Tuesday, June 8, 2010

I was just thinking about you...

So there you are involved in some innocuous mundane task, when suddenly thoughts about a friend or relative you haven’t thought about in a long time leap into your mind. Shortly thereafter, surprisingly, that person contacts you.

Or perhaps, for no apparent reason, you experience ominous or uneasy thoughts about someone, a distant family member perhaps; you get this strange feeling of foreboding or danger. Out of concern, you call this person only to confirm your worst fears that that indeed something terrible has happened to them.

These experiences are remarkably common; most people can recall experiencing similar events or likely know someone else who has. So what’s going on here; is this evidence of some sort of telepathy or ESP?

The first thing to bear in mind is that experiences such as these are often memorable. In fact, one of the primary reasons we attach such significance to them is because they ARE memorable; we have judged them worthy of retaining.

The human brain has evolved to be extremely adept at detecting patterns and attempting to establish relationships between observed causes and effects. The end product of this process results in our capacity for formulating assumptions. From these assumptions we are able to make projections regarding the potential consequences about acting on what we perceive.

Take for example, ancient man coming to a conclusion he could be in danger simply in response to hearing rustle, or catching a glimpse of movement, behind a nearby bush – is that a bear about to attack him or just the wind? Our ability to make connections, draw conclusions and even project potential outcomes, can carry strong implications regarding our survival.

Establishing connections between cause and effect is not only vital for human survival; it was also an essential early strategy that, over time, drove the progression of our species’ toward a better understanding of the world around us. Today we draw on these cognitive skills in creating successful strategies for living; be it to live in financial comfort in our old age or assuring ourselves that our consciousness might continue to exist forever beyond our death. You see, as carefully as we may believe we apply our cognitive skills, they still have the potential of coming to quite different, and incorrect, conclusions.

There are several major functions that our brains must process in order for us to posess sufficient understanding of the reality in which we must exist. One issue is dealing with the tremendous volume of data that is processed by our brains (even while we are asleep). Second, the brain is tasked with evaluating the validity or accuracy of the information it draws in. As the old computer adage warns – “Garbage in, garbage out”. Third, our brains need the ability to sort out between what information potentially carries significance and therefore worth retention versus that which is irrelevant, inconsequential and not worth retaining. Most importantly a significant proportion of these decisions and deliberations are accomplished below the conscious level, automatically and without our knowledge.

We know that the brain can be fooled. Optical illusions can cause objects to appear as our cognitive mind believes they “should” appear, even though they may exist quite differently in actuality. Magic tricks can deceive the brain into thinking actions have happened that defy our understanding of what we know the laws of physics tell us is possible. Seeing is not necessarily, believing.

So what about these apparently telepathic experiences, what do they mean? Let's take a closer look at what is going on here.

Think about your last trip to the grocery store; you operated a motor vehicle through traffic without needing to look at your hands and feet in doing so. You negotiated obstacles, calculated the speed, direction and location of other vehicles, obeyed traffic laws, negotiated intersections and took in countless pieces of information about environmental conditions, all the while thinking about work, friends, family, American Idol – maybe you even talked on your cell while driving.

Now home from the store, how much of that trip did you remember? How many cars passed you, how many red lights, pedestrians, dogs… your brain processed thousands of actions and thoughts during an uneventful trip. Most of what we experience we don’t remember. That is quite normal; if we recalled every fact of every moment, we simply couldn’t function.

But suppose instead you had witnessed an accident on your outing. You are likely going to remember it because it has significance – you will have likely felt a emotional impact from the experience, relief that it didn’t happen to you, thoughts of how you probably should be more diligent in the future regarding your own safety. The incident is stored in your brain as worth remembering.

But what your brain seldom does is store the insignificant, the inconsequential, the unremarkable. The countless times you thought about an old friend or felt concern or worry about a relative, these thoughts pass through your brain constantly. The key concept here is: If nothing further attaches any significance to those thoughts they are quickly forgotten.

But because our brains are wonderfully adept at detecting and establish patterns, we invariably place significance for the experiences that appear to us to be “hits”. When we give weight to the "hits", but dismiss the "misses", biases can cause us to paint a statistically incorrect picture about how we think the world works.

Yet again recently I decided that I hadn’t heard from my daughter Kara in a while nor had her her blog been updated for some time. Normal Dad that I am, I began worrying that some unpleasantness had befallen her. My call to her went to voicemail, further raising my concern. But a short while later Kara called; she had just been out with friends and was doing fine. Based on that "non-incident" I chocked-up yet another mark in the “miss” column on my Psi chart.


secret agent woman said...

Pet peeve of mine. People generally do not account for the non-occurrence of events when they are looking at things like that. Yes, you think about someone and then run into them later. But how many, many. many times do we think about someone and NOT run into them or run into someone we WEREN'T thinking about? It seems like such an elementary concept and yet people dismiss evidence that doesn't confirm their beliefs.

Elisabeth said...

