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Throughout history, there have been individuals who believe they’ve caught a sense of events yet to come.
True clairvoyance is unsupported by scientific evidence, but a subtle difference in how some people perceive the timing of events could help explain why many remain convinced of their psychic abilities.
A study by researchers from Yale University has provided some insight into why people think they have supernatural foresight, hinting at a physiological basis behind certain delusions.
Clairvoyance – or an ability to picture or predict future events with uncanny accuracy – has been held accountable to the scrutiny of scientists and skeptics since the 19th century.
The weight of evidence makes it fairly clear the human brain is not influenced by future events.
In many cases, proposed psychic abilities are the result of intentional fraud, with charlatans employing the same kinds of tricks mentalist magicians have used for centuries to feign mind reading and fortune telling.
But not all people who claim extraordinary abilities of future-sight are out to make a quick buck or two. Dismissing it as a sign of mental illness also tells us little about how such beliefs develop in otherwise healthy brains.
To gain an understanding of the neurological underpinnings of psychic prediction, the researchers made use of a test that had previously demonstrated a link between the timing of a colour changing shape, and the subject’s judgement of their ability to predict its transformation.
Only this time the researchers also evaluated the volunteers’ beliefs.
Just over 1,000 volunteers were recruited using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk program, which is a marketplace for tasks that require significant amounts of human brain power.
Each was required to look at five empty squares at random locations on a screen and then predict which one would turn red.
Following their guess, they had to record whether their prediction was correct, incorrect, or if they didn’t have time to make a guess.
The researchers randomly adjusted the timing between the appearance of the squares and the colour change, meaning the volunteers sometimes needed to make a call in just a fraction of a second.
A second test was also administered to control for the volunteer’s ability to discriminate between the timing of tasks in front of them, one being the colour change, and another being a blinking screen.
Following the task, the participants answered a questionnaire that measured how prone they were to delusional or magical thinking.
Statistically speaking, each volunteer could expect to get one out of five predictions right.
The researchers found that as the period in which they needed to guess became shorter, a number of volunteers claimed to have become even better at guessing, reflecting similar results to the previous study.
Critically, there was a relationship between the magical thinking test and the increased tendency to believe an accurate prediction had been made in a short period of time.
“We find that people who more often confuse the timing of their predictions with an observed outcome are more prone to report delusion-like thoughts and experiences,” the researchers report in their study.
It seems as if the order of observation and prediction of an event is confused if the events occur close enough together.
“It’s like thinking that you know it is about to rain, and then feeling the first drops,” says researcher Adam Bear.
“Your thought may have been subconsciously influenced by those drops, yet you consciously experience them later.”
While this flip might not explain why some people feel they predicted an event hours or even years prior, it does hint at a solid neurological basis for giving some people increased confidence in their own clairvoyant powers.
Future research might help uncover the exact differences in brain wiring to explain how we combine observations and reasoning to develop evidence, or how sequences of events are ‘compressed’ in our conscious awareness.
If only psychic powers existed. Then we might already have those answers.
This research was published in PNAS.