A Skeptic's Handbook of Parapsychology

By Paul Kurtz | Go to book overview

18
The Adventures of a Psi-Inhibitory Experimenter
SUSAN BLACKMORE

I get negative results. Indeed, I have been doing so for ten years. The dilemma I now confront is how to weigh the results of my own failures against the published successes of others. This is just the last and most difficult in a long series of dilemmas forced on me by my failure to observe psi.

This is a personal account—and I apologize for being so egocentric, but I want to use my own experiences to illustrate some of the fundamental problems faced by parapsychology: in particular by a parapsychology bedeviled by unrepeatability.

My interest in parapsychology first developed when I ran the Oxford University Society for Psychical Research and came into contact with parapsychologists, psychical researchers, and occultists. I was challenged by the contradiction between what I learned from them and what I was learning in physiology and psychology—especially in the area of memory. I then conceived a "memory theory of ESP" (Blackmore 1979), which was to mold the first few years of my research. Roughly, this involved the (not original) notion that memory was not stored in individual brains but was in some way common to all. Memory would then be seen as a special case of ESP. This seemed to explain so much—which at the time I mistakenly took for an advantage. And it fit with the fact that then, as now, psychology did not understand the physiological basis of memory.

I set out to test these ideas by asking a fairly simple question: Does ESP behave more like perception or memory? This question formed the basis of the research for my Ph.D. at Surrey University.It was deliberately "process‐ oriented" research; that is, assuming (rather than seeking evidence for) the existence of psi and trying to understand the processes involved. To answer the question, I carried out about 20 experiments using large groups of unselected subjects. I looked at the kinds of errors and confusions that were made in ESP tasks (Blackmore 1981a); errors and confusions I found, but ESP I did not. I looked at the types of targets that were most effective (Blackmore 1981b), but I found that none was. I explored the kinds of memory skills that correlated with ESP (Blackmore 1980a)—except that none did. The results of all these experi

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