Why I had to change my mind

In Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour, Sixth Edition, 2010, by Richard Gross, London, Hodder Education, pp 86-7

[Note: This is an earlier draft of the contribution to the above book]

It was 1970, the tail end of the hippy era, when I arrived in Oxford as an enthusiastic young fresher. I was thrilled by the intellectual atmosphere, and threw myself into late nights, early lectures, New Age theories, crazy clothes, and mind-opening cannabis.

I joined the Oxford University Society for Psychical Research and blundered into occultism, mediumship and the paranormal – ideas that clashed tantalisingly with everything I was learning for my degree in physiology and psychology. Then late one evening something very strange happened. I was sitting around with friends, smoking, listening to music, and enjoying the vivid imagery of rushing down a dark tunnel of leaves towards a bright light, when my friend spoke, and I couldn’t reply.

“Where are you Sue?” he asked, and suddenly I seemed to be on the ceiling looking down.

“Astral projection!” I thought and I (or some imagined flying “I”) set off across Oxford, over the country, and way beyond. For more than two hours I explored strange scenes, entered mystical states beyond space and time, and ultimately lost my self.

It was an extraordinary and life-changing experience. Everything seemed brighter and more real than ordinary life; something seemed to tell me that this mattered more than anything else. I couldn’t understand; yet I longed to.

Perhaps understandably I jumped to obvious but wrong conclusions – that my spirit had left my body and that this must prove phenomena that most scientists reject, like telepathy, clairvoyance, and life after death. I decided, with youthful over-confidence, that I was going to become a parapsychologist and prove all those “closed-minded” scientists wrong.

My tutors said I’d never have a future in research if I did parapsychology, but I didn’t care. Somehow I got a PhD place to test what I thought was my brilliant and original “memory theory of ESP”, and funded myself by part-time teaching. I believed that all minds were connected through a psychic field and that memory was a special case of telepathy. So I set to work on a long series of experiments comparing ESP and memory.

The results were a shock. Whether I looked for telepathy or precognition or clairvoyance, I got only chance results. I trained fellow students in imagery; chance results. I tested twins in pairs; chance results. I worked in play groups with very young children; chance results. I trained as a Tarot reader; chance results.

Occasionally I got a significant result. Oh the excitement! Then as a scientist must I repeated the experiment, checked for errors, redid the statistics, and varied the conditions, and every time either I found the error or got chance results again. Sometimes my enthusiasm waned, and I began to doubt. But there was always another beckoning claim, always another “X” to try. By the end of my PhD I had run out of “X”s.

At some point something snapped. Instead of struggling to fit my chance results into yet another doomed theory of the paranormal, I faced up to the awful possibility that I might have been wrong from the start – that perhaps there were no paranormal phenomena at all. I had to change my mind.

At first this was terribly hard because my whole persona was based on my beliefs – from my New Age clothes to training as a witch, visiting Spiritualist churches, using the Tarot, I-Ching and crystal balls, and hunting ghosts. My friends couldn’t understand how I could join the “sceptics”. But deep down I was a scientist and always have been. These results were telling me something very loud and clear. I was wrong! I had to reassess the way I saw the world and that’s what I did.

On the one hand I became what I called “rent-a-sceptic”, appearing on TV programmes to counter psychic claims with rational explanations (a task that brought much hate mail as well as enjoyment). On the other I began research trying to understand why people have near-death and out-of-body experiences (OBEs) if nothing actually leaves the body.

There is no question that they do. In surveys between 10 and 20 percent of people claim to have had an OBE, and the experiences are similar across ages and cultures. But why? The answer is not that we all have a spirit or soul but that our brains are similar. In certain states induced by drugs, shock, deep relaxation or special techniques, random excitation of neurons causes odd consequences. Activation in visual cortex produces tunnels and spirals, activation in temporal lobe arouses memories as though one’s whole life is flashing past and – most interestingly – a certain spot near the right temporo-parietal junction produces body image distortions and OBEs. So the experiences are real enough but do not prove life after death or the existence of souls.

I also wondered why so many people believe in paranormal phenomena if they don’t exist. I did experiments showing that people who are worst at judging the likelihood of chance events are more likely to be believers, along with husband, Tom Troscianko. I studied lucid dreams (in which you know you are dreaming), and sleep paralysis (in which you wake up paralysed, hearing strange noises and convinced there is someone else in the room). This was especially helpful when I came to investigate alien abductions because many turn out to be unrecognised sleep paralysis. Once again people try truthfully to report what happened to them, but their explanations are wrong – just as I had done they jump to obvious but false conclusions.

After many years of working on my own, with little money and no job, I became a senior lecturer, and then reader, at the University of the West of England in Bristol. So my tutors were finally proved wrong – though it took a long time. I got tired of being the hated sceptic, battling against people’s hopes of worlds beyond and paranormal phenomena, and having mediums, psychics and believers tell me that I didn’t have an open mind. “Do you know what it means to have an open mind?” I wanted to shout sometimes “It means being able to change your mind when the evidence shows you are wrong”. That is what science is all about. That is how we learn the truth about human nature rather than clinging to what we want to be true – like telepathy and life after death.

Perhaps I’ll always get involved in controversial topics. I became fascinated by the concept of memes – the cultural analogue of genes. I took up Zen meditation in my twenties and eventually wrote a book about Zen questioning. I got involved in debates about free will, drugs, and the harmful effects of religion. Eventually I realised that the common thread in all of this, beginning with that original experience, is the mystery of consciousness. As we learn more and more about the brain it seems ever more peculiar that a vast number of neurons all connected together in complex patterns can bring about an experience of a world with me in it. How can this be? I don’t think I will ever get bored of exploring the mystery of consciousness.