Do We Copy?
Interview by Pete Moore
The (ex-para)psychologist Dr Susan Blackmore no longer looks
for ghosts - least of all in the 'meme machine'. Third Way
spent an animated few hours at her house in deepest Devon. (At
least, that's how it seemed…)
You began your academic career in psychical research as
a result of an experience you had yourself, is that
Yes. It was my first term at Oxford. I'd gone there to study
physiology and psychology but I was interested in psychic
phenomena, so I joined the Psychical Research Society and we used
to do all sorts of things.
One evening, after a ouija board session, I went up to a
friend's room and we were smoking dope - this is 1970 - and
listening to Grateful Dead or Pink Floyd or something. And
suddenly I found myself going down a narrow road through a tunnel
of trees towards a bright light. I remember a great whirring noise,
but I could still hear the music and my friend Vicky asking me,
'Would you like some coffee?' - and I couldn't answer.
The other guy who was there, Kevin, said: 'Where are you?' He
could see that something was happening, and I - 'Where am I? Where
am I?' - you know, I'm trying to think. And it was as though
everything became clear and I was looking down at us sat there and
I said, 'Oh my God, I'm on the ceiling!' - and I could see my mouth
down there making the words. Then I seemed to travel off across
Oxford, over the roofs of the colleges, across the sea to Europe -
all over the place.
The whole thing lasted more than two hours. At the time,
[Raymond] Moody hadn't yet written his famous book,1 so I didn't
realise that what I had gone through was a classic near-death
How did the experience end?
I tried to get back to my body but instead seemed to go
inside and get smaller and smaller. And then I expanded until I
seemed to become one with the universe. Any sense of a separate
self completely left me - I was everything that was. Time and
space ceased to exist in any ordinary sense. At some point I
wondered if this was all there was. I thought, 'It can't be' - and
at that I seemed to climb up through a mass of clouds or something
into a vast space, in which I was being observed by something.
Something kind. And that was the end of that.
That experience seemed more vivid and more real than anything I
had ever experienced in normal waking life, and it really made me
want to know what was going on. I assumed that my soul had left my
body; I thought it proved that we are more than our bodies, that
there is life after death, a whole lot of things. And I decided I
was going to devote my life to parapsychology, to proving to all my
closed-minded lecturers that they were wrong and 'there is more in
heaven and earth' and all that. Imagine me in my hippy clothes,
getting carried away: 'I know the truth and everybody else is
Does that experience still influence you today?
Oh, in a way those few hours 40 years ago are still
driving - I wouldn't say everything I do, but my intellectual
quest. My spiritual quest. The way I live my life. That experience
was absolutely crucial.
Had your upbringing been religious in any way?
My mother was quite a committed Christian - C of E, which
was normal in the Fifties. My dad was never particularly keen,
but he certainly believed in life after death and some sort of idea
of God, I suppose.
Did you agree more with your mum or your dad?
Oh, I had wonderful arguments with my mother. It's
terribly hard to remember - although I have written a diary every
day since I was 13 - but I certainly had an atheist phase in my
teens and another in my twenties.
I also went to a Methodist boarding school. Wretched, wretched,
wretched years I spent there - absolutely miserable! We had to go
to church twice on Sundays and once on normal days, but the only
purpose for the chapel, as far as I was concerned, was as a place
where you could go and cry without anybody discovering you. But it
does mean I have a pretty fair Christian education. I can still
almost recite the communion service by heart.
How does one do research into the paranormal?
Oh, there are lots of ways. The simplest kinds of
experiments are on various kinds of extrasensory perception:
telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition. When I was doing my PhD, I
was lucky enough to be asked to teach parapsychology to more than
100 students and I used them as my subjects. Typically, I would
have one person in a faraway building looking at one of (let's say)
five pictures and all the people back in the lecture theatre would
have to guess which one they were looking at.
Did you establish any kind of connection?
No, never. For my PhD alone I did more than 30 quite
large-scale experiments, some of them with hundreds of subjects,
some with young children, some with twins, some with people who
claimed a special connection with each other - and everything just
fell to chance.
Is absence of evidence the same as evidence of
It's a good question, and no, it's not, they're different
- which is why I kept going for so long doing the experiments. I
slept in loads of haunted houses where no one had dared to sleep
for 20 years, I investigated poltergeists, I visited mediums and
spiritualists and psychics, I trained as a witch and learnt to read
Tarot cards, I got a crystal ball and the I Ching, and I kept
thinking: Somewhere there has got to be something. I was
Eventually, after several years, there came a point when I
thought: 'I don't think there are any paranormal phenomena.' It was
a really difficult admission. I mean, to have thrown myself -
everything that I was - into proving these things to be true and
then find that they're not… I then became rather a sceptic.