I'm new to your blog, via Marilynn. what a fascinating post. These processes are amazing - the uncanny, the precognitive,dejavu - call them what you like.

It's good to consider the links and some of the mechanics of thinking here. Thanks

Jerry said...

You are right on the mark. I've tried to explain it to myself but always meandered into confusion. Now -- you've said it for me. It's now lucid and locked.

The Mother said...

Agreed. With everything.

But explaining that to a layman is often impossible. They're convinced--how can you possibly believe otherwise???

TechnoBabe said...

Well, I get what you are saying about the hits and the misses. There are so many more misses and you are right on that when there is a hit we remember it and highlight it and make it important.

Robert the Skeptic said...

SecretAgent This is a common lack of understanding about statistics... someone claiming paranormal abilities will get a "hit" 1 out of 10 times, they will consider that significant validation of their abilities even though 50/50, (5 hits out of 10) would be attributed to random chance.

Elisabeth "Deja-vu", another great topic suggestion, thanks... and for visiting as well.

Indeed much of which we ascribe to mystical causes are easily explainable. The REAL world is so remarkable and so much is open to us when we understand how things really work. "The truth shall set you free".

Jerry The difficulty for me is trying to keep the posts short but still get the point across. This was one of the longer ones, but it sounds as though I got the salient point across. Thanks!

Dr. Mom Indeed, I'm treading on familiar ground with you. But yes, even scientists can fall into magical thinking when they delve into areas which they are outside their discipline. Even my PhD father-in-law has related to me such a story of a "feeling", phone call, and broken arm.

you may be familiar with James Amazing Randi and the "Alpha Project"... if not, stay tuned, it's a great story.

TechnoBabe Indeed, add to someones's personal experience the strong emotional bias and the connection, and it's attribution to paranormal causes, can become extremely compelling to the subject.

It's true what Shermer says in my documentary; to be objective, to try to think outside of the box is not natural, it takes conscious effort. It truly is more difficult to attempt to "know" than to "believe".

Penny said...

We get those experiences when there's the emotional input, and yes it's tempting to put a spin on them, especially the bizarre or freakily coincidental ones. A cup of coffee and a dash of logic usually jolts one back and away from what is really just the cognitive effects of worry.

Excellent post, professor.

Gorilla Bananas said...

I know a few people who go to psychics for advice. They say the psychic knows things about their lives he/she couldn't possibly know without paranormal abilities. The way I see it, it helps them make decisions and it can't be worse than tossing a coin.

Murr Brewster said...

On the other hand, I was just sitting at the computer procrastinating about something and thought: I wonder if good ol' Robert T S has posted anything, and I went to your site, and you HAD. It's uncanny.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Penny Would that dose of logic were as easy to acquire as a cup of coffee for most folks. I think many put more energy into deciding which latte flavor they want to order than putting any thought into analyzing their paranormal beliefs.

Bananas Of course, the only thing psychics really "know" is the skill of "cold reading". A friend of mine, Prof. Ray Hyman, literally wrote the book on Cold Reading and I have taken one of his CR classes.

Psychics are dangerous - besides taking people's money in exchange for proffering vague, nebulous and useless advice, people sometimes feel confident act on this crap information to their detriment. I'll be talking about psychics and Cold Reading in future posts.

Murr Undoubtedly my Chakra must have reached through the ethernet and into your Chi. Our computers must be serving as some sort of "Om-ing" device.

Kay Dennison said...

I tend to attribute such to karma or a plain old mental hotfoot!

Marylinn Kelly said...

Do you think it is the search for connection which persuades us that such events are meaningful? If we acknowledge our separateness, it may overwhelm us. I believe we are always looking for our tribe.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Kay I like Karma; it's kind of the ol' "what goes around, comes around" philosophy.

Marylinn I think what you are describing, the "us versus, them" capacity we have is more a component of our social evolution; grouping for mutual survival and protection, for example. Many believe this is the basis for the ubiquitousness of some form of religious belief among divergent cultures.

The belief in paranormal I think comes from higher cognitive functions gone awry. Adding 2 + 2 and coming up with 47. It takes training and skill to discern the difference between "correlation" and "causation", outright errors in observation, and biases we may unknowingly hold all which drive us to coming to an incorrect conclusion.

alwaysinthebackrow said...

Another fascinating and thoughful post. We all want our lives to have meaning, and will give meaning to things in order to prove that it is meaningful. The dog chasing its' tail. Sometimes it is too hard to handle the concept that thoughts like this have no independent meaning.

Robert the Skeptic said...

BackRow The search for meaning is ongoing, and I believe, worthwhile. The trick is to not be diverted by erroneous sign posts along the way.

Mary Witzl said...

Secret Agent Woman is right, but there are still some bizarre instances of real ESP out there -- and I'm VERY skeptical.

