Can humans subconsciously predict the future?
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By: Julia Mossbridge, M.A., Ph.D. | November 14th 2012
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Including excerpts from the chapter "Physiological Activity That Seems to Anticipate Future Events," in "The Science of Psi" edited by Damien Broderick and Ben Goertzel, to be published in 2013.
Can our bodies predict future events that matter to us, even if we're unaware of it? Some evidence suggests they can. The basic scientific observation is that human physiology differs between two situations: just before an unpredictable exciting/scary event happens (like seeing a picture of a snake about to strike) versus just before a boring event happens (like seeing a picture of a lamp). This phenomenon is sometimes called presentiment (as in "sensing the future"), but because I'm not entirely sure we're really sensing the future, I like to call the phenomenon anomalous anticipatory activity (AAA; imagine the motor club, but the complimentary roadmaps could be maps of the future).
The phenomenon is "anomalous" because some scientists argue that we can't explain it using our present-day understanding about how biology works, it's "anticipatory" because it seems to predict future physiological changes in response to an important future event, and it is an "activity" because it consists of changes in the cardiopulmonary, skin, and nervous systems.
AAA is a subconscious phenomenon that seems to be a time-reversed mirror image of our conscious experience of an important event. If you've ever seen a stick or a pole upright in a river or stream, you've seen something kind of like AAA. Imagine that the direction of the flow of the water is your conscious experience of the order in which events occur (temporal flow), and imagine that the stick is an important event. Notice that the largest wake made by the stick is downstream of the stick (in the "forward" time direction). However, there is a small perturbation in the water upstream, due to the presence of the stick downstream. This perturbation -- a subtle hint of things to come that is overshadowed by your conscious experience of the event itself -- is akin to AAA (Figure 1).
Figure 1. A schematic intended to give an intuitive sense of AAA: it can be thought of being like the perturbation in a stream of water that occurs before the object (event) itself is encountered (see text for details).
At least 14 different laboratories have attempted to document AAA, and most of them report results supporting the phenomenon. Like all other unexplained phenomena, by definition the mechanism underlying AAA is unknown. But there is an obvious evolutionary advantage of a physiological heads-up that gets our adrenalin pumping before a tiger attacks us. So although AAA seems to suggest a difficult-to-grasp backwards flow of information through time, the adaptive value of being physiologically prepared for life-threatening future events gives us the motivation we need to seriously examine the evidence for AAA.
With my colleagues Jessica Utts, a professor in statistics at University of California at Irvine and Patrizio Tressoldi, a professor in psychology at the University of Padova in Italy, I have conducted an analysis of AAA studies to test the hypothesis that human physiology predicts its own response to a future event; like adrenalin being released a little bit before the tiger jumps out, after which a lot of adrenalin gets released.
We examined all the studies published between 1978-2010 that attempted to test AAA (there were more than 40 of them) and we combined the statistical results of the 26 of these that fit our criteria (Mossbridge et al. 2012, Frontiers in Perception Science). The results revealed a small overall effect that is nonetheless highly statistically significant. This means that, based on the studies we examined, there's one chance in 400 billion that AAA is just the reflection of coincidental changes in physiology.
Looking at these data together, it seems like there may be something weird going on having to do with time and biological systems. But because we are at the beginning of understanding both of these very complex phenomena, it seems wise to keep our explorations both open and rigorous as we continue exploring the evidence and what it could mean.
Anomalous anticipatory activity has been slow to catch on in the scientific mainstream. When I analyzed my first AAA data set and then replicated the same results, I was frustrated by what I perceived of as this closed-mindedness. But when I tried another replication and it failed, I became more understanding. Several successful and borderline successful replications down the road, I'm beginning to see that it's wise that the mainstream scientific community has yet to embrace AAA. The effects we have found are small enough that sometimes they don't replicate, so in my opinion if the mainstream community embraced AAA now, many researchers would get discouraged by it and dismiss it. AAA deserves more than that, I believe, as I have a feeling (based on intuition, not science) that the small effects we are finding now are the tip of the iceberg. My sense is that once we understand the effects better, we can eliminate some sources of noise in the data and see much larger effects.
I'm an empiricist, so I believe these data, but I'm also rigorous, so I want to see it in my own hands again and again -- and also I want to rule out alternative mundane explanations. As a mainstream scientist myself, I want a lot of evidence if I have to challenge my basic assumptions about cause and effect. It would be a huge pain to have to control for future events that could influence the outcomes of every experiment. I have no idea how I'd even do that.
So though I realize that we don't understand time or biological systems very well, and even though I'm becoming convinced that there seems to be something weird going on, I lean towards looking for explanations that don't require a huge paradigm shift. There is not enough room here, but in the paper we examine several possible mundane explanations, including experimenter bias, and we did not find convincing evidence of any of them. Perhaps someone else will, and then this idea of AAA will be reasonably dismissed.
Until then, I'm working on building an iFuture app -- a portable electronic application that uses your physiology to warn you of future events that matter to you. In terms of trivial applications, imagine a beeping sound that goes off before your boss walks into your cubicle or each time you're about to make a stock trade that will fail.
In terms of less trivial, life-saving applications, there's the neurosurgeon who wears her iFuture-enabled device during every surgery. It continuously records her heart rate, and if her heart begins to show the physiological signature that usually occurs before her patient has a bleeding vessel, she prepares her tools to stop the bleed just as it begins. An iFuture app could be helpful to people in the armed forces, who have to move through mine fields or areas with a high probability of containing improvised explosive devices. The iFuture app could warn soldiers when an explosion is about to occur, potentially giving about 10 seconds to change course or take cover. This seems worthwhile to me, if it can be done. Time will tell!
Julia Mossbridge, M.A., Ph.D. is a Research Associate and Adjunct Faculty member of the Psychology Department at Northwestern University. Most of her research work focuses on the mechanisms underlying the temporal aspects of auditory-visual perception and working memory, but she is interested in all aspects of temporal perception, including AAA. She is a peer reviewer for Brain Research, Perception, Cognition, PLoS One, and Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. She has obtained post-doctoral funding from the National Institutes of Health, and was awarded graduate scholarships from Oberlin College, the Acoustical Society of America, and the Laura Ann Wilber Audiology Scholarship Fund. Her Ph.D. is in Communication Sciences and Disorders from Northwestern University, and her M.A. is in Neurosciences from University of California at San Francisco. She received her B.A. with highest honors in neuroscience from Oberlin College. She is also the author of Unfolding: The Perpetual Science of Your Soul's Work (New World Library, 2002), and she periodically writes on her blog about finding the soul in science: unfoldingscience.blogpost.com.
This work was supported by a generous grant from the Bial Foundation.
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