the
benefit of hindsight. I just took psi to be the key to the mysteries and
wanted to study parapsychology.
The first thing I did was to
develop my own theory of psi. This theory involved the notion that psi
and memory are aspects of the same process, that memory is a specific
instance of the more general process of ESP. Eventually I got a place
at Surrey University to do a Ph.D., and it was then that I set about testing
While I was at Surrey I was lucky
enough to be given the chance to teach a parapsychology class. It attracted
more than a hundred students. so I had plenty of subjects for my experiments.
I began three kinds of tests. First, I predicted a positive correlation
between ESP and memory. That is, if memory and ESP are aspects of the
same process, then the same people should be good at both of them. I did
many tests of this kind (Blackmore 1980a). Second, I predicted that the
best target materials for ESP should not be those that are easy to perceive,
but those that are easy to remember. I did a series of experiments with
different target materials (Blackmore 1981a). Third I predicted that the
errors and confusions made in ESP should more closely resemble those made
in memory than those made in perception. I had high hopes for this method
since the study of errors has always been so useful in psychology, for
example, in the study of visual illusions. I also did many experiments
to test this (Blackmore 1981b). However, the only noteworthy thing about
all of the results was the number that were not significant.
After a long series of experiments
I had no replicable findings and only a large collection of negative results.
Clearly they could not answer my original questions. nor test my special
theory. Some of you may already be protesting: What an idiot. Why didnt
she just give up and do something useful instead? But I would have responded:
This could be useful! If ESP exists, it could be one of the most
important findings for science; and in any case you can never tell in
advance what research will be useful in the end. You may also be thinking,
as many people said at the time: "Oh but this is just what youd
expect. She has only shown that there is no psi." But of course I
hadnt done that, and couldnt do that. No amount of negative
results can prove the nonexistence of psi. Psi might always be right around
the next corner, and there were plenty of corners to look around.
There were also plenty of parapsychologists
eager to suggest corners I had not yet turned and reasons why my experiments
had not worked. And I was eager to carry on the search. Some said it might
be the subjects; students are notoriously not the best ones. So, instead
of testing my class, I tested people who came to me with claims of special
powers. I tried to design experiments that would test what they claimed
to be able to do and that would allow me to impose sufficient controls.
In some ways this upset me more than anything, because I met lots of genuine
and well-meaning people who were convinced they could communicate by telepathy,
or find underground pipes or hidden water, until they tried to do
it under conditions that ruled out normal sensory information. Then they,
and 1, were always disappointed.
Then I tried using young children
as subjects. At that time, Ernesto Spinelli was getting outstandingly
good results with preschool children in ESP tests (Spinelli 1983). So
I set about designing experiments to use a method similar to his (though
not a direct replication) to test my memory theory. It was much harder
work than the previous experiments, but much more fun. The children were
three- to five-year-olds in playgroups, and they thoroughly entered into
the whole idea, being convinced they could transmit pictures to one another.
But the results were quite clear. The proportion that were "nonsignificant"
was as high as before. The overall results were nonsignificant and so
were the correlations with age (Blackmore 1980b).
Why? Spinelli had many suggestions.
It could have been that I used colored pictures, while his were black
and white; or that the sweets I used as a reward (based on someone elses
previously successful experiments) were too well liked by the children
and were disruptive; or that I simply didnt have the right personality
and rapport with the children. I could only say that I seemed to get on
well with the children, but perhaps this was not well enough.
Another suggestion was that the
problem was not the subjects themselves, but the state of mind they were
in during the experiments. At that time, the ganzfeld experiments were
the "latest thing," and the results from Carl Sargent (1980)
at Cambridge, and Chuck Honorton (1977) at Princeton, seemed impressive.
So I set about doing a ganzfeld study. My subjects each had half of a
ping-pony ball covering each eye, lay on a reclining chair, and heard
only white noise fed through headphones. I wrote down everything they
said. Then they had to look at four pictures and choose which one they
thought the agent had been looking at.