I once had a middle-aged Italian student who was both a scientist and an atheist. When she was 14, her best friend, a boy, came to her house to take her on a skiing trip that had been arranged months in advance. The minute she saw his face, she knew she couldn't go. She'd been feeling fine, but she felt sick to her stomach as soon as she saw his face; she ran to her room and refused to come out. Her parents were disgusted with her and her friend was confused and hurt, but he had to leave without her -- she would not be budged. Her feeling was that if she went with him, she would never come home. Ten hours later, they got the news that he and half a dozen other kids had all been killed in an avalanche. True, it could still be a coincidence, but you have to admit that it's a pretty amazing one...

I've heard other, equally convincing stories since (and admittedly five times as many bogus ones), but that is the one that has always stayed in my memory.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Mary I was going to include my wife's personal experience but wanted to keep the posting short. But your example makes me want to include it now. So...

In her 20's Nancy became ill at work one day and went home early thinking she was coming down with something. By evening the illness had passed.

Later in the middle of the night she was informed that a car her sister was riding in had gone off an embankment; her brother-in-law and another person were killed. Though critically injured, her sister managed to crawl up the embankment to summon help.

Upon later learning the details of the accident, Nancy concluded that her feeling "sick" at work coincided with approximate time her sister had crawled up the embankment for help. Her conclusion: That somehow her "strength" got transferred to her sister when she needed help.

Now Nancy no longer believes this is the case. But the conclusions we often draw have very strong emotional components and can be quite compelling.

The difficult thing is to recall the many times we have these "feelings" but they never pan out badly.

The other issue is having stories handed down to us second, third (or further) hand. The "facts" in these stories also tend to take on subtle bits "creative license" with each retelling, often innocently to give them more poignancy. When they become persistent, they can even grow into Urban Legends.

As you said "...that is the one that has always stayed in my memory.” Which is precisely my key point.

By the way, I am quite honored that you follow my blog!

Entre Nous said...

Carl Jung's theory on the collective concsiousness perfectly decsribes this phenomina. A long while back it was associated with the small perecntage of people who had certain feelings of misgivings before boarding a flight, changed their minds and did not board. The plane would crash.

Its bizarre and if I remember correctly it was associated with the beginings of man and the fight or flight instinct. Carl Jung insisted we all have it.

We just have to pay attention to it.

Charlie said...

After reading your post, all the comments, and your replies, I am on "brain overload" right now.

Something that wasn't mentioned was the feeling most of us get when we suspect someone is watching or staring at us. Most likely another fight or flight response, a survival technique from dangerous prey.

(I received my consolation prize yesterday p.m. I'm looking forward to watching it tonite. Thanks so much, Robert.)

Robert the Skeptic said...

Entre Nous A few years ago we were flying with another couple to Mexico, in January, dead of winter. A few days before the flight, my buddy said that if the ground crew starts de-icing the wings he will walk off the plane. Well we got on the plane and they were de-icing; he looked at me but he didn't get off the plane and we had a great tropical vacation.

Again I hear these stories and they smack of Urban Legend. However I don't know of a single documented case where a ticket-holder felt compelled to waste their money and not board a plane which later crashed. I have heard of people who have missed their flights which later crashed. But again, how many people miss planes daily? Most importantly, how many people have had that "feeling" and nothing came of it?

Jung believed in astrology, spiritualism, telepathy, telekinesis, clairvoyance and ESP. My father-in-law is a world recognized scientist whose life work depends on climate science. yet he is convinced that Anthropgenic global warming is not valid and we are heading into a new Ice Age.

Now I am NOT saying the Intuition is not true. We are highly skilled at picking up on non-verbal queues; voice intonation, inconsistencies of statements, body language that can arouse our suspicions. We call it "gut instincts" however, they are usually based on some set of queues we pick up on rather than just out of the blue, for no apparent reason "don't get on that plane". But our intuition also fails us; just ask some of Bernie Madoff's victims.

Good points, though. Thank you for joining in the discussion.

Charlie Yes, this post had some "meat" in it and clearly generated some thoughtful comments. I'll plan to throw one in like this occasionally; I don't want to turn this blog into a college course.

Yes, the feeling that someone is looking at you. The guy was Rupert Sheldrake; he also did the research that pets could predict when their owners would arrive home. Junk science and his research has been thoroughly debunked.

Wow, USPS got your DVD to you fast!! Being the astute book critic that you are, do give the film your critical objective eye as well. I'd be interested in your opinion.

Murr Brewster said...

Oh honey, my chi dried up years ago.

Karena said...

I do belive in the law of attraction, karma, degrees of separation. Fascinating!

Art by Karena

Robert the Skeptic said...

Karena My question for you is: "Why do you believe"?

Thanks for visiting. I am a big fan of art.

kara said...

none of this explains why i randomly run into all my ex-boyfriends in once a year but within the same month.

and you were just worried because i used to fall out of trees all the time.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Kara That is strictly a statistical certainty based on the Rule of Large Numbers.

And yes, our ancient ancestors were supposed to have descended out of trees 5.4 billions of years ago; but clearly, someone forgot to tell you.