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Is the Body Our Crystal Ball?

Updated on July 21, 2017
John Paul Quester profile image

Paul is a mostly retired academic; he holds advanced degrees in philosophy and psychology.

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Routinely, in our lives, we anticipate and prepare for future events. I may choose to leave home half an hour earlier if the latest weather report forecasts heavy rain, for I know this often leads to traffic-related delays on my way to work. I always bring something to read to my doctor's office because I know I am due for a long wait even though my appointment has been scheduled for a specific time. I anticipate that when I come home at the end of the day, I will be greeted by my dog, leash between his teeth, eager for the daily walk to the nearby park.

The ability to predict the course of future events has obvious adaptive value: for by so doing we can better prepare to meet them. We make use of our cognitive skills, as in the above examples, to consciously anticipate occurrences which we know to succeed one another based upon rules learned through experience.

Less known is the fact that, as shown by recent research, our psycho-physiological apparatus is endowed with a number of anticipatory mechanisms that enable our bodies to prepare for an impending event (Boxtel and Böckersoon, 2004).

As is the case with our conscious mind, our body - including, of course, the central nervous system and its autonomic division in particular - can also implicitly internalize the expected sequence of a series of occurrences, and prepare accordingly. The physiological changes taking place in response to an anticipated event—variations in electroencephalic and dermal activity, heart rate, blood volume, pupil dilation, etc.—are not strong enough to be detected introspectively; hence, they remain unconscious. None of this, though interesting, is especially problematic in its implications. But one side of this research is. And not a little.

Unconscious Anticipation of Unpredictable Events

When dealing with future random events, there is no reason to expect that our bodies would act as if they knew they are about to happen. For if an event is truly random, no rule can be introjected which could predispose our bodies to respond appropriately to it. Still, obviously, it would be very useful if we could get a glimpse of the future even under these circumstances.

As it turns out, a sizable number of scientific experiments within the past two decades or so have attempted to ascertain whether anticipatory responses are possible even with random events.

The answer, surprisingly, is 'yes.'

In science, no individual study can ever conclusively establish the reality of an effect. Hence, it is best to carry out many experiments, and then conduct a meta-analysis, which surveys all the best available evidence addressing the effect in question.

One such analysis was conducted recently by Mossbridge et al (2012). After removing the possible effects of various methodological and statistical artifacts, the authors felt able to state that 'in sum, the results of this meta-analysis indicate a clear effect, but we are not at all clear about what explains it.'

In these studies, the basic experimental procedure can be described as follows: an observer was shown on a computer screen, one at a time, a randomized sequence of either arousing or neutral stimuli: for instance, pictures depicting violent occurrences, and pictures of emotionally neutral events. Throughout the experiment, the observer was continuously monitored by devices that measure arousal-dependent physiological processes such as skin conductance, heart rate, pupil dilation, etc. When subjects were exposed to the actual pictures, their physiological responses were found to be markedly different depending upon the type of picture (arousing or neutral) looked at. So far, nothing surprising.

The surprising part is that, when physiological activity was measured over a period of 0.5 to 10 seconds before the presentation of a randomly selected picture, these subjects' physiological state was found to be correlated, on a better than chance basis, with the states elicited by the presentation of the picture themselves. As if, that is, the participants knew which of the pictures was to be presented and reacted to it accordingly. The magnitude of the effects was not large, but statistically significant.

In some recent studies, researchers (Tressoldi et al., 2011, 2014, 2015) used the data collected from the observers' physiological responses (pupil dilation and heart rate in this case) prior to the presentation of the stimuli, in order to predict to what category (arousing or neutral) belonged the various stimuli later presented to the subjects. Their ability to predict the results ranged from 4% to 15% above the expected chance level of 50%. Not a small effect this one: not by any measure.

These kinds of findings are not obtained solely by employing physiological measures as described.

In an influential paper published on one of the most respected experimental psychology journals, Daryl Bem of Cornell University (2011) found related evidence of the so-called retrocausal influence of behavioral decisions. His study involved a thousand participants and included a variety of different experimental paradigms.

The gist of his approach can be illustrated by describing one of the several experiments he carried out. His subjects were presented, on each trial, with pictures of two curtains appearing side by side on a computer screen. They were told that one of the curtains hid an image behind it, and the other just a blank wall. On a random schedule, the image presented could either depict erotic acts, or non-erotic, emotionally neutral scenes. The subjects' task was to click on the curtain that s/he felt hid the picture behind it. The curtain would then open, permitting the observer to see if s/he had made the correct choice. Actually, however, neither the picture itself, nor its left/right position, were randomly chosen by the computer until after the participant had made a choice. In this manner, the procedure was turned into a test of detecting a future event.

