Can We Peek into
“If Aunt Susie really has precognition, why does she need a doorbell?”
Sixth-grade student in Akron, Ohio.
Imagine for a moment, a Homo sapiens hunter-gatherer in northern Africa some 300,000 years ago. She faced a hostile world every day of her life.
In an environment of only grass and trees, many predators were willing and anxious to make a meal of our ancestors – and, there were few places to hide.
Though our senses, agility and speed pale in comparison to those of our predators, we adapted by using our brains. We used strategies to avoid being eaten – working as a group, developing weapons, shelters and fire.
We left the relative safety of the trees millions of years before. Living on the ground, we were more vulnerable to danger. Perhaps, there were times when we sensed immediate danger and took actions that prevented injury or death.
We had no words for this feeling, but it was nonetheless vital. Modern man would call such an experience intuition, a gut feeling.
Have you ever experienced a sense of dread?
Perhaps, you are traveling down a highway. Even though the traffic light ahead is green, you slow down because something just doesn’t feel right.
Someone runs the red light coming from your right at 55 miles per hour. “Damn,” you say aloud, “that was a close call.”
Where did that feeling of dread come from?
The tools of science may offer answers. But don’t always expect answers that fit your sense of reality.
A recap on how science works, and occasionally when it doesn’t.
Established scientists may have an entire career wrapped up in one theory.
They have a lot to lose in the wake of new insights. Their books and papers lose relevance, and publishers see dollar signs in revisions to textbooks.
It is not surprising that some scientists maintain a death grip on a cherished theory, one that may be relegated to the theory graveyard by further research.
Some theories in science struggle for years, even decades, before acceptance. The concept of Plate Tectonics was still controversial as late as the 1960s. Today, this theory is one of the bedrocks of geology – so to speak.
Science is an ongoing endeavor and one that must be flexible enough to accommodate new ideas. When it no longer does so, it can become dogmatic. When this happens, curiosity is stifled.
Curiosity breeds healthy skepticism and judging from much of the Internet and cable news, we could all do with a booster shot of objective analysis.
Sometimes, the results of new research conflict with that of previous research.
You may remember all the flip-flopping on the health benefits of eating eggs a few years ago.
“Eggs are good for you.”
“Eggs are bad for you.”
“Wait a minute, eggs are good for you again.”
Unfortunately, the public will sometimes point to these revisions as a flaw in the scientific method.
But, it is not.
At the beginning of the COVID pandemic, we were told just to wash our hands after touching potentially contaminated surfaces.
Following further studies, recommendations changed because studies showed that masking provides more protection from airborne transmission of COVID.
Whereas, with smoking tobacco, no matter how many times we repeat the research, the results are always the same – smoking is harmful to health.
We should expect some fluctuations as experimental controls are improved, and biases reduced. If the goal is to discover the facts, then scientists must be vigilant regarding the protocols of their experiments.
So, as we examine the research on emotional presentiment, it is crucial to understand how scientific experiments are conducted.
How was emotional presentiment studied?
As with all legitimate research, studying emotional presentiment required establishing an experimental protocol.
A protocol includes the stated purpose of the experiment, usually a hypothesis, methods used, controls, data interpretation. And, finally, publishing the results and peer review.
The study has been replicated more than 40 times, and with few exceptions, has demonstrated statistically significant results.
But, and this is important to the context of my previous statement – we responded physiologically before the subjects were exposed to the stimuli.
These experiments did not prove that the subjects were consciously reacting to visual stimuli before seeing it. Nor were the experiments designed to show this.
Here’s basically how the experiments were conducted, with some variations over time:
The subject was seated in front of a blank computer screen. On one hand, electrodes were attached to fingers recording fluctuations in electrical skin conductivity – a measurement of perspiration.
On the other hand, attachments recorded heart rate and blood flow.
When the subjects were ready, a time-delayed image was randomly generated. The images were in one of two categories, calming or emotional.
Calming images consisted of scenes like a field of flowers or a smiling baby.
Emotional images consisted of scenes such as minor automobile accidents or a broken leg in a cast.
Avoiding as much technical jargon as possible, the results showed a physiological response in the order of “fight or flight.” These ranged from a portion of a second up to nine seconds before the image appeared on the screen.
Conversely, the calming images show a marked decrease in presentiment response or none at all.
We would expect a more robust emotional presentiment response if the emotional images were of a more severe nature, such as a bloody motorcycle accident or a grisly murder scene.
The presentiment response in the studies involved only the autonomic nervous system and not “actual” knowledge of an event before it happens. Precognition of future events will have to be relegated to other studies using different experimental methods.
Our driver slowing down before entering the intersection because “something just didn’t feel right” may have experienced a stimulated apprehension related to presentiment.
That apprehension may have spared the driver from injury or death.
In closing, I’m sharing an experience that certainly seemed like a premonition at the time.
Two friends and I were climbing a peak in the Tetons called Teewinot. We were taking turns leading, and it was my turn to lead the next section of the climb.
It required wearing crampons (spikes) on our boots and using an ice axe to make our way up a steep icy couloir.* Climbing this mix of snow and ice was necessary before we could get back onto the stability of solid rock again.
We had started our climb of Teewinot in the early morning before the sun was high enough to soften the snow and release any entrapped rocks on us.
It took about 45 minutes of climbing the couloir before reaching a spot where I could see a rock ledge, some 30 feet or so above us. Reaching this ledge would get us off the couloir and onto terra firma, where we would be relatively safe.
As I began kicking steps and ascending toward the ledge, I felt an overwhelming sense of urgency. It was a visceral feeling, a foreboding that came upon me suddenly.
As soon as I reached the ledge, I placed some protection and started belaying my partners up. I encouraged them to move as quickly as possible since they enjoyed the safety of having the rope above them.
Within 20 minutes, the three of us were taking a break on the ample ledge, breaking out the water bottles and bars of pemmican from our packs.
Suddenly from above came a roar that sounded like a jet taking off. For a full minute, the icy slope that we had just stepped off of was battered by rocks ranging from baseball size to one that was every bit as large as a Volkswagen Beetle.
We had very narrowly escaped certain death.
Did I experience precognition? In hindsight, I would have to dismiss that notion.
And here’s why.
My partners and I knew quite well that rockfall is a distinct possibility on any climb, particularly when the sun began warming the snow above us. And though we were still in the cold shadows of the rock walls enclosing the couloir, sunshine was already warming the higher flanks of the mountain.
The concerns that would naturally arise in such a precarious situation, may reside in the periphery of conscious awareness.
After all, I had to concentrate on climbing. There was little else I could devote my attention to. If I were to fall, I would likely pull my partners down with me.
Perhaps, presentiment played some role in affecting me emotionally. My emotional state may have prompted me to get out of the confines of the couloir quicker than I usually would have.
Yet, I would have to rule out precognition in the sense that I had visualized the rockfall before it happened.
I did not.
Research in the field of neuroscience may confirm that humans possess some form of precognitive ability to one degree or the other. The same research may determine that we do not.
Knowing what is about to happen may be attractive to us as a notion, but science has no concern for our wishes.
“Just the facts ma’am.”
*Couloir – A steep narrow gully on a mountainside.