I had for some months led an
imagery training group, in which we practiced relaxation, guided imagery,
and many imagery tasks adapted from Buddhist training techniques. For
my ganzfeld study I chose ten test subjects from this group and ten control
This study taught me a lot. Being
in ganzfeld is in itself an interesting experience. Images come pouring
in, and it is tempting to imagine that you are picking them up from somewhere
outside of yourself. I also had one very impressive experience in which
I was subject and my brother was agent. I "saw" people fishing,
lakes, mountains. and swiss chalets, and when I saw the targets I picked
the correct one right away. It was an amazingly close hit. It set me to
wondering whether I had at last found the key! However, in the course
of the experiment I saw many equally amazing correspondences, but to the
wrong pictures. My remarkable hit rapidly disappeared among the chance
This should have taught me something
important, something I should have known all along; that is, one should
not rely on subjective estimations of probability (see Blackmore and Troscianko
1985). One should rely only on the statistics, and they were telling me
that there was nothing there. Of course I tried it again with my brother,
but the second time it did not work. Overall the results were close to
Why did this study also fail?
I had used trained subjects in psi-conducive conditions and a method others
had found successful. The ultimate suggestion of most parapsychologists
was that it was an experimenter effectmore than that, it was a psi-mediated
experimenter effect. That is, either I was using my own negative psi or
I had some kind of personality defect, or defect in belief, that suppressed
the psi of other people. I was a psi-inhibitory experimenter, so that
whatever I did I would always get negative results. I began to get the
feeling that I had some creeping sickness. I was a failure, a reject;
there was something in me that suppressed the true spiritual nature of
other people. I tried not to let it upset me, but I must admit that there
is something terribly unflattering about being labeled "psi-inhibitory"!
Well, what could I do about it?
It is not entirely an untestable idea. But Sargent had already tested
the personalities of successful and unsuccessful experimenters and found
the successful ones to be extroverted, confident, nonneurotic. and so
on. In fact I fitted the description quite wellexcept for my results.
The other key to my failures
seemed to be belief. I was told that I didnt get results because
I didnt believe strongly enough in psi, because I didnt have
an open mind! But what could I do about that? I couldnt just change
my beliefs overnight or test ten subjects while believing and another
ten while not! I argued that in the beginning I had believed in psi and
still had got no results, but I couldnt prove this against the counter-argument
that I had never really believed at all.
However, I did have an idea. There were still
things in which I did believe. I could test the Tarot. In my preoccupation
with everything occult, I had been reading Tarot cards for about eight
or nine years. They really did seem to work. People told me that I could
accurately describe them using the cards, and this was, naturally, gratifying.
I even thought it might have a paranormal basis. So I set about testing
the cards, doing readings for ten people, keeping the procedure as close
as possible to a normal Tarot reading, but isolating myself, as the reader,
from the subjects. They then had to rank all ten readings to see whether
they picked their own more often than chance would predict (Blackmore
It worked! The results were actually
significant. You can imagine my excitementperhaps I had at last
found something. Perhaps there was no psi to be found in the standard
laboratory experiments, but something paranormal could appear when the
conditions were closer to real life. But then I talked to Carl Sargent.
He pointed out that all my subjects knew one another, and if they knew
one another their ratings and rankings could not be independent. So I
had violated an assumption of the statistical test I was using.
This seemed so trivial. Their knowing one another
could not help them pick the right reading, could it? No it couldnt;
but this meant that the estimate of probability was inaccurateand,
after all, the results were only marginally significant. So I repeated
the experiment twice more with subjects who did not know one another.
I expect you can predict the results I obtainedentirely nonsignificant.
You may choose to interpret these
results in different ways. Some parapsychologists have claimed that the
first experiment found genuine psi and that the later ones didnt
summon the same attitude, the same novelty, the same enthusiasm, that
made psi possibleor even that psi itself doesnt like being
replicated. But I think I had finally reached a stage where I no longer
felt it was worth pursuing such arguments. I chose this point to say:
"I think that, however many more experiments I do on psi, I am probably
not going to find it."