But then I thought: Well, I did have this amazing experience
and I should try to understand it in some other way. And that led
to a whole new phase of my life.
Do you regret the time you devoted to
No, absolutely not. One of the things I researched was
why people believe in the paranormal, and that led to all sorts of
interesting work on out-of-the-body experiences, alien-abduction
experiences, sleep paralysis… Most people have lots of odd
experiences they don't talk about, partly because they don't
really have the words for them, partly because they're
embarrassed - and sometimes because they're absolutely
Some people do talk about them, perhaps, and call them
Yes, but then what do you mean by 'spiritual'? Because I
consider that I have a spiritual life, I am on some sort of
spiritual path; but I don't believe in spirits and I don't believe
in God and I don't believe in life after death. So, what am I
talking about? Spirituality without spirit?
That brings us to Zen Buddhism…
Of all the things I tried in my youth, Zen meditation was
the only one I really stuck with, and eventually I became a
serious student. I have meditated every day for over 20 years, I
have been on many, many intensive retreats; I have a Zen teacher,
who has been very helpful, and I have trained with other Zen
masters as well.
I'm not a Buddhist: I have not signed up to anything or taken
any vows. Zen training entails practising being mindful in
everyday life - not wandering off into thoughts of the past, or
what you want or don't want and all of that stuff. And it involves
very, very simple meditation: basically you sit down, shut up,
don't think and look into the mind as it arises.
It means becoming acquainted with all the foibles of your own
mind - which include wonderful things, terrifying things, things
that make you angry, regrets, hopes… And you find as you practise
that you're constantly clinging onto these things or else pushing
them away - you know, 'I don't want that thought, I want this one.'
And all of these things in Zen are considered to be traps that lead
you into constructing a false idea of yourself. Really, there isn't
a thing called 'the self', and a lot of it is about getting used to
that idea and letting go of everything. Which can be a lifetime's
Is there any empirical evidence that supports Zen?
In a very broad sense. I love one of the Buddha's
fundamental teachings, which is 'dependent arising': the idea that
everything that happens - including one's own actions - happens
because of what happened before. This was a stunning thing to be
saying two-and-a-half thousand years ago, when most people believed
that spirits of various kinds ran the world, or that gods
intervened or whatever. But of course that is how we now know it
to be: the law of cause and effect is just physics. So, this is a
really, to me, encouraging commonality between basic science and
(What amazes me is how there can be scientists who are
Christians or Muslims. I mean, I just don't get it.)
Could you be accused of cherrypicking from Zen?
Yes, I suppose I could be. I mean, take reincarnation.
One of the central insights that the Buddha had under the Bodhi
tree was that, like everything else, the self arises and falls away
and arises and falls away. Well, if that's true, there can't be
reincarnation in the popular sense of, you know, when you die you
will be reborn as a frog or whatever. I mean, what is the 'you'?
This is the problem. If I have understood the Buddhist teaching at
all - and it's difficult, so I might not have - it's that the self
is not something that continues, even in one life. I'm not the same
self that I was 20 years ago, or even a few minutes ago at the
start of this interview.
Putting it in neuroscientific terms, the brain is constantly
building up a story about itself, so 'I' am just a story built by a
brain - and the brain changes all the time. Suddenly it switches
attention and a different self arises. We take the self to be a
permanent thing, but it is impermanent like everything else.
Isn't it strange that a materialist who believes that we
are nothing but active atoms -
I don't call myself a materialist. I would say I'm some
kind of monist, but I don't know what kind. I am not saying that
all the world is material and there's nothing else, and I am not
saying that all the world is thought and there's nothing else.
Neither of those works.
So, you're not a 'nothing-butterer'?
People always say I am, but no, I just think - there are
many, many reasons dualism doesn't work. If you follow Descartes
and you believe in a separate mind and a separate body, how do they
relate to each other? You can't explain in that way what needs to
be explained: how it is that we are conscious, how I can be aware
of the colour of those beautiful trees out there.
And this is one of many reasons that I find Zen so encouraging,
because non-duality is right at the heart of it. Indeed, although
very often in Zen one is taught that there is no path and nowhere
to go, that when you reach enlightenment you will realise that it
just is how it always was, nevertheless they still say one can
realise - make real - non-duality.
And this makes such a lot of sense to me, because sitting in
meditation, particularly on a solitary retreat up in the Welsh
mountains, it's relatively easy to drop into a state in which self
and other become one. Not in the dramatic way that I first
experienced it, but in a more natural way - it just seems obvious
that the self is not separate from the world. Which I think is
A lot of Christians would reject dualism, too…
But if you believe in another world, a world inhabited by
angels, the world to which we go after death, you've got a problem.
I think it is totally wrong to say: Here's this material world that
we see, but all around us are other realms and higher vibrations
and all of that stuff.
