back in the future

There’s a story that my mom likes to tell.  Back before she was saddled w/ a husband and children, she used to keep Dobermans.  One day, her dog Diana disappeared.  My mom was frantic; she searched the neighborhood on foot.  She drove around, looking and shouting herself hoarse.  Nothing.  A week passed.  My mom began to try reconciling herself to the idea that she would never see her beloved Diana again.  And then, one morning, she woke up, and she knew Diana was at the animal shelter.  She had checked earlier, and come away disappointed; she had called repeatedly.  Yet now she found herself compelled by a voice in her head that said, Go to the animal shelter.  Sure enough, Diana was there.  She had just been picked up that morning.

I don’t believe in magic or the supernatural.  I believe there are some things that have yet to be explained, but I don’t think anything exists beyond our physical realm.  Considering all that encompasses, isn’t that enough?  I know that extrasensory perception, or ESP, has long been a subject of scientific interest which gained momentum during the Victorian era, when a morbid fascination w/ death and the afterlife combined w/ an emerging passion for using new technologies and techniques to gather empirical evidence.  From what I have gathered in my reading, there has been no compelling evidence to definitively prove the existence of psi, which is defined by Cornell psychologist Daryl Bem as denoting “anomalous processes of information or energy transfer that are currently unexplained in terms of  known physical or biological mechanisms” (Bem 2010, 1).

Dr. Bem has caused something of a stir in the scientific community w/ his latest paper, “Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect.”  He asserts that his results show that humans are capable of precognition and premonition.  Apparently he isn’t just some quack, either (his Ivy League employment guarantees nothing; after all, Columbia has Joseph Massad).  According to NPR, Bem is a prominent, even redoubtable, psychologist and the journal publishing his paper is well-respected.  My curiosity was piqued.  The best part was that everybody seemed to be psychic, regardless of race or gender!  Well, at least everybody at Cornell.  Already I could imagine putting my ESP to good use.  I could invest in the stock market!  People would always laugh at my jokes!  I would never be caught w/o an umbrella!

My life would be a parade of awesome!

Unfortunately, none of the nine experiments Bem conducted point to anything so dramatic, at least as far as I can tell.  His first two experiments involved seating undergrads in front of computer screens.  Two curtains would appear on the screen, and the student would have to guess which curtain was hiding a certain kind of picture (either erotic, negative, or positive, randomly intermixed w/ neutral/non-arousing).  Neither “the picture itself nor its left/right position was determined until after the participant recorded his or her guess, making the procedure a test of detecting a future event, that is, a test of precognition” (8-9).  One would expect the undergrads to do no better than chance; instead, they identified erotic pictures correctly 53% of the time.  I’m no statistician, but that doesn’t sound particularly impressive to me.

Bem’s other experiments involved retroactive priming, habituation, induction of boredom and facilitation of recall.  Priming involves inducing a certain mindset before divulging specific information.  For example, the word “ugly” might flash on a screen, followed by a picture of a cockroach.  A test subject will then be asked to rate the picture as pleasant or unpleasant.  The word “ugly” is what is known as the “prime.”  It plants an expectation in the viewer about what will be encountered next.  A person who has seen “ugly” flashed before the picture of a cockroach (congruent) will rate the picture as unpleasant more quickly than a person who has seen the word “beautiful” flashed before the same picture (incongruent).  In Bem’s experiments, a reaction to priming–measured by response time–was evident even when the prime was shown after, rather than before, the accompanying image.

Habituation refers to the fact that extreme stimuli become less arousing after repeated exposures.  A corollary to this is the Mere Exposure Effect: animals favor the familiar.  As in the priming experiments, experiment participants were habituated (via subliminal exposure) to images only after they had selected the one they preferred.  Of the two experiments, the first was conducted using pairs of negative images; the second w/ erotic (positive) pictures.

The boredom induction experiments were similar in content and structure to the habituation experiments, save that they employed neutral images.  Interestingly, in this set of experiments the results were not significantly different from chance.

We have long heard that “practice makes perfect.”  Inspired by the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass, Bem decided to test the old adage by giving it a new twist; could retroactive rehearsal improve past performance?  In order to determine the answer, Bem exposed 100 undergrads to a list of 48 words.  At the end of the sequence, a (surprise) recall test was administered.  After the test was over, the students were given 24 randomly selected words to practice.  Analysis of the students’ scores showed that they tended to remember the words they had practiced.  Furthermore, the longer they practiced, the more they remembered (Fig 1.0).

Figure 1.0

A few more notes:

  • All humans are capable of performing psi-related feats, but the effect is markedly stronger in people who qualify as extroverts (according to the Revised NEO Personality Inventory).  This may be b/c extroverts are more likely to seek novel external stimuli.
  • Psi effects tend to appear only when negative/erotic stimuli are involved.
  • Precognition/premonition does not seem to extend more than a few minutes into the future.

Of course, before we get too excited, the validity of Bem’s results needs to be verified independently.  Bem himself admits that this may be difficult to do, and that psi experiments have been traditionally rife w/ inaccuracies, mostly related to bias on the part of experimenters.  Still, I hardly think this is an irrelevant or gratuitous line of inquiry.  Bem’s colleagues are right to be skeptical; what they should not do is dismiss his study simply b/c they cannot imagine how psi might work.  If we can subjectively measure and examine the phenomena, as Bem’s experiments suggest, why shouldn’t we?  Science is critical, but not close-minded; rigorous, but not rigid.

Beyond the immediate implications for psychology, the idea that time might be porous or flexible is an exceedingly interesting one.  We have long recognized that our linear perception of time is just that: a perception.  This opens up a future full of possibilities.

What are we waiting for?


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