A Conversation with Skeptic Susan Blackmore

Recently, I travelled into central London to offer an alternative perspective to skeptic[1] Susan Blackmore on a radio show about out-of-body experiences. The actual conversation for those who would like to listen is here.

I have been aware of the work of Susan Blackmore for many many years. I remember seeing her on numerous documentaries in the 1990s and probably earlier. In the 2000s I attended a lecture by her at the event ‘James Randi and Friends’ at Conway Hall in London, at which she outlined her personal experience with parapsychology. It was a genuine pleasure to finally meet her and have a chance to put my perspective across, both to her and a wider public. Sadly, I didn’t get the chance to explore her objections in more detail and I feel the audience might want the references to my points, so I decided to write this follow up article for those interested in the details and background to my comments.  

This article goes far beyond my dialogue with Susan, I am using that as a starting point if you like. This article is an exploration of data and why I see things the way I do.

Defining an Out-of-Body Experience (OBE)

How we define an OBE is extremely important to this discussion, as too general an understanding will lead to confusion and false categorisation. Susan and I agree that definitions that include assumptions like ‘the soul leaves the body’ are unhelpful, as we simply do not know if a soul exists or if anything actually leaves the body. When considering this there is an extremely important distinction between my thinking on definitions and Susan’s perspective. In her new book Seeing Myself (2017) she writes “So I stick to the definition I gave in Beyond the Body: ‘An experience in which a person seems to perceive the world from a location outside their physical body’. This is simple and sufficient.”[2]

I feel in contrast to Susan’s definition that we need greater detail and more precision in defining OBEs and we probably need more than one definition. For example in my view we need to divide the experiential from theories of what is taking place within the experience. We also need to categorise different types of OBE, e.g. OBEs via cardiac arrest, OBEs via dream states and OBEs from full waking awareness etc. I then feel a closer look at experiences that happen during sleep paralysis and bodily illusions like those caused during stimulation of the temporo-parietal junction. Many of these likely do not fall within the category of OBEs when using a more detailed definition based upon an analysis of NDEs and OBEs like my own. 


At the very least we need a distinction between experiences that appear to be fully illusory and experiences that appear to contain what Janice Holden calls Apparently Non-physical Veridical Perceptions (AVPs), or when people see things accurately during an OBE.

Plausible explanations

The main skeptical approach to psi or psychical experiences is to offer a plausible explanation. As long as the argument is plausible it is accepted by skeptics without any supporting evidence, even when the details if examined closely would undermine this claim. This approach was used with virtually every example I gave during the radio conversation. I will explore the plausible explanations given for my experiences and how Susan also implied they explain the positive results in psi research in general. This would take things further, as Susan is claiming that even when there is evidence it’s due to some unproven cause like scientific incompetence.

We all have biases, but I think Susan’s statement that, “My own conclusion is biased by my own personal experience”[3] seems very true when I look back at our dialogue. She has also previously stated: “The problem is that my personal experience conflicts with the successes I read about in the literature and I cannot ignore either side. The only honest reaction is to say “I don’t know””[4]. I would certainly agree with this also, especially the fair minded statement “I don’t know”, but it would seem she is now claiming she does know. I repeatedly state that I do not know, but the evidence, research and my personal experience all clearly create a high degree of confidence that psi and some related phenomena (such as OBEs) are objectively real.

The temporo-parietal junction (TPJ)

In my 2012 book Navigating the Out-of-Body Experience I discussed both Susan Blackmore’s ideas as they were at the time and the work of Olaf Blanke. I was not convinced then that distortions in the functioning of the temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) is sufficient an explanation when it comes to brain activity and genuine OBEs, the science seems at best scant and inconclusive. From my dialogue with Susan on August 3rd, 2017 it seems she has moved from believing Sleep Paralysis explains OBEs to believing the TPJ explains them.

My view, as I outlined to Susan in the dialogue is that we would expect activity in the TPJ during an OBE, as it is key in our awareness of our body and sense of self. Yet, I would also expect to see brain activity in other areas related to spatial awareness and movement etc. As I will show, this is what we find in the small amounts of research we have available. I would also expect distortions and bodily illusions if the brain is stimulated in different areas. This may have also been shown in the work of Michael Persinger for example (who supports psi being real), I will also explore more about his work later.

These stimulated experiences are not an explanation for OBEs or other experiences as Susan claims. In my view they show a relationship exists between brain function and our experiences of places, people and ourselves - a discovery that hardly seems revolutionary.

As I stated in my 2012 book even if Olaf Blanke had stimulated a feeling of being out of the body, it would still be a long way from showing this type of experience is consistent with OBEs in individuals like myself.

