This article originally appeared in Anomaly 27
Scientists are starting to unravel the mysteries of the unconscious. In doing so they have come across faculties that resemble ESP.
There have been considerable efforts in the past few years to explain parapsychological phenomena (eg. telepathy, precognition, mediumship, etc) in terms of ordinary psychological phenomena that have no paranormal or spiritual connection whatsoever. One type of attempt has dismissed these phenomena out of hand, suggesting that they are the result of misguided or fraudulent individuals, poor evidence, or out-and-out shams (eg. Randi, 1991). A second type of explanation has taken a different approach by suggesting that very specific psychological effects may account for many supposed cases of the paranormal. This article will briefly list some examples of the latter type, but emphasis will be placed on a possible alternative explanation for many apparent examples of ESP that reflects recent work done by psychologists on the nature of conscious and non-conscious processing.
Although such explanations do not discount the possible existence of extra-sensory perception, they may explain why so many individuals believe they have had an experience of ESP or 'the sixth sense'. They may also show that we do have incredible abilities but that they are simply not paranormal in nature.
The complexity of the human mind/brain and the fact that there is still very much unknown about its capabilities have led many individuals to postulate that it may be able to produce abilities such as telepathy, telekinesis, precognition, etc. Each of these abilities is beyond the range of normal human sensory experience, hence the term extra-sensory perception or ESP.
There have always been those who are sceptical about the reality of these abilities, and more recently various scientists, particularly those interested in the mind such as psychiatrists, psychologists and parapsychologists, have attempted to explain these supposedly paranormal phenomena in terms of purely natural phenomena. Paul Chambers, for example, has already provided excellent summaries of several such phenomena. Chambers (1999) lists sleep paralysis, hypnagogic/hypnopompic hallucinations, absorption, contagious insanity, the sense of presence, diminished input (sensory deprivation), and autoscopy as examples of rare but relatively explainable and scientifically acceptable phenomena that may be misinterpreted as paranormal phenomena. In his article he also touches on Dissociative Identity Disorder (better known as Multiple Personality Disorder) and has gone into more detail about the possible similarities between the disorder and paranormal phenomena in his Fortean Times article 'First Person Plural' (Chambers, 2000). Elsewhere scientists Jorge Martins de Oliveira and Julio Rocha do Amaral (1998) presented a case report entitled 'Paranormality or Psychotic Manifestations?', again suggesting that apparently spiritual or paranormal phenomena may be more suitably labelled as cases of some form of brain dysfunction. This is not to say that the effects that can be observed or the stories that are told are not remarkable, but rather that they are explainable by existing scientific understanding. This article is not going to discuss any of the work just referred to in any greater depth, but references are provided at the end if you wish to find out more.
What have been discussed so far are various suggestions that many paranormal phenomena are explainable in terms of certain psychological and physical conditions. Such suggestions have been around in one form or another probably for at least the last hundred years, even if the precise scientific explanation and terminology may have changed over time. The rest of this article will look at more recent speculations about paranormality based on cutting-edge theories of consciousness and brain function. Although these theories are commonly formulated using evidence obtained from patients suffering from some form of brain damage, the theories suggest that the implications apply to all of us and may explain some of the mysteries of the so-called 'sixth sense'.
Conscious and Unconscious
A great deal of evidence is accumulating that there are parts of our brain that are responsible for consciousness and other parts that operate perfectly well without conscious processing. For example, visual processing in the brain is split into largely independent streams or pathways. One of these pathways is concerned with the perception and recognition of objects, and it is this stream which provides us with conscious visual experience of the world. The other pathway is responsible for guiding motor action (Milner and Goodale, 1995). This may sound odd, because one of our common-sense notions about vision is that it is a single process.
One suggestion is that the two pathways represent different stages in our evolutionary development, that the pathway responsible for guiding motor action is the older pathway and that it provides us with a kind of early warning system. For example, if a large object looms towards us we don't initially want to spend too much time consciously deciding what the object is, we want to be ready to react to it. As Ramachandran (1998) puts it quite neatly:
‘ ¼ this older pathway tells me where the object is, enabling me to swivel my eyeballs and turn my head and body to look at it. This is a primitive reflex that brings potentially important events into my fovea, the high-acuity central region of my eyes.’ (p.72)
At this stage we want to know what the object is, to know how to consciously respond to it, and this is where the 'newer' of the two pathways comes into play.
