Psychic Me

Everyone’s a little bit psychic: I’m psychic, you’re psychic and probably your dog is psychic. Even those who don’t believe in fortune tellers or ESP – the ‘psi phenomenon’ – talk about hunches, instinct, judgement and intuition when something they predicted actually happens.

Really, the only difference between being psychic and having ‘a hunch’ is that a hunch doesn’t make you sound mad. We forget that we correctly predict the future every day. As philosopher David Hume once said, “That the sun will not rise to-morrow is no less intelligible a proposition, and implies no more contradiction, than the affirmation, that it will rise.”

A professor at New York’s Cornell University has completed nine experiments, eight of which suggest human abilities beyond logic and reason. The research performed by Dr Daryl Bern may not prove the existence of psychic powers like those in films like Don’t Look Now and novels like Stephen King’s ‘The Dead Zone‘. Bem’s research does suggest we all may have an ability to tap into the future.

It’s easy to talk about spookily accurate premonitions but very hard to get scientific evidence to support their accuracy. When a dream or premonition comes true, it seems amazing. But, statistically, of the many billions of people on earth, some dreams must come true. Also, what we consider ‘psychic power’ can be a synthesis of knowledge. For example, of the several people who predicted the sinking of the Titanic, one was an experienced seaman and shipping expert whose prediction combined what he knew of his area of expertise. Being alert or a  good reader of body language can also predict future actions of others: ‘How did you know they were going to crash the car?’; ‘Because the driver was drinking, inexperienced, coming back after a party at night and the roads were wet.’ You don’t have to be psychic to predict events like that. It’s down to possibilty, probability and common sense.

With visions and premonitions, it is very easy to say, as proof, that something happened exactly as you pictured it. But of course, no one can say you are wrong. So saying, “I saw a vision of x and it happened just that way” is nonsensical. Yet, we all feel that we have seen – or somehow perceived – something that occurs exactly the way it eventually happens in reality.

Then there are things that defy rational explanation. When I was very young, my brother was serving in Viet Nam. I sat in the kitchen as my mother ironed clothes and listened to the radio. She looked up at me and said, “There’s fighting where your brother is.” Then, a blank look came over her face. “Your brother’s dead.” I felt sick and panicky. Not knowing what to do, I tried to reassure my mother that she wasn’t right. How could she know it was true? But, of course, the Marine messengers – bearers of the news that changed our lives forever  – came to our door very soon afterwards. My mother was right: my brother had been killed at that very moment on the far side of the world.

Deep, ‘psychic’ mother/child connections are common, just as common as the dog that waits at the window for its master long before the master’s car drives into view. These inklings are so normal that we don’t even try to explain them anymore. We laughingly refer to them as ‘intuition’, or ‘a good guess’ or ‘animal instinct’. We never say ESP because every example we have can also be explained in another way – a trick of the light, a coincidence, pure luck.

Warnings can be explained away too, but I wish I’d paid more attention to a vision I had as a child, playing with a large plaster piggy bank. I’d been warned not to break it as it was irreplaceable. I had visions – or vivid ideas, I suppose – of the pig tumbling snout over tail off the table onto the floor. Assuring myself that that would never happen because I was far too careful with the treasured pig, I was horrified when I accidentally bumped the table on which the pig was sitting, sending it crashing albeit very slowly to the ground exactly as predicted in ‘my vision’. After this, I convinced myself that I’d invented that ‘vision’ to deflect the shame of breaking a beloved object.

Only a few years ago, I was kept ‘seeing’ disturbing visions of an ambulance – not on the highway, not in an accident – opened and waiting on a quiet road to take me to hospital. I chalked these idiotic visions down to neuroses or fear of dying. I actually sought out ways to stop the image of this ambulance coming into my head. One suggestion was to imagine the unwanted vision and draw a mental red ‘x’ over it, crossing it out. That seemed silly to me – and it didn’t work. A few years ago, I miscarried and – there it was. The ambulance of my vision sat outside the house, in the quiet street, just as I’d pictured it. Well, there you go, eh?

You may wonder why, if I have a modicum of what I consider very ‘normal’ garden-variety psychic ability, why I’ve had two failed marriages. If I knew the marriage wasn’t going to work out, why did I try? I was in love and anyway, I don’t believe in listening to everything my ‘foresight’ tells me. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time. Also, even if a marriage doesn’t last forever, something good is bound to come of it – something that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. (Be honest, you know when the relationships and marriages of your friends aren’t going to work out. It’s pretty obvious.)

There’s a reason why we should make decisions when we are not in a highly agitated state, either angry or in the intense throes of love. High emotion can thwart feelings of doubt: when I married, I was in love and I certainly wasn’t going to let psychic premonitions or other rubbish stop me from experiencing that. Sometimes, you know a relationship, business or even a pair of shoes aren’t going to work out in a fairytale manner, but you do it anyway. I think if you wait until everything in your life feels absolutely right, you’ll learn nothing and waste your time waiting for something that may not ever come.