Not all Christians take those ideas literally.
But why be a Christian, then? Doesn't being a Christian mean
actually believing that [the Bible] was written by God, even though
it is riddled with inconsistencies and actually has vile things in
it? If you don't believe this obvious rubbish - and I know lots of
people who call themselves Christians and don't - in what sense
are you a Christian? It's so dishonest!
You sometimes seem to feel angry at religion.
Yes. Well, I do! I do!
In the Guardian recently,2 you wrote that
religion is costly and harmful because it demands a lot of time.
But Zen meditation seems to demand quite a lot of your time. Why is
that a good use of time but praying is not?
Oh, good question! I do ask that myself. I go on a
retreat where you are cut off from the world completely for a
week, you're not allowed to speak, your identity is essentially
taken away from you, because you wear very simple clothes, you
don't look at anybody and they're not supposed to look at you. It's
very similar to brainwashing and so I'm thinking: 'Uh-oh, that's
But let me say something about that Guardian piece. I
have for a long time, in following [Richard] Dawkins' work and
writing about memes, thought of religions as viruses of the mind.
Now, I know it's only a metaphor, but if it means anything it means
that religions are damaging and are 'selfishly' using human bodies
and brains to get themselves copied - for their own advantage, not
for ours or the advantage of our genes. However, I recently went
to a conference and heard a lot of evidence that was new to me -
and overwhelming - that showed that, in the three ways that matter,
being religious actually has positive effects.
I'd already read quite a lot of research that said that people
claim to be happier and healthier if they're religious. There's
also a lot of new evidence now that people are more co-operative
and altruistic, even if only to the in group. And, finally, the
overwhelming evidence is that religious people have more children -
and not in just one religion, or just one country or just one age,
but all over the place.
So, I've made a shift from saying that religions are viruses of
the mind to saying that religion is costly and damaging - no
question! - and untruthful but it works. The cost is worth paying
from the gene's point of view. So, we have a situation in which
untruthful ideas are thriving, and will go on thriving, because
they have all these positive effects on people. I find that
I wish that some Christians or Muslims or whatever would be a
bit more honest and say: 'Given that the idea of God doesn't make
sense' - I mean, we got here by evolution and we have no ultimate
purpose - 'what else is available?' Why don't you join those of us
who are atheists who would love to develop a spirituality without
spirit: something that encourages us to try to understand the
world in ways that are not purely materialist and self-centred
but take one beyond oneself, a way of growing as human beings in
empathy and compassion and openness and awareness and
self-awareness which doesn't need to involve ludicrous ideas such
as that God created us for a purpose. We have these spiritual
yearnings, but I think religion holds us back.
Dawkins talks about the harm the fundamentalists do, but I agree
with Sam Harris3 that nice, liberal religious people are as much of
a problem, because they are saying that faith (which means
believing in something even if there isn't any evidence for it) is
a good thing. Of course, even as a scientist you've got to have
faith - for example, that the basic laws of physics are not going
to change tomorrow. But I think that's very different from the
faith you get in religion, which says almost 'It's good to believe
something without evidence.'
But I think that most of my anger comes from the wickedness and
cruelty promulgated by religion - particularly by Catholicism at
But wickedness and cruelty are not unique to religion
No, indeed. Maybe I'm just a really angry person.
Sometimes you come across as an angry person; at other
times you come across as really warm.
Well, you can be warm and angry, can't you? I admit to
You have said several times that we have no purpose…
It seems to me that, as far as I can tell, the universe
has no ultimate purpose - it's pointless. We are here just because
it so happens the laws of physics are the way they are and
evolution is inevitable given the way it is.
In that case, why are you so passionate about
I just am a passionate person.
But are you also pointless?
You were so indignant when the Pope came, because of all
the things the Roman Catholic Church has done to people. But so
what, if those people are pointless, too?
Indeed. I suppose one could simply say I'm not
enlightened. OK, if I really, really, really took all this on board
and saw everything as just empty stuff happening, nothing more
important than anything else, how would I then behave? I think,
given that I am an ordinary human being with a brain and emotions
- and dead parents and alive children and all the other things that
make up my life - I just would respond this way.
I know that ultimately there's no point to it, I know that all
that I do is simply because I have invented some temporary purpose
for doing things; but when I see somebody suffering, I want to
help. When I see somebody being horrible, I want to shout at them.
I mean, these are just natural human responses, aren't they?
Let's talk about consciousness.
Ah, the great mystery! It is a great mystery. It is a phenomenally
great mystery as far as science is concerned. That's why it's so
So, where does it
It's a mystery! The mystery is about dualism. It appears
to be the case that there is a physical world - I can hit it and
feel it, I can hit you and you will agree that you felt it. There
is undoubtedly my experience of the delightful turquoise colour
of your socks, and I know enough about how the brain works to know
that other people looking at those socks will call them 'green' and
others will call them 'blue', because we all have different visual
systems. Private subjective experiences seem to be a very different
kind of thing from the physical world.