Now we finally come to the question:
"What do these negative results tell us?" Of course the one
thing they do not tell us is that psi does not exist. However long I went
on looking for psi and not finding it they could not tell us that. But
I found myself simply not believing in psi anymore. I really had become
a disbeliever. Like one of those doors with a heavy spring that keeps
it closed, my mind seemed to have changed from closed belief to closed
But either way I suffered. There
was mental conflict whether I believed or disbelieved. I had many questions.
One was this: How far could I generalize these negative results? The situation
was the converse of the normal situation in science when one gets positive
results and has to ask how far they can be generalized. Here I had to
ask whether my negative results applied only to those experiments carried
out by me, at those particular times, or whether they applied to the whole
of parapsychology. There is no obvious answer to that question. If one
had replicability one could answer the question as one does in other areas
of science. But without replicability it is impossible.
The next question was: How could
I weigh my own results against the results of other people, bearing in
mind that mine tended to be negative ones while everyone elses seemed
to be positive ones? I had to find some kind of balance here. At one extreme
I could not just believe my own results and ignore everyone elses.
That would make science impossible. Science cannot predict the results
operate unless people generally believe other peoples results. Science
is, and has to be, a collective enterprise.
At the other extreme I could
not believe everyone elses results and ignore my own. That would
be even more pointless. There would have been no point in all those years
of experiments if I didnt take my own results seriously. Indeed,
it is a fundamental principle in science that one has to take notice of
the results one finds.
So there is no right answer to
how to weigh them up. And these problems are only aspects of the basic
dilemma of parapsychology. which is whether to believe or disbelieve in
the existence of psi. Either way, I suggest, one meets conflict.
In the believers position
one is saying: "I believe there is something negatively defined,
defined as communication without the use of the recognized senses, or
action without the use of the muscles of the body. I have faith that future
experiments will find this thing, even though so far they have failed
to produce a replicable effect." If one takes this position, then
one not only has to accept the open-ended nature of the search but also
has to face up to the mounting negative results.
But what about the disbelievers
position? The disbeliever is only saying: "I do not believe
there is this negatively defined thing. I do not believe the search will
be successful. I have faith that all experiments with positive results
could be successfully debunked." So the disbeliever is in a kind
of mirror image of the believers position. But of course one can
never debunk all the experiments, and there will always be more in the
future. So the search is equally open-ended. And the disbeliever has to
take notice of those positive results. I am thinking particularly of the
results of Carl Sargent, Charles Honorton, Helmut Schmidt, and Robert
Jahn. I suggest that if we think these can easily be dismissed then we
are only deluding ourselves. One cannot offer simplistic counterexplanations
and throw all these results away. I am not saying that these results may
not, in the future, succumb to some normal explanation; they may well
do so. But at the moment we do not have such an explanation.
Whether you are a believer or a disbeliever you
will suffer mental conflict and anguish. So what is the solution? Easy,
isnt it? Have an open mind. But human beings are not built to have
open minds. If they try to have open minds they experience cognitive
dissonance. Leon Festinger (1957) first used this term. He argued
that people strive to make their beliefs and actions consistent and when
there is inconsistency they experience this unpleasant state of "cognitive
dissonance," and they then use lots of ploys to reduce it. I have
to admit I have become rather familiar with some of them.
First there is premature closure.
You can just pick one theory and stick to it against all odds. But I could
not do that after all those years. What I could do was only slightly more
subtle; that is, I could prefer one theory and ignore the evidence that
goes against it. In this way the believer can dismiss negative results
by using all the old arguments: The time, the place, the emotional state,
or the "vibes" werent right. Or the disbeliever can refuse
to look at the positive results. You may think I wouldnt refuse,
but I have to admit that when the Journal of Parapsychology arrives
with reports of Helmut Schmidts positive findings I begin to feel
uncomfortable and am quite apt to put it away "to read tomorrow."
Alternatively one can jump on
a simple counterexplanation, such as "Its all fraud and delusion."
