Book review: In Search of the Light: The Adventures of a Parapsychologist

In Search of the Light: The Adventures of a Parapsychologist (1996) is a memoir by Susan Blackmore. Blackmore became convinced even before she went to college that the paranormal existed and decided to study it as a career. In her first year of college she also had a vivid out-of-body experience (OBE) that made a huge impression on her and she also found that she was an accomplished Tarot card reader, with her clients extremely impressed with the accuracy and quality of the things she told about them, persuading her that she too had psychic abilities.

All these things added to her conviction that psychic phenomena were real and she was determined to find out how it worked. Since there was not much funding in the UK for research into ‘psi’ (the generic shorthand term for paranormal phenomena) and few jobs in it, this was a major gamble on her part. But the allure of proving the existence of psychic phenomena was too great for her to resist and she plunged ahead, somehow finding ways to support her research as an undergraduate and later proceeding to her doctorate. She writes about the great appeal that psychic phenomena had for people like her.

Parasychology has everything a hook needs. It is mysterious and alluring. It has just enough ‘scientific’ evidence to provide bait, while at the same time it is rejected by most orthodox scientists, the inspiration for a crusading spirit to shout “I’ll show them.” And that is, I suppose, what I wanted to do! (p. 8)

Her initial idea was to prove her tentative theory that memory and telepathy were two sides of the same coin. She felt that our memories (and indeed our minds) could exist apart from the brain and were ‘out there’ somewhere. When we remember something, we are bringing that information back into our consciousness from that outer space. Telepathy was merely accessing other people’s thoughts that were also out there, occupying that same space.

The main obstacle facing her and other psi investigators is that psi is only defined negatively, such as in the case of ESP (Extrasensory Perception): “Experience of, or response to, a target object, state, event, or influence without sensory contact.” (p. 55-56) In other words, one inferred the existence of psi by being able to rule out all possible naturalistic explanations. Her goal was to prove conclusively to even the most determined skeptics that psi existed beyond any reasonable doubt. In order to do so, she knew she had to meet all their possible objections and so was careful and scrupulous in her experiments, putting in stringent controls to make sure that there was no ‘sensory leakage’, the term given for the phenomenon of information being conveyed by normal, but subtle channels, that could mislead investigators into thinking they were seeing psi effects.

It turned out that she has quite a gift for spotting ways in which sensory leakage could occur and how to prevent them. Her book was interesting in its descriptions of how those could mislead unsuspecting researchers. For example, one set of experiments involved a person in one room looking at one of four target pictures and a person in another room looking at the same four pictures and trying to think which one was the right one. Chance predicts 25% success. The problem was that even for statistical tests that predict that chance was ruled out at the p<0.05 level, it was still possible that one in 20 trials would give results, purely by chance, that the selection of pictures in that trial was greater than chance. Another problem was that it might turn out that people, even total strangers, might have similar tastes and thus preferentially choose some pictures over others, and so on. So, at a minimum, careful randomization and double-blind procedures were required. To her great disappointment, Blackmore found that all her experiments just did not provide her with the evidence for psi that she was seeking. What was worse, other people were claiming to find psi effects in various forms but when she tried to replicate their experiments, she got negative results. When she went to observe those other researchers first hand, just her involvement in the experiments of those who claimed to get better-than-chance results ended up with the results getting more ambiguous, so much so that she started to become persona non-grata in the community.

Psi researchers tend to believe in something called the ‘psi-mediated experiment effects’. This is where the experimenter’s own psi ability, consciously or unconsciously, can encourage or block the psi ability of the test subjects. Because Blackmore, in her zeal to conclusively prove that psi existed, was so insistent on shutting down all possible sources of sensory leakage, she was suspected of having become a skeptic and other researchers felt that her negative vibes (so to speak) were preventing not only her own experiments from generating positive results but that her presence when other people ran their experiments was doing the same thing. At a conference, when she asked why her own experiments did not seem to find the effects that others were finding, the platform speaker suggested that maybe she needed to take a course in psychotherapy!

Her book tells a lively, personal story, describing how she would delve into each new area of psi research hoping that it would finally be the one that proved it existed, only to have her hopes repeatedly dashed. Ultimately Blackmore did become a skeptic, a complete reversal from the gung-ho enthusiasm with which she started as a young woman. She is now one of the leading researchers in memory, mind, and consciousness and has published extensively in those areas.


  1. flex says

    I’ve read several of her books on the nature of consciousness. I can recommend those. It sounds like I should give this one a try.

  2. Mark Dowd says

    It’s pretty hard to say that she wasn’t a skeptic even from the very beginning. “Skeptic” is not synonymous with “unbeliever”. Pursuing the truth with rigorous objective standards and integrity no matter what your personal hopes are is the truest form of skepticism possible.

  3. Mobius says

    …she also found that she was an accomplished Tarot card reader, with her clients extremely impressed with the accuracy and quality of the things she told about them, persuading her that she too had psychic abilities.

    IIRC, I read in The Demon Haunted World (though it may have been a different book on the same subject) a tale of one person that did readings similar to Tarot card readings, and was very impressed by how often his clients said he was spot on. However, being fairly well grounded in critical thinking, he decided to test this by giving clients readings that were the exact opposite of what the “book” said the reading should mean. Lo and behold, the clients still raved about how spot on his readings were.

    He therefore came to the conclusion that there was nothing to the readings being accurate, but more that the clients wanted to believe. (In part, this is why I never liked the “I want to believe” poster in X-Files. I still enjoyed the show, but thought that particular philosophy to be terrible.)

  4. Mano Singham says


    The story you are referring to is told by psychologist Ray Hyman and it was with palm reading. I am writing another post where I will talk about his work.

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