Look inside the skull and what have you got? You've got a brain
made of billions of neurons, and all those neurons are doing is
shunting electrical impulses and little molecules of chemicals here
and there, back and forth. That's all they're doing. How can that
be, or give rise to, or be responsible for - I don't even know what
the right word is! - the experience of that turquoise?
That is the mystery and it's all around us. I cannot honestly
deny that I seem to be having an experience of turquoise. There
seems to be a me over here and there seems to be a sock over there.
Nor can I deny that if we chop open a brain in the lab we will see
all these neurons and everything. But these two things seem
So, if we don't have a spirit but we're more than a mass
I don't know. There's something fundamental that we don't
understand about the universe that gives rise to this dualism. It
seems to me that the self is an illusion. Consciousness seems to be
all sorts of things we know it can't be. So, I think the question
that is pushing me now is something like: How do these illusions
come about? Why is it that a brain and a body in a world like this
give rise to all these false intuitions about what's going
I am not my body, I'm something that inhabits my body. I
am something separate from the world - over here, experiencing the
world over there. We make that fundamental break between self and
the world very early on in life - and think of other people as
being like that, too. And also that I have free will. The normal,
everyday idea of free will is that somehow my consciousness, my
mind, my spirit, whatever you think it is, can choose to do things
regardless, not as an inevitable consequence of events in the brain
but in some kind of magical way. That's another one of these
Can we get any empirical evidence either way?
There is plenty of evidence that suggests that, for
example, in many supposedly free decisions the brain has made up
its mind before the person is aware that they have decided what to
do. And we are coming to understand more and more how the brain
makes its decisions - and, as time goes on, there's less and less
room for a self or a soul or any other kind of magical thing in
But, as we were saying about the paranormal, if you are looking
for some magic in the brain and you don't immediately find it, that
doesn't prove it's not there.
Let's talk about memes. Is meme theory itself a
Yes. The idea of memes is simply that all of the masses
and masses of information that makes up our culture is competing
to get itself copied, using our brains. Memes can be words, songs,
stories, designs, scientific theories, monetary systems,
technologies, religions or just ways of doing things. Normally,
we think that we design our culture for our own benefit. The
memetic way of looking at it is that we are participants in a huge
evolutionary process. And things succeed in being copied for all
sorts of different reasons - and this is where 'viruses of the
mind' comes in, because bad things can succeed because they trick
you, just as good things can fail because people don't realise that
So, atheism, too, would be a meme?
Yeah. But some 'memeplexes' contain instructions to copy
them - you know, 'Go and spread the good news of Jesus!' So,
memeplexes like that do better than others not because they're
better for you, not because they're truer, not because they make
you happier or for any other reason than that they are packaged in
such a way that they encourage their bearers to spread them.
So, the fact that the Church of England has far more
members than the British Humanist Society…
Humanism does not include the instruction 'You must try
and make everybody else be humanists.' It teaches freedom of
thought and tolerance of different ideas, which isn't terribly
successful as a meme. Humanists are kind of nice and laid-back,
whereas people who are infected with Christianity become
At present, meme theory is not a successful meme, is
No. The term is becoming more common, but there are no
departments of memetics, and very few books on it. On the whole,
scientists don't like the word 'memes'.
Why do you think that is?
Sometimes, I think, people feel that it would be harder
to get published. Sometimes, I think, people have simply not
understood. I think it's partly because they're frightened of the
potential consequences. I mean, if you push memetics far enough you
see all of us as little copying machines doing our best to copy the
memes we think are good for us but actually being tricked endlessly
by ones that aren't and floundering in this massive overload of
memes. And it suggests that our selves are part of this whole
thing: they are memeplexes constructed within the brain to create
an illusion of self. And all of these ideas are a bit
Above all, it's terribly hard to think of ways of testing this
kind of theory. I don't think it's untestable, but I think it's a
bit like evolutionary theory a hundred years ago. And we haven't
yet found what it can be useful for, though I think somebody will.
But, you know, I'll just have to wait and see. I have been wrong so
many times before, I can easily be wrong again.
You have shown a willingness to change your mind -
You have to do that in science.
What would it take to convince you there was a God?
Well, I suppose if he looked in the window and looked
like the traditional picture of God and went, 'Hello. I'm here,'
that would convince me.
I suppose it is possible that something might come out of
cosmology or physics that suggested that this world could not have
come about without some kind of weird thing. But what sort of weird
thing? I wouldn't just go - as an awful lot of people do - 'Oh,
it's God,' end of story. That's a vacuous thought.