Well, maybe it is, but that too creates dissonance of its own. To go around
thinking that everyone is cheating, or deluding themselves, can turn one
into a permanently suspicious and miserable sort of person, and it can
damage ones self-esteem. Suspecting that some effect is fraudulent
and tracking that down systematically is one thing, but approaching everything
one hears about as though it must be fraud is destructive.
Then there are other cheap ploys.
You can decrease the perceived attractiveness of the opposition. The believer
can find it easy to put down one famous critic as a dried-up old professor
with no real contact with the field anymore, or a more recent one as having
shifty eyes and too bushy a beard! Or the disbeliever can dismiss research
on the grounds that all parapsychologists are Scientologists, or are too
committed to religious beliefs, or are too dreamy-eyed and vague to be
doing "real science." But none of this will really wash. And
most of us know it wont. Nevertheless, we go on doing it because
it is so very hard to have an open mind.
I have said rather a lot about
what negative results do not tell us, but is there anything they do tell
us? I think we are now in a position to see that there is. I suggest that,
wherever you start in parapsychology, if you base your research on the
psi hypothesis then you will be forced to do ever more and more restricted
research, to back up into ever less and less testable positions, and to
produce ever more feeble and flimsy buttresses to hold your theory together.
In the end, whatever the questions you started with, you are forced to
ask more and more boring questions until there is only one question left:
Does psi exist? That question, I submit, is unanswerable.
This process is not restricted
to those who get negative results. Helmut Schmidt is among the best researchers
in parapsychology, and he has been forced to ask the question "Does
psi exist?" Charles Honorton is another example. He is working on
fraud-proof, fully automated procedures, even though he might prefer,
as do most people in parapsychology, to do process oriented research,
as I did when I started with my question "Is ESP like memory?"
I think that is the problem with parapsychology,
and it is a problem that starts from the very hypothesis of psi. The structure
and definitions of parapsychology are to blame. The negative definition of
psi, the hundred years of bolstering failing theories, and the
powerful will to find something are at fault. They not only force us to
ask, "Does psi exist?" but force us to answer in terms of belief.
Where there is no rational and convincing answer, belief takes over, and
that is why there are two sides, and such misunderstanding.
Here, it seems to me, lies the
crux. All those negative results teach us only one thing, that we have
been asking the wrong question. And the whole history of parapsychology
looks like a string of wrong questions. Parapsychology is, if it is based
on the psi hypothesis, a magnificent failure; not because psi doesnt
exist, but because it asks unanswerable questions.
An entirely different aspect
of my research was prompted by my personal out-of-body experience. I never
entirely forgot it. I went on wanting to understand it and eventually
tried to tackle it directly.
The first question I asked was
the obvious one: "Does anything leave the body in an OBE?" This
question may seem close to the unanswerable "Does psi exist?"
but I think it is different enough, or perhaps I was just more ruthless
in trying to answer it. From experiments of my own, and from reading the
literature, I concluded that we do have an answer. And it is "No."
You may have heard about an isolated incident of an OBE when someone correctly
read a five-digit number (Tart 1968), or when a cat responded to its owners
out-of-body presence (Morris et al. 1978), but I prefer to look at the
whole body of evidence (see Blackmore 1982). I concluded that these were
unreplicable and that in general we have enough evidence to answer that
there is no real evidence for psi in OBEs, there is no evidence of anything
leaving the body, and there is no evidence of effects caused by out-of-body
The next question I asked was
"Why does the OBE seem so real?" To someone who has not experienced
an OBE this might seem a silly starting point, but those of you who have
will probably understand why I asked it. That then set me to ask, "Why
does anything seem real?" Here I provided myself an answer that seemed
to account for the OBE (Blackmore 1984).
Very briefly, I argued that the
cognitive system cannot make its decision about what is "real"
or "out there" at the low level of chunks of input. Rather,
it makes its decisions at the higher level of global models of the world.
That is, it constructs models of the world, and chooses one. and only
one, as representing "the world out there."
I next had to ask, "Can
this decision go wrong?" And the answer is obviously "Yes."
