Our minds on media.

Musings on the effects of media on cognition.

Precognition—Paranormal or Perfectly Normal?

If people can predict the future over the scale of very short time periods, should we be surprised. After all, many musicophiles are quite able to name a song after hearing just the first one to three notes of the first bar of a song. Does that mean that they’re psychic or does it mean that the brain is predicting things all the time and can quickly assess patterns and utilize them to predict future occurrences? Detecting randomness is very hard (Williams 2008). And moreover people constantly see patterns where there really are none—largely as a function of our bias to find patterns in Nature. There’s no reason that such an error couldn’t occur the other way around. If the experimenter hasn’t taken certain precautions to ensure that his stimulus is presented randomly, it’s quite possible for individuals to devise patterns. Jonah Lehrer over at the Frontal Cortex points to some new, intriguing research regarding precognition. Daryl Bem, of Cornell University has released a paper containing nine experiments that purport to show that people can predict the future. I think they can predict the future in these experiments, but I don’t think there’s anything special or mystical about it.

Crucially, none of these experiments force participants to project predictions terribly far into the future, nor are any of them “temporal” in nature. By that, I mean to say that while there is order to the stimulus, one would expect real precognition to have a component of time. Participants are guessing the next stimulus regardless of how long it takes to guess. Suppose instead that If a computer were randomly running through images on a screen, could a participant say what image would be on the screen at, say 2:00pm? Could they simply name a time and image? That’s a fairly different task than foreseeing a stimulus arriving in the order dictated by some underlying pattern. That’s a task that the brain has to accomplish all the time. Jeff Hawkins likes to use the example of the nefarious door handle mover (see his TED talk for more on prediction in the mind). You are so used to the process of opening your door to your home that you no longer consciously think about it. This lack of consciousness is in large part due to the fact that the brain possesses a wrote procedure that no longer requires regular observation. But if I were to move your doorknob an inch to the right, you would miss reaching for it. Alarms would go off and your brain would need to re-observe the situation to see what had changed about what it expected.

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