The best books on weird experiences

Susan Blackmore Author Of Seeing Myself: What Out-of-body Experiences Tell Us About Life, Death and the Mind
By Susan Blackmore

Who am I?

My life’s obsession with consciousness began with a mystical experience fifty years ago and this drives me still. Academic research, and writing the textbook Consciousness: An Introduction, only deepened my perplexity. What is consciousness? How does it come about? Is it produced by the brain or is that another illusion to add to illusions of self and free will? I cannot keep work separate from life, and this not-knowing has driven decades of meditation, exploring psychedelic drugs, staying alert on the edges of sleep, and many other attempts to ask difficult questions. Who am I? And what does it mean to be alive in this world? 


I wrote...

Seeing Myself: What Out-of-body Experiences Tell Us About Life, Death and the Mind

By Susan Blackmore,

Book cover of Seeing Myself: What Out-of-body Experiences Tell Us About Life, Death and the Mind

What is my book about?

This book sums up my lifetime’s quest to understand a dramatic out-of-body experience (OBE) I had as a student. It was so realistic that I jumped to the conclusion that it proved psychic phenomena, astral projection, and life after death. But my research revealed no such evidence and I had to think again. I learned that OBEs are common and that my experience might now be called a near-death experience and included a deep mystical experience of oneness with the universe. Fifty years on neuroscience is finally revealing what was really going on – from how the illusion of self is constructed to what is happening inside the brain when that illusion is transcended. In Seeing Myself, I finally have some answers to share. 

The books I picked & why

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The Doors of Perception

By Aldous Huxley,

Book cover of The Doors of Perception

Why this book?

I was stunned by this book when I read it nearly fifty years ago, when psychedelics were rarely talked about. Huxley describes in glorious detail the effects of taking 0.4 grams of mescaline one day in 1953. A vase of flowers revealed naked existence; the legs of a chair became miraculous in their tubularity, seconds became centuries, and as for self – was he looking at a chair or was he a chair? I have since explored many psychedelics, as well other ways of inviting extraordinary experiences, and this book remains an inspiration. 


Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming

By Stephen LaBerge, Howard Rheingold,

Book cover of Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming

Why this book?

Trying to have lucid dreams is so frustrating! Lucid dreams are those in which you know that you are dreaming – which mostly we do not realise until we have woken up. The experience and its imaginary world are very similar to those in an out-of-body experience, and lucid dreaming provides one way to reach the OBE state. This book is a classic and remains a terrific guide to what lucid dreams can be like, how to reach them, and the science behind why and how they happen. I learned much from LaBerge’s research on dreaming and this inspires me to keep on struggling to become more often lucid myself.


The Terror That Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions

By David J. Hufford,

Book cover of The Terror That Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions

Why this book?

How horrible it is to wake up in the night and realise you cannot move. If you try to cry out, only a squeak emerges. This is the common, but disturbing, experience of sleep paralysis, and Hufford’s book is the classic exploration of ‘sleep paralysis myths’ from around the world. I was drawn into this when my own research revealed how many claims of psychic experiences really come down to sleep paralysis, and that OBEs often start from this natural state. On the verges of sleep, I regularly explore this and other states in the weird fringes of altered states of consciousness.


The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat And Other Clinical Tales

By Oliver Sacks,

Book cover of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat And Other Clinical Tales

Why this book?

How could anyone confuse his own wife with a hat? This famous story of the effects of brain damage is beautifully, and movingly, described by Sacks, along with many other extraordinary cases. What is it like to have lost your memory, to think your own leg does not belong to you, to have a heightened sense of smell or extraordinary mathematical abilities? I rarely read a book twice but have returned to some of these cases many times. Just thinking about how these people experience the world broadens my ideas of what it means to be conscious. And consciousness, for me, is the greatest mystery. 


The Three Pillars of Zen: Teaching, Practice, and Enlightenment

By Roshi Philip Kapleau,

Book cover of The Three Pillars of Zen: Teaching, Practice, and Enlightenment

Why this book?

Zen meditation has been one way I have pushed myself to explore the potential of the mind, though it’s so hard! After nearly 40 years of daily practice, I feel I am only just beginning to glimpse where this extraordinary, and naturally unfolding, process leads. What is unique in this book (and there are so many books on meditation) is the straightforward but amazing descriptions of ordinary people who have hit upon enlightenment experiences, whether after years of training or just spontaneously, as happened to me as a student. These accounts help me to keep going and to understand my own experiences in the wider context of what happens to others.


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