Across 100 sessions, participants correctly identified the future position of the erotic pictures 53.1% of the times, significantly more frequently than the 50% hit rate expected by chance. In contrast, their hit rate on the non-erotic pictures: 49.8%, did not differ significantly from chance.

This paper predictably induced a feisty debate and led to a number of further studies. A later meta-analysis of 90 related experiments essentially confirmed the existence of a small yet statistically significant effect (Bem et al., 2014).

Searching For An Explanation

In deciding what to make of these findings, we are confronted with two key questions: are these phenomena real? And if they are, what can explain them?

Concerning the first question, the extensive discussion generated by these findings led me, for one, to be reasonably certain that the effects are genuine, because the influence of methodological and statistical artifacts, publication bias effects (the well know tendency to publish only positive results) and other related considerations had been fully taken into consideration. No less important, comparable findings were consistently obtained in a variety of laboratories with different subjects, and by employing different methodologies, measurement tools, and statistical analyses.

As for the explanation of these effects, though, no such assurance is warranted.

One approach to these phenomena invokes psi-related processes. For example, in commenting upon the results of his experiments, Bem (2011) suggested that the ability of his subjects to anticipate the erotic character of the pictures pointed to the occurrence of precognition, or retroactive influence. In terms of this hypothesis, the subjects were actually accessing information yet to be generated in the future. This implies that the direction of the causal arrow had been reversed, moving from the future to the present. As an alternative, psychokinesis could be involved: possibly, the participants were influencing the computer's random number generator which determined the future placement of the target.

Unfortunately, nobody knows how precognition or psychokinesis, assuming such paranormal abilities do exist, actually operate.

Other researchers involved in the study of this phenomenon regard it as a strictly natural one, to be accounted for, accordingly, solely in terms compatible with known physical laws. But alas, they are not much better off adopting this stance: for no physical theory can truly explain these phenomena.

In such cases, the current tendency is to seek an explanation somehow and vaguely related to quantum mechanics, that extraordinarily successful theory which yet, after more than a century since its initial formulation, still seriously divides the scientific community on the proper way to physically interpret its mathematical formalism. Some aspects of it, most notably the effects resulting from the 'entanglement' between subatomic particles, have been used as a sort of model for the 'entanglement in time' between physiological and behavioral measurements and emotional states occurring in the studies mentioned above (see Tressoldi, 2016). Do you find this obscure? Yes? So do I. And so is, I suspect, everyone who wades into these murky waters.

Incidentally, Einstein himself referred to some of the effects predicted - and later confirmed - by quantum mechanics, including quantum entanglement, as 'spooky'. So, whether we 'explain' the findings under discussion by appealing to parapsychological terminology, or through vague and highly speculative analogies to the more exotic aspects of quantum mechanics, the sense of mystery persists.

However, even though no remotely adequate explanation is currently available, and regardless of the relatively modest size of these effects, they fully deserve the interest of any thinking person, and of any discipline seeking to better understand the ultimate nature of time and of our relationship to it.

References

Bem, D.J. (2011). Feeling the future: experimental evidence for anomalous retroactive influences on cognition and affect. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 100(3), 407–425.

Mossbridge, J., Tressoldi, P., Utts, J.(2012). Predictive physiological anticipation preceding seemingly unpredictable stimuli: a meta-analysis. Front. Psychol. 3, 390.

Bem, D., Tressoldi, P.E., Rabeyron, T., Duggan, M. (2014). Feeling the future: A meta-analysis of 90 experiments on the anomalous anticipation of random future events. Available at http://dx.doi. org/10.2139/ssrn.2423692.

Mossbridge, J.A., Tressoldi, P., Utts, J., Ives, J.A., Radin, D., Jonas, W.B. (2014). Predicting the unpredictable: critical analysis and practical implications of predictive anticipatory activity. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 8, 146.

Tressoldi, P.E., Martinelli, M., Semenzato, L., Cappato, S. (2011). Let your eyes predict - Prediction accuracy of pupillary responses to random alerting and neutral sounds. Sage Open. 1(2), 1–7.

Tressoldi, P.E., Martinelli, M., Semenzato, L. (2014). Pupil dilation prediction of random events [v2; ref status: approved 1, approved with reservations 1. http://f1000r.es/3dw] F1000Research 2014 2:262 doi: 10.12688/f1000research.2-262.v2.

Tressoldi, P.E., Martinelli, M., Semenzato, L.(2015). Does psychophysiological predictive anticipatory activity predict real or future probable events? Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing. 11(2), 109–117.

Tressoldi, P. Anticipation of random future events. (2016) In: Cognitive Systems Monograph.

Van Boxtel, G.J.M., Böcker, K.B.E (2004). Cortical measures of anticipation. J. Psychophysiol. 18, 61–76.

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