by April McCarthy
October 24, 2012
is a community journalist playing an active role
reporting and analyzing world events to advance our
health and eco-friendly initiatives.
Wouldn't it be nice to predict
even if they are just ten seconds ahead?
Researchers already know that our
subconscious minds sometimes know more than our conscious minds.
Physiological measures of subconscious
arousal, for instance, tend to show up before conscious awareness
that a deck of cards is stacked against us.
Parapsychologists have made outlandish
claims about precognition - knowledge of unpredictable future events
- for years. But the fringe phenomenon recently got a mainstream
airing after a paper providing evidence for its existence was
accepted for publication by the leading social psychology journal.
What's more, skeptical psychologists who
have pored over a preprint of the paper (Feeling
the Future - Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive
Influences on Cognition and Affect) say they can't find
any significant flaws.
"My personal view is that this is
ridiculous and can't be true," says Joachim Krueger of Brown
University in Providence, Rhode Island, who has
blogged about the work on the Psychology Today
"Going after the methodology and the
experimental design is the first line of attack. But frankly, I
didn't see anything. Everything seemed to be in good order."
"What hasn't been clear is whether humans have the ability to
predict future important events even without any clues as to
what might happen," said Julia Mossbridge, lead author of the
study and research associate in the Visual Perception, Cognition
and Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern.
A person playing a video game at work
while wearing headphones, for example, can't hear when his or her
boss is coming around the corner.
"But our analysis suggests that if
you were tuned into your body, you might be able to detect these
anticipatory changes between two and 10 seconds beforehand and
close your video game," Mossbridge said.
"You might even have a chance to
open that spreadsheet you were supposed to be working on. And if
you were lucky, you could do all this before your boss entered
Predicting the near future is vital in
guiding behavior and is a key component of theories of perception,
language processing and learning, says Jeffrey M. Zacks, PhD,
WUSTL associate professor of psychology in Arts & Sciences.
"It's valuable to be able to run
away when the lion lunges at you, but it's super-valuable to be
able to hop out of the way before the lion jumps," Zacks says.
"It's a big adaptive advantage to look just a little bit over
Zacks and his colleagues are building a
theory of how predictive perception works.
At the core of the theory is the belief
that a good part of predicting the future is the maintenance of a
mental model of what is happening now.
Now and then, this model needs updating,
especially when the environment changes unpredictably.
"When we watch everyday activity
unfold around us, we make predictions about what will happen a
few seconds out," Zacks says. "Most of the time, our predictions
"Successful predictions are
associated with the subjective experience of a smooth stream of
But a few times a minute, our predictions come
out wrong and then we perceive a break in the stream of
consciousness, accompanied by an uptick in activity of primitive
parts of the brain involved that regulate attention and
adaptation to unpredicted changes."
This phenomenon is sometimes called
"presentiment," as in "sensing the future," but Mossbridge
said she and other researchers are not sure whether people are
really sensing the future.
"I like to call the phenomenon
‘anomalous anticipatory activity,'" she said.
"The phenomenon is anomalous, some
scientists argue, because we can't explain it using present-day
understanding about how biology works; though explanations
related to recent quantum biological findings could potentially
It's anticipatory because it seems
to predict future physiological changes in response to an
important event without any known clues, and it's an activity
because it consists of changes in the cardiopulmonary, skin and
In previous studies, researchers
have suggested that early childhood education should focus on
building behavioral, social and emotional skills just as much as
building academic skills.
Freed from distraction, your intuition
will step in and guide you effortlessly through life.
It is this cumulative knowledge, which our feelings summarize for
us, that allows us make better predictions.
In a sense, our feelings give us access
to a privileged window of knowledge and information,
"a window that a more analytical
form of reasoning blocks us from."