That doesn’t stop people from enjoying predicting outcomes of celebrity marriages, horse races or football games: gambling and the stock market rely on our love of the odds. We like to be right. We like to have good luck and good fortune. While having good judgement is fine, start talking about psychic powers, you’ll end up labelled as a nutcase.

The naysayers have an easy time of it. “If someone knew the future, why aren’t they running the world?” Certainly, if people had the gift of precise foresight on the stock market, lottery or horse racing, they could make millions – and people who claim to have ESP don’t do that. Of course, it is possible that some people have this ability and don’t talk about it, chalking up their wealth to hard work or good luck.

But what would you make of a stone age tribe predicting a tsumani or someone predicting that your favourite politician is a liar? What if I were to say that politicians do not usually keep their promises? How would you explain that in 2004, the ancient Sentinelese tribe ‘knew’ a tsunami was coming and went to higher ground? You’d say neither of these examples have anything to do with ESP. These decisions are based on ‘instinct’ or ‘probability’. This is because in most people’s minds, unless psychic ability gives you this week’s winning lottery numbers or the name of the winner at 12:45 at Exeter, it isn’t real psychic power. Psychic prediction must either make millions or be an otherwise inexplicable occurrence.

New York State’s Cornell University is the home of social psychologist Daryl J. Bem, a former physicist whose research includes ‘psi phenomena’ (shorthand for ‘extra sensory perception’ or good old E.S.P.). A rigorous  scientist, Bem set out to prove that psi phenomena exist and can be proved through tests that can be replicated by other scientists.

In the world of hard science, ESP skeptics see any attempt to scientifically prove the existence of psi phenomena as automatic hogwash. Everyone knows about ‘cold reading’ of an audience, where the ‘psychic’ guesses the name of your dead uncle – or the sheer number of sleight-of-hand illusions used by magicians. Even well-crafted attempts to prove psychic powers can be poo-pooed for poor design or lack of precision in an experiment. A flaw in a mathematical model or accidental influence on part of the researcher can discount the whole endeavor. There’s also the problem of human influence. For example, early ESP research using card choice was often seen as faulty because researchers, who knew which were the ‘right’ cards, could have moved their eyes in the direction of the appropriate card, suggesting a choice to the test subject. But the largest hurdle ESP research has encountered is the results achieved by one scientist haven’t been able to be replicated by another. It isn’t enough to say that some people are more psychic than others: if you want research to be conventionally scientific, it has to be reproducible.

One of Bem’s carefully-controlled study showed that students were able to accurately predict the contents of a memory test. The test subjects were asked to memorise a list of words, then to see how many of those word they could remember. Finally, they were asked to type out a list of random words. Some students, naturally, remembered some word more easily than others. But, here’s the catch, these words were the exact words they were later asked to type out from a random list. This ‘future recall’ seems to suggest that their ability to recall words was influenced by an event that had yet to happen.

In another study, Bem showed test subjects a picture on a computer screen of two curtains, telling the subjects that behind one of the curtains was an erotic image. The student subjects chose the ‘correct’ curtain, i.e. the on with the erotic image behind it, slightly more often than would have been predictable through luck or accident. What’s important to understand is that the computer was set to position the erotic image behind random curtains, meaning that the image was not in position until after the student made a choice. In yet another test, students looked a fruit or a bull dog and their reactions were timed as they rated the images as pleasant or unpleasant. They were then shown words such as ‘menacing’ that meant either unpleasant or pleasant. The word choice made by the students appeared to affect the time it took for them to react, even though the words came up after the picture of the fruit or doll was rated. The premonition of a word like ‘menacing’ affected their timing of rating the image. In believers terminology, the students appeared to be able to see into the future.

In total, eight out of Bem’s nine experiments with over 1000 volunteers proved ESP exists. According to Bem, the odds of this happening are 74billion to one. Bem, who is famous for trying to get science to seriously consider psi phenomena, is not just any old quack. One psychologist admitted that although he found the results hard to swallow, that Bem’s research and methodology was scientifically solid. Although one attempt at repeating the experiment of the curtan/erotic image has failed in another scientist’s hands, Bem says that his experiment took place in a lab, where students could concentrate, rather than merely online.

The fact that Bem’s research has been published The New Scientist, a leading academic journal, suggests that his findings are a far cry from the barkers of the fairground broadway or the predictions by tarot card readers. The thorough research done by Bern suggests that human beings have an ability to predict or at least anticipate portions of their experience. If Bem’s research is shown to be repeatable by other scientists, then we can all breathe a sigh of relief, knowing we’re not weird because we know who’s calling us – before we look at caller ID or pick up the phone.