When there is inadequate inputdamage to the system, drugs, trauma,
or any of the many things that can precipitate OBEsthen it might.
But what would happen if it goes wrong, the system loses contact with
reality? I would say that a sensible strategy would be to try to replace
the lost input model with the next best approximationone built from
memory. And we know a lot about memory models. For example, as Ronald
Siegel (1977) has pointed out, they are often built on a birds-eye
view. We know they are schematized, simplified, and often plain wrong.
Indeed, they are just like the OBE world.
I proposed that the OBE comes
about very simply when the system loses input control and replaces its
normal "model of reality" with one constructed from memory.
It seems real because it is the best model the system has at the time,
and it is therefore chosen to represent "out there."
This answered a lot of questions
about the OBE; especially about the phenomenology of the experience. It
also led to some predictions I have successfully tested. For example,
if the OBE occurs when the normal model of reality is replaced by a birds-eye
view constructed from memory, then the people who have OBEs should be
better able to use such views in memory and in imagery. In several experiments
I found that OBEers were better at switching viewpoints, were especially
good at imagining scenes from a position above their heads, and were more
likely to recall dreams in a birds-eye perspective. I actually had
some positive results at last (Blackmore 1986a)!
This theory also led to a new
approach to altered states of consciousness in general. To that persistent
question "What is altered in an altered state of consciousness?"
I could now answer that a persons "model of reality" is
altered. I could look at changes induced by meditation, drugs, hypnosis,
or a mystical experience, in terms of the changing models of reality (Blackmore
1986b). The OBE could then be seen as only one of a variety of experiences
that become possible when the input-driven model of reality is lost.
Interestingly, this theory treats
the OBE as a kind of error of reality modeling. And so once again the
error can be used to throw light on the normal process at work. But I
was only able to come back to this insight once I had abandoned looking
for psi. It wasnt that I had rejected the possibility of psi, I
had simply ignored it.
I mention my OBE research only
to contrast it with my previous work based on psi. In my early work, starting
from the psi hypothesis, I was forced to ask, "Does psi exist?"
In this research I never had to ask it. The other difference is that I
no longer had to worry about having an open mind. That makes me wonder
what it is like in other sciences. Of course it is always important to
have a potentially open mind. If ones results show that ones
hypothesis is wrong, then one has to be prepared to change it; but that
need not happen very oftenat least if ones hypotheses are
any good it shouldnt. One doesnt have to have a permanent
open mind. And so it was with the OBE researchand what a relief!
I can conclude that all my negative
results did teach me something. Or am I perhaps only trying to get my
50-cents worth? A few years ago I read an article in the British Psychological
Society Bulletin about the "Royal Nonesuch of Parapsychology."
The author, H. B. Gibson (1979), described Mark Twains wonderful
story of cognitive dissonance, about the show that never was. Many people
were lured into paying 50 cents to see a nonexistent show, but instead
of decrying the fraud they went out and persuaded others to see it and
pay their 50 cents too. Gibson was reminded of this tale, he said, by
a conference paper given by a woman who had spent two years in fruitless
research on parapsychology. He suggested that parapsychology is only kept
going by the "very human tendency to try to get ones 50-cents
worth after one has been misled . . . by an unkind fate which has led
one into an immense expense of effort in a blind alley."
I fought back in print (Blackmore
1979), arguing that I was not just trying to get my 50-cents worth, that
I was after the truth and an understanding of the Nature of Life, the
Universe, and Everything. But the problem is that it is very hard
to understand the nature of life, the universe, and everything, if you
start with the psi hypothesis.
In the end I think my negative
results told me that the psi hypothesis leads only to unrepeatability
(Blackmore 1985). It forces us to ask ever more boring questions, culminating
in the question "Does psi exist?" and to that question there
is no obviously right answer. Where there is no right answer, we are in
ignorance; and, where we are in ignorance, we should do only one thinghave
an open mind. But that is too difficult. After all these years of research,
I can only conclude that I dont know which is more elusivepsi
or an open mind.