The Science of Premonitions
- 2011 January-February
Can we glimpse the future? Is there any truth to people’s belief in premonitions? Such provocative questions have largely been ignored by scientists, many of whom argue that claims of precognition can be completely explained away as superstition or delusion. But a small group of scientists continue to tackle these questions head on.
In a laboratory at the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) in Northern California, psychologist Dean Radin approaches human experience with an open mind and experimental rigor. In a series of experiments that Radin describes as “presentiment,” participants are invited to see and feel into the future.
Sitting in a quiet, electromagnetically shielded room, Radin first measures the participants’ physiology. Using electrodes on their hands to study their autonomic nervous system, the curious scientist then looks to see how the experimental participants respond to emotional and calm pictures that are presented on a computer monitor in a random sequence. After each picture, the computer screen goes blank before the next picture is presented. As predicted, when participants see an emotional picture, their physiology shows more arousal than after the calm pictures. This is standard science. But more interesting to Radin and his colleagues is what happens to the physiology of the participants before they see the pictures. According to Radin, their physiology actually appears to anticipate the emotional stimuli up to five seconds before they see the emotional pictures. These intriguing findings have found support in other laboratories across the United States and Europe.
On the other side of the United States, for example, Daryl Bem is conducting his own set of experiments. In a recent article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Bem, a prominent social psychologist from Cornell University, reported nine experiments involving more than 1,000 participants. The major goal of Bem’s research was to design precognition experiments to be as simple and transparent as possible, allowing others to easily replicate his results.
In these studies, Bem explores “time-reversing,” in which the cause-and-effect sequence in standard psychological experiments is reversed. In his recent paper, Bem reports statistically significant evidence for precognition in eight of the nine experiments. In one study, for example, Bem used a conventional psychological paradigm referred to as “priming.” In these studies, participants are shown a picture so briefly that it is not perceived at the conscious level. Later, participants typically favor this picture over other control images. In Bem’s experiments, he changed the usual order of events, and observed that the participants actually preferred certain pictures before the participants were exposed to the priming.
Of course, the results of these experiments are not without criticism. Some debunkers question whether a paper on precognition should be published in a major scientific journal at all. Others argue that the results simply can’t be true because they imply that the established model of causality is not accurate or complete. According to Neil Levy, who advocates closed-mindedness on his blog on November 16, 2010: “Vindicating Bem’s results would require such a major upheaval in our scientific worldview; we ought to remain highly skeptical.”
How do we deal with the results of Radin’s and Bem’s work? Do we dismiss them out of hand, simply because they challenge our dominant paradigm? Arguments against the data may be justified. But then again, they might not. It was not so many years ago that scientists believed the earth was the center of the universe — and persecuted those who claimed the contrary. Likewise, germ theory was considered heresy but is now the standard theory in medicine. A little precognition might have shown the debunkers just how wrong they were.