There are many examples of individuals who have suffered some form of brain damage that seems to affect their conscious processes but still leaves them with surprisingly intact cognitive abilities. For example:
Amnesia Popularly defined as a total loss of memory but a lot of recent work has suggested that many cases of amnesia actually affect conscious memory only (eg. Schacter, 1987). For example, you may well have memories of conscious experiences such as learning to play the piano or knowing that when you were younger a dog bit you. If you were suffering from amnesia you might be unable to remember these events, and thus would have no conscious memory of being able to play the piano or that you were frightened of dogs. However, this might not prevent you from being able to play a piece of piano music presented to you or from being extremely frightened when you next see a dog. Both your ability to play the piano and to still be frightened of a dog are examples of memory, though not of the conscious kind. Someone who was frightened of a dog or could play the piano but without remembering the experience associated with that non-conscious memory might feel at a loss when asked how or why he or she did what they did. An anecdote often presented in the literature (originally reported by Claparede, 1911) will also illustrate the point. Claparede hid a pin in his hand before shaking hands with an amnesic patient. The patient was, from then on, understandably reluctant to shake hands with Claparede, but was unable to explain why. The patient's behaviour suggested that she could remember the incident but had no conscious recollection.
Visual Neglect This is a strange condition commonly seen in people after they have experienced a stroke. It seems to affect the human attentional system and individuals suffering from it neglect or ignore part of their visual field (usually the left side). Patients with this disorder commonly read only one side of written text, bump into objects, put clothes on only one side of the body, and when eating leave food on one side of the plate. Oddly, though, patients suffering from visual neglect can seemingly still be influenced by visual stimuli at some pre-conscious level even though they are otherwise 'ignoring' it. For example, while claiming that two quite clearly dissimilar stimuli are identical they might still answer a question in a way that would suggest some tacit knowledge of the difference (both that there is a difference and what it actually is). (For an example see Marshall and Halligan, 1988)
Blindsight Earlier I mentioned the two visual pathways in the brain, one of which is responsible for visuomotor action and the other for the conscious perception and recognition of objects. When the latter stream is damaged, patients will often appear to be completely blind in part of their visual field. When asked about an object (eg. a stick) in that part of the visual field a typical patient will point out that the question is silly because they can't see the object. However, when asked to guess over a number of trials whether the object is, for example, being presented vertically or horizontally, the patient will more often than not 'guess' correctly (well above chance). This 'blindsight' effect has been reliably reproduced by many researchers and with many different patients (see Weiskrantz, 1996). As Ramachandran (1998) asks: ‘Without invoking extrasensory perception, how do you account for blindsight - a person's pointing to or correctly guessing the presence of an object that he cannot consciously perceive?’ (p. 76). The suggested answer is that while the visual stream responsible for conscious visual perception and recognition of objects is impaired, the other stream still functions reasonably or even perfectly well. Information still gets to the brain via this stream, and by using this information the person can interact with the object in numerous ways, including grasping or pointing at it, detecting orientation or motion etc, though importantly without conscious awareness of it.
Now you might want to say that, despite the evidence from these conditions, the effects that can be seen are merely some form of artefact resulting from brain damage, except that such evidence is actually only the beginning. Extensive work with individuals who have completely normal vision suggests that they too may show this distinction between conscious and non-conscious processing of information. One such paradigm is that of change blindness (see Rensink, 2000) where large changes in a visual scene ‘become difficult to notice if made during an eye movement, image flicker, movie cut, or other such disturbance’ (Rensink, 2000, p. 1469) even though such changes would be readily seen under normal conditions. If you have ever experienced a change blindness experiment then you may well identify with the fact that observers very often report that they can feel when something is changing, even though they cannot see it. These individuals, then, are seemingly sensing the change without an accompanying visual experience. And these individuals are not just guessing either - catch trials, where no change actually occurs, are included among the change trials, and observers who seem skilled at this 'sensing of change' usually correctly identify the catch trials as not changing (for more details see Rensink 1998, 2000).
A Sixth Sense
Rensink (1998) has dubbed this phenomenon - that some observers can have an abstract mental experience of change but without actual sensory experience - ‘Mindsight’. He has suggested that mindsight might be some form of early warning signal, possibly from the visuomotor system. He has also suggested that mindsight might correspond to the so-called 'sixth sense', which is often believed to provide a warning about dangerous situations.