For example if we consider the popular view in the field of NDE research that the brain is a filter/receiver of consciousness (not my view), then we would expect to see this kind of activity. If the brain is more like a computer within a network, which is where my thinking is leaning, then again we would expect this area to be active. Also, if we were to stimulate parts of the brain we would expect distortions and illusory experiences, but these are in most instances distinct from from the real experience. I see no reason at this point to conclude OBEs are different.

In my chapter in the book, Consciousness Beyond the Body I explore the work of Olaf Blanke and his colleague Jane Aspell. In a lecture Aspell highlights how when the brain is stimulated it can produce an experience of various things (Jane uses the example of the individuals grandmother) or something similar to an OBE. The experiences produced in Blanke’s research aren’t, in my view, convincing as an OBE, but as I point out in the book, “Even if the study had produced a convincing OBE, it would still not show that OBEs are not objective more than inducing an experience of an illusory grandmother would prove grandmothers don’t exist. In my opinion, it is important to untangle these ideas of what an OBE is. This will allow researchers to explore these experiences with a greater spirit of fairness.”[5]

In our debate Susan Blackmore mentioned a Chinese study that included a single case of a 15 year old boy who had OBEs due to a lesion on his TPJ. However, there were others in the study with a legion in the same region of the brain who did not have OBEs. This is outlined clearly in the paper, “In the period from January 2001 to January 2013, 1500 patients with intractable epilepsy underwent surgical treatment at our epilepsy center. The epileptogenic zone was located in the TPJ in 31 patients. Of these patients, only 1 had an OBE.”[6] What’s more as we don’t know whether the definition used for an OBE was precise we cannot even draw any conclusions from the one case that was identified.

When we combine this data with the evidence from a Canadian study, showing multiple areas of the brain are active during a certain type of OBE, it suggests that the sense of self, the TPJ is key in maintaining no doubt plays some role, but many other areas of the brain appear to be important also. The areas of the brain active were mainly left-sided and included the left supplementary motor area, supramarginal and posterior superior temporal gyri, the cerebellum, and also the left middle and superior orbital frontal gyri.[7]

When judging by the level of activity shown in the Canadian fMRI study, as I said in the radio dialogue, I feel that Susan is overstating things. A single person having an OBE out of 31 is not a sufficient level of evidence in my view to make the claim we now know how OBEs are caused, even with the previous data from Olaf Blanke et al. Sadly, also the study with the 15 year old boy in China does not include enough detail of his experiences and I was unable to confirm the facts with the researchers.

At this point we might ask, are there other medical interventions such as the stimulation of the brain with someone with epilepsy that has been correlated with OBEs? The answer is yes, low blood pressure and syncope (fainting) has long been associated with OBEs also. In a 2009 case-study, a man was given a cardiac event recorder (a device that records the heart's electrical activity) and began to have some form of OBEs, which ceased after he was given a pacemaker.[8]

Michael Persinger, a neuroscientist at Laurentian University in canada, also found evidence of brain activity when Ingo Swann was able to accurately perceive targets he could not have seen physically. These non-local perceptions were associated with unusual brain activity, “Swann's accuracy for the details of remotely viewed objects was directly corrected with the proportion of highly stereotyped 7 Hz spike-like paroxysmal electroencephalographic activity over the right occipital region (the parietal area was not recorded).”[9]

This is suggestive that non-local perceptions, possibly including OBEs, could be associated with the occipital region also, or more general brain activity coupled with 7 Hz spikes in activity as mentioned above. So, all in all I feel it is too early to say that the TPJ is as important as Susan claimed in our conversation.

Personal Veridical OBEs

One of my veridical OBEs that was brought up by the host of the show took place in Tallinn, Estonia and involved damage to the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. While I fully accept that this case is not as strong as my Soho OBE, also mentioned in the dialogue, there were some claims made that do not in-fact explain the experience in my opinion.

My partner and I considered that maybe I could have seen the damage during my last visit to that area of Tallinn and had unconsciously remembered those details. To consider this possible explanation I used Google Images. As the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is a popular tourist location it came up in hundreds of images, yet I couldn’t find a single one with the exact damage as I’d seen in the OBE. I then filtered the search to the time period of the OBE, November 2012, again no similar damage. I then tried the month before and still no matches to damage at all. I can only conclude from this that the damage was visible for only a short period of time and was not present long enough for me to have seen it the last time I was in that area.

My most challenging OBE which took place in 1999 was dismissed during the dialogue for two key reasons. Firstly, that the OBE took place a long time ago. This also doesn’t hold up, as I am well aware of the fallibility of memory, which is why the details of the experience were recorded within 2 hours of the OBE, as I explained during the interview. This important point was ignored, but in reality the facts of the case show that the details were consistent and match between witnesses and myself.

