I am still recovering from the pleasure of my first QED Conference, a very busy few days in Manchester. I was grateful to be invited to participate along with Prof Susan Blackmore and Hayley Stevens in the ‘Team Spirit’ panel about researching the paranormal, expertly chaired by Deborah Hyde (editor-in-chief of The Skeptic Magazine, and folklore afficionado). I was also delighted to get to speak on Investigating the Paranormal: 30 Years of KPU Research to a packed theatre of Greater Manchester Skeptics on the thursday night. That ‘eve of conference’ event was hosted by Geoff Whelan, who is also one of the energetic QED organisers – jings he must have been exhausted by the Sunday night, though he certainly didn’t show it! (I’ll be giving that talk again to Glasgow Skeptics on Monday 24th Oct, ICYMI).
I was also working with Richard Wiseman to set up his Quirkology ‘Mind Tricks’ exhibition (see pic for his ‘chair illusion’), and at every turn there was a QED helper or organiser asking what they could do to help us. SO impressive. Before the event I had been a judge on The Skeptic Magazine’s Ockham Awards for outstanding skeptical achievement, and on gala night Deborah asked me to present the Award to the winning blog (the excellent Naturopathic Diaries) – v relieved I had changed into my posh shoes!
I was impressed by many things: the scale of the QED event (over 650 attendees), youthful demographic, superb organisation, and really helpful volunteers. As a parapsychologist, I wondered whether I would be regarded as a bit of an oddity, however everyone was very friendly and supportive. I couldn’t help but compare it with the Society for Psychical Research conference, that I attended the previous month. That was of course very friendly too, but with far fewer delegates, and a much older demographic. QED felt a lot more vibrant. The Team Spirit panel was a lot of fun. My main contribution probably came when we considered whether belief in the paranormal would always persist. Perhaps controversially, I suggested that under certain circumstances, paranormal and superstitious beliefs might be adaptive. Obviously, it’s not at all adaptive to take pseudo ‘treatments’ for serious illnesses. However some paranormal beliefs might create beneficial self-fulfilling prophecies. For instance, someone who brings their lucky mascot to an exam may feel more confident, less nervous, and actually perform better. Also, research indicates that religious belief can have beneficial consequences for the believer – I think primarily because of the social support that can come from being part of a church.
Sue Blackmore spent 30 years investigating and writing on the paranormal and anomalous experiences such as NDEs and OBEs. Then, in 2000, Sue threw in the paranormal towel – she wrote about that decision for New Scientist, here. Sue then went on to focus on writing about memetics and consciousness.
However, Sue’s back! Her QED talk was on The New Science of Out-of-Body Experiences. Here’s a vimeo link to a talk she gave in Dec 2015 on the same topic. At QED, Sue began by recounting her own powerful OBE, which first got her interested in parapsychology. She then talked about early research on this topic. Sue explained how, after quite a hiatus, she has become interested again due to more recent research by Olaf Blanke and others. (The pic shows Sue illustrating in her QED presentation how one of these experiments works.) This research has identified the role of the right temporo-parietal junction in integrating and maintaining the sense of bodily awareness (for example, this paper). Some of this work has also (in news reports) been described as ‘creating’ an OBE using virtual reality techniques. However I think there’s a bit of a gulf between the ‘realer than real’ feeling reported by Sue and others who have experienced a spontaneous OBE, and the kind of bodily illusions elicited by providing false visual and sensory feedback. But clearly this ‘new science’ has something to say about OBEs, and OBE experiences have something to tell us about how the brain maintains a sense of bodily awareness and location. And this is what has excited Sue and has brought her almost full circle, to try to understand her first striking OBE. Welcome back Sue!