Ramachandran (1998), on the other hand, refers to the non-conscious 'being' that seems to operate independently of our consciousness as a zombie, something capable of making complex and skilled movements but without any apparent conscious thought, much like the creatures in films like 'Night of the Living Dead'. Ramachandran wonders how intelligent our own zombies are, in their own way: he rightly points out that many sports rely on spatial orientation and co-ordination. For example, the skilled basketball player can close his/her eyes and toss a ball into a basket if they stand on the same spot each time. Now this is quite a remarkable feat, though the feat itself (the actual success of repeatedly hitting the target) does not in any way require conscious thought or planning. As Ramachandran points out, in this case and indeed many others in sport and in real life there appears to be some considerable benefit to 'releasing one's zombie', letting it do its own thing without our conscious intervention. Indeed, allowing the zombie to 'do its thing' may be what the mystical and philosophical traditions found in the martial arts talk about when they refer to 'chi'. Such traditions refer to letting go of conscious control and instead relying on instinct, intuition and some kind of mystical force to achieve quite incredible acts. Could these traditions, as Ramachandran suggests, be referring to what he calls the zombie, the non-conscious visuomotor system?
I am not suggesting here (and nor, I think, are Rensink or Ramachandran) that this visuomotor system can enable us to achieve paranormal abilities, but it might, through training, enable us all to perform quite amazing acts of human performance related to perception, memory, balance, co-ordination and dexterity.
Now, of course, this description of the way that the ‘sixth sense’ and other remarkable abilities may well be explained by the existence of conscious and non-conscious pathways does not rule out the existence of all psychic powers or even particular cases of the sixth sense. It does, however, offer a well-recognised scientific theory as the explanation for many cases of so-called ESP and remarkable acts performed without conscious awareness. These abilities may appear strange, incredible, or even unexplainable, but they need not be in any sense paranormal.
One particular case that mindsight does not successfully account for is the idea of sensory awareness without any apparent sensory input, for example the feeling of being stared at when there is no possible way of knowing that someone is doing so (because they are directly behind you or out of view). This may be a genuine case of ESP, but the evidence for the existence of this ability is not particularly good (see Baker, 2000). I shall not discuss the reality (or otherwise) of this ability any further as it would fill a whole paper in itself. However, it is important to note that this article does not in any way rule out the possibility of ESP and other psychic abilities, rather it offers a reasonable scientific explanation for one type.
One final interesting, not to say ironic, point worth noting is that many people who have speculated on the existence of psychic abilities, particularly the sixth sense, proposed that they might represent an evolutionary development in humans. But if Rensink, Ramachandran and others are right then the explanation for the sixth sense is that some older evolutionary abilities are still in operation alongside the more recent development of consciousness. The sixth sense may not represent our future but an important part of our past.
- Baker, R. A. (2000). Can we tell when someone is staring at us? Skeptical Inquirer, 24 (2).
- Chambers, P. (1999). All in the mind? Anomaly 25, 2-21.
- Chambers, P. (2000). First Person Plural. Fortean Times, 130, 34-40.
- Claparede, E. (1911). Recognition et motie. Archives de Psychologie, 11, 75-90.
- Marshall, J. C. & Halligan, P. W. (1988). Blindsight and insight in visuo-spatial neglect. Nature, 336 (22/29), 766-767.
- Milner, A. D. and Goodale, M. A. (1995). The Visual Brain In Action. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- de Oliveira, J. M. & do Amaral, J. R. (1998). Paranormality or psychotic manifestations. Brain and Mind: Electronic Magazine On Neuroscience, 6. (http://www.epub.org.br/cm/)
- Ramachandran. V. S. (1998). Phantoms in the brain: human nature and the architecture of the mind. London: Fourth Estate.
- Randi, J. (1991). James Randi: Psychic Investigator. London: Boxtree Limited.
- Rensink, R. A. (1998). Mindsight: visual sensing without seeing. Investigative Ophthalmology and Visual Science, 39, 631.
- Rensink, R. A. (2000). Seeing, sensing and scrutinizing. Vision Research, 40, (10-12), 1469-1487.
- Schacter, D. L. (1987). Implicit memory: History and current status. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 13, 501-518.
- Weiskrantz, L. (1996). Blindsight revisited. Current Opinion in Experimental Psychology, 6, 215-220.