The Soho OBE was also not a general reference to an attack, it was highly specific, as I and the witnesses confirm. Lawrence Brightman, who was there, stated that I described a bar being bombed on the right of Old Compton Street from my vantage point on the corner of Moor Street within the OBE. This is too specific to be simply dismissed, especially when combined with my many other experiences that also contain veridical perception and my involvement in controlled experiments.

Replicated evidence supporting precognition

The second claim was that the scientific research on the subject does not support precognition. While the subject is of course controversial, there is in fact consistent replicated evidence supporting presentiment and precognition, for example a recent meta-analysis of 90 different studies yielded an overall statistical significance of greater than 6 sigma. The data was based upon research from 33 laboratories in 14 countries.[10]

Regardless of whether or not one agrees that this data, or that the other studies that exist, are correct, it shows that evidence does clearly exist that supports precognition. It is therefore not unreasonable to conclude, with at least some degree of confidence, that precognitive experiences could be genuine.

I also have direct experience of positive controlled double blind research into precognition during my time working with author and biologist Dr Rupert Sheldrake. So, all in all, it would be irrational of me to deny my personal experiences, the general scientific research, plus my own experimental results under computerised controlled conditions. i also pointed out in the debate that the experience could also be interpreted as a telepathic experience, which is probably the area of parapsychology with the strongest supporting evidence. 

Quality of research

During the radio dialogue on at least two occasions Susan Blackmore mentioned a case of fraud she claims to have discovered. This seemed to imply that because fraud has existed within parapsychology we shouldn’t take it very seriously, ignoring that fraud exists in all areas of science. The problem with this accusation is it was related to Carl Sargent and was never actually proven. It was Blackmore’s word against Sargent’s, and as she pointed out even in my debate with her, she doesn’t put much weight on someone’s word, even the word of witnesses to a case. Therefore, if we apply her own standards to her own claims we cannot conclude anything about Sargent’s work.

Then there is her claim that the allegedly fraudulent study was included in a meta-analysis. In fact, as Dean Radin points out in his book The Noetic Universe, Charles Honorton’s work already dealt with this issue, even if we take Blackmore’s version of events to be true. “Honorton recalculated the results after excluding the studies that he and Sargent had reported.  The resulting odds against chance were still ten thousand to one.  Thus, the effect did not depend on just one or two labs; it had been successfully replicated by eight other laboratories.”[11]. This means that even if Sargent’s work was fraudulent the results of the meta-analysis are still positive for psi.

What’s more as Marie-Catherine Mousseau’s research demonstrates standards in parapsychology are extremely high[12]. In fact in some instances higher than in other areas of science, for example, the higher level of reporting null results.

In Marie-Catherine Mousseau’s 2003 paper on the subject of quality of research in parapsychology she states “Mainstream scientists use many epistemological criteria to dismiss parapsychology as a pseudo-science. It turns out that these are only rhetorical tools, which they would find difficult to apply to their own work.”[13]. It seems to me that this is exactly what was happening in my conversation with Susan Blackmore. The dismissal of every form of evidence leaves professional skeptics able to maintain their perspective in the face of a divergence of evidence. As long as a plausible explanation is given, the details are essentially unimportant.

The number of researchers worldwide involved in the study of psi of some form is hard to accurately quantify. This is probably why Susan reacted so vehemently to my suggestion there are hundreds around the world. She probably meant there are only a handful dedicated to parapsychology and although it’s hard to know what that number would be also, it would likely be under one hundred. However, individuals at universities and organisations that have conducted research, or continue to conduct research, is much higher. For example if just 1 researcher in every 100 universities in the world had conducted psi research that would be over 260 people.[14] And that figure does not include specialist parapsychological organisations. So it’s easy to see why I estimated the number of researchers who have conducted psi research to be in the hundreds.

Evidence for Out-of-Body Experiences

There are two main areas of evidence, confirmed case-studies, especially prospective studies, and controlled experiments.

In the book The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences published in 2009 the author and researcher Janice Holden writes: “Of the 111 cases of apparently nonphysical perception, I found that 92% contained absolutely no errors, 6% contained minor errors, and 2% were completely erroneous [not matching actual events]. Thus, the vast majority of these apparently nonphysical perceptions were veridical”.[15]

This means that the data we have clearly shows that perceptions during the out-of-body element of near death experiences are accurate and consistent with the events that were taking place at the time. This is of course also consistent with my own out-of-body experiences and the controlled research. This shows that all the evidence related to this topic is pointing in the same direction or is, at worst, neutral.

