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A surprising number of researchers suspect that your brain and body may be giving you a potentially game-changing glimpse into your conscious awareness of future events. Your nervous system may in fact have the ability of presentiment, where it creates unconscious changes in your physiology in anticipation of an impending future event occurring up to a whopping 10 seconds in the future.
Putting any instinctual claims of crackpottery aside, in evolutionary terms this would be advantageous, where anticipating unpredictable life-threatening events in order to survive and pass on one’s genes is concerned. Yet it isn’t much of a shocker that peer-reviewed evidence in favor of our potential ability to sense the future, colloquially known as presentiment, or as it is known scientifically, predictive anticipatory activity (PAA), is fueling an intense battle between skeptics and proponents of PAA theory.
The term PAA describes a phenomenon that is predictive of randomly selected future events, anticipates these events more often than chance, and is based on physiological activity in the autonomic and central nervous systems. It can be considered as an unconscious physiological preview of our conscious awareness of future emotional or arousing events. This should not be confused with precognition, which considers conscious premonitions of future events instead of unconscious reactions to future events.
One metaphor that has presentably described PAA is that of watching how a river flows past an object, like a tree or rock. Imagine the river is your experience of the flow of time and the important event is the tree. The largest disturbance in the river is downstream of the tree, with the flow of water perturbed for many meters after the tree. This is representative of our conscious reaction to an important event for some length of time after the important event occurred.
Now, if you look closer at the flow of water near the tree, you will find that due to back pressure, there is also a small disturbance in the water upstream, yet pretty close to the tree. This upstream disturbance represents PAA, where we physiologically anticipate the event through an unconscious reaction to the disturbance caused by the downstream event.
The most common way to test for PAA thus far has been to show a series of randomized stimuli, some of which should provoke a strong physiological reaction (e.g. emotional vs. neutral images). While participants view the series of randomized stimuli, researchers continuously record physiological measurements, such as heart rate, skin conductance and fMRI BOLD or EEG signals. If PAA were indeed a real phenomenon, physiological responses to the emotional images (i.e. the trees in the water) should be detectable before participants have even viewed them on the screen.
In this way more than 40 such experiments have been published in the past 36 years, which prompted a meta-analysis that was published in the well-respected journal, Frontiers in Psychology. Of 49 PAA studies, 26 studies from 7 different research groups met the criteria for inclusion in the analysis. Even when using statistically conservative methods, the analysis revealed a small but statistically reliable effect size in support of PAA.
Other anticipatory physiological phenomena are generally well accepted in neuroscience and psychophysiology. Take anticipation of intentional motor activity for example, where the brain anticipates our conscious awareness of wanting to move at least 500 milliseconds and as much as 10 seconds before our first conscious thoughts of moving. Arguably this is what allows us to time our movements with real-time events, in order to catch a ball for example, or to coordinate body movement.
The difference between intentional motor activity and PAA that is causing all the fuss, is that PAA is not about making unconsciously processed decisions earlier than your consciously processed decisions, it’s about your body experiencing an unconscious micro-reaction to a real-world, consciously perceived event seemingly before it has even occurred.
Without some intense objective reasoning this would at first glance, bring attention to the elephant in the room, that an effect preceding the cause violates the direction of time, and causality, that is provided by the second law of thermodynamics, giving skeptics a defensible reason to invalidate the theory straight off the bat. Couple this with a need for improving and standardizing the methodologies used, acknowledged by both PAA theory proponents and opponents alike, and you have a relatively strong case against PAA’s existence.
One speculative mechanism that could account for PAA phenomena, lies in an epiphenomenon associated with quantum processing in biological systems, where observations in the future influence observations in the past. The remarkable existence of both quantum phenomena existing in warm, wet and noisy biological systems and increasing support for retrocausal phenomena in physics leads one to consider that the human nervous system, like other biological systems, could indeed exploit such quantum effects.
Clearly skepticism and close scrutiny is vital in reaching a scientific consensus. Thankfully, serious investigators of PAA, like Dr. Mossbridge et. al., the authors of the meta-analysis paper, acknowledge the methodological and theoretical challenges to be overcome in determining the validity of PAA theories.
Similarly, in the critical analysis paper published this year in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, as well as the 2012 meta-analysis, Dr. Mossbridge et. al., make no extraordinary claims regarding PAA’s mechanism of action, stating that “The cause of this anticipatory activity, which undoubtedly lies within the realm of natural physical processes (as opposed to supernatural or paranormal ones), remains to be determined.”
Astonishingly, some skeptics appear almost as extreme as avidly whacky psi-supporters themselves in publications contesting the meta-analysis results. In one paper, also published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, entitled We Should Have Seen it Coming, some very useful criticisms were made, many of which were shared by the meta-analysis authors and will undoubtedly be involved in the development of future PAA research. While as objective observers we should welcome skepticism and close scrutiny, the opposition paper bordered on hostile, implying that entertaining such theories is an example of non-skeptical and scientifically damning thinking, and that researchers are not actively striving for their hypotheses to be proven incorrect.
Thankfully, Mossbridge and others seem to be brave enough to entertain hypothesis that the current analysis of evidence is in favor of and will likely be providing further, more rigorous investigations into PAA in the near future. Equally, we should be thankful for the zealous critical assessment of PAA research that will undoubtedly follow. Until research bridges the gap between skeptics and proponents, you be the judge.
Franklin MS, Baumgart SL, & Schooler JW (2014). Future directions in precognition research: more research can bridge the gap between skeptics and proponents. Frontiers in psychology, 5 PMID: 25202289
Mossbridge J, Tressoldi P, & Utts J (2012). Predictive physiological anticipation preceding seemingly unpredictable stimuli: a meta-analysis. Frontiers in psychology, 3 PMID: 23109927
Mossbridge JA, Tressoldi P, Utts J, Ives JA, Radin D, & Jonas WB (2014). Predicting the unpredictable: critical analysis and practical implications of predictive anticipatory activity. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 8 PMID: 24723870
Schwarzkopf DS (2014). We should have seen this coming. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 8 PMID: 24904372
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