Patrizio Tressoldi, from the  Department of Psychology at the University of Padova, Italy has found that the use of hypnosis is a way to control OBEs enough to gain consistent results in a controlled manner. In a 2014 study Dr Tressoldi gained extremely significant results using remote targets that the OBE subjects were asked to visit and then describe. Interestingly, the subjects were somewhat unclear about their perceptions (possibly due to the hypnosis) however, “two independent judges correctly identified 66.7% of [the targets], compared to a probability of 25% expected due to chance.”.[16] This level above chance is extremely statistically significant and adds to a growing body of evidence.

The research at the University of Padova is the most recent controlled data on the subject of veridical OBEs since the 1980s. It is strange that this positive evidence was not explored in Susan Blackmore’s new book on OBEs. She stated that she had not looked into it in “detail” and it was omitted because the study is too recent, but I find this unconvincing as the book contains references to studies from 2016. I also find it strange Susan would not have looked into it in any detail considering there are so few studies looking at OBE veridicality. I would understand if she had said she had never heard of the study, but she suggested she had heard of it.

Conclusion

All in all, like my meetings with other skeptics, including the godfather of them all, James Randi, my dialogue with Susan Blackmore left me feeling that skepticsm is an ideological movement, a group of vocal activists. I don’t think there is anything wrong with their philosophy and if things have really been the way Susan says in her life I can fully understand why she sees things the way she does. At the same time, it’s clear that it would be irrational for me to see things differently also. So, where do we go from there? Is there any point in debates? They certainly do seem futile when emotional needs and biases are apparent in all of us. I imagine that Susan and I would agree that is precisely why we need the scientific method. Individual viewpoints are only ever a starting point.

As Bertrand Russell famously said, “ask only what are the facts”, and that is what I will continue to do. I will explore the data and those who are willing to step beyond taboos and assumed truth and challenge my viewpoints and alter my understandings in the light of new evidence. It’s very exciting to imagine where the data will lead us in years to come.

List of evidence

At the end of the conversation Justin Brierley, the host of the show, asked me if there was somewhere people could go to look at evidence for non-local consciousness and psi. The resource I suggested is Dean Radin’s list compiled for exactly this kind of situation: http://deanradin.com/evidence/evidence.htm




[1] I use the American spelling of the word sceptic, replacing the ‘c’ with a ‘k’ when referring to the sceptical activist community, as this is the spelling they favour.


[2] Blackmore, S. (2017). Seeing myself. Place of publication not identified: Constable And Robinson.


[3] http://www.skepticalinvestigations.org/Anomali/skeptic_research.html


[4] Ibid.


[5] Out-of-Body Experiences and Non-local Perception by Graham Nicholls, Published in: ‘Consciousness Beyond the Body: Evidence and Reflections’ (2016, pp. 100-115, Alexander De Foe [Editor], ISBN: 0646950223).


[6] Fang, T., Yan, R., & Fang, F. (2014). Spontaneous out-of-body experience in a child with refractory right temporoparietal epilepsy. Journal of Neurosurgery: Pediatrics, 14(4), 396-399. doi:10.3171/2014.6.peds13485


[7] Smith, A. M., & Messier, C. (2014). Voluntary Out-of-Body Experience: An fMRI Study. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2014.00070


[8] Brandt, C., Kramme, C., Storm, H., & Pohlmann-Eden, B. (2009). Out-of-body experience and auditory and visual hallucinations in a patient with cardiogenic syncope: Crucial role of cardiac event recorder in establishing the diagnosis. Epilepsy & Behavior, 15(2), 254-255. doi:10.1016/j.yebeh.2009.02.047


[9] Persinger, M., & Saroka, K. (2012). Protracted parahippocampal activity associated with Sean Harribance. International Journal of Yoga, 5(2), 140. doi:10.4103/0973-6131.98238


[10] Bem, D., Tressoldi, P. E., Rabeyron, T., & Duggan, M. (2014). Feeling the Future: A Meta-Analysis of 90 Experiments on the Anomalous Anticipation of Random Future Events. SSRN Electronic Journal. doi:10.2139/ssrn.2423692


[11] Radin, D. I. (2009). The noetic universe: the scientific evidence for psychic phenomena. London: Corgi Books. PP80.


[12] Mousseau, M. (2003). Parapsychology: Science or Pseudo-Science?


[13] ibid.


[14] According to webometrics.info there are 26,368 universities in the world based upon their database: http://www.webometrics.info/en/node/54


[15] Holden, J. M., Greyson, B., & James, D. (2009). The handbook of near-death experiences: thirty years of investigation. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.


[16] Tressoldi, P. E., Pederzoli, L., Caini, P., Ferrini, A., Melloni, S., Richeldi, D., . . . Trabucco, A. (2014). Out of Body Experience Induced by Hypnotic Suggestion. Part 1: Phenomenology and Perceptual Characteristics. SSRN Electronic Journal. doi:10.2139/ssrn.2443719