Keith Humphreys, more or less

I am not a skeptic of psychic phenomenon on principle. We have solid scientific evidence that the human brain is capable of extraordinarily mysterious feats (e.g., synesthesia) and presumably we will discover more such oddities as neuroscience advances. At the same time, I am convinced that the most common basis for what appears subjectively to be ESP or precognition is illusory; a trick the mind plays on us.

For example, at breakfast last week, I found myself thinking about a former colleague that I hadn’t seen in years. “What he’s up to these days?” I wondered. A few hours later I opened my email and received the sad news from a mutual friend that this same former colleague had just died!

I could eat out on this tale for weeks: Though I was a continent away, “something” told me that my colleague had shrugged off this mortal coil. Do I have psychic powers? Are there other tragedies I can sense from a great distance?

If I looked at the two events in the abstract, the case for my psychic abilities seems promising. But when I examine the facts with a more gelid eye — particularly in light of the mind’s tendency to draw connections and to remember the unusual and forget the ordinary — the case falls apart.

I have many times in my life received the news that someone I know at least slightly has gone for a Burton. On how many of those occasions have I been thinking of the deceased just before I got the sad news? Until now, never. What did I do with this fact? I forgot it, because it was ordinary (Can you tell me what you had for dinner on the day the President didn’t get shot?). I will always recall the day the lightning struck, not the far more numerous days when it didn’t.

Here’s another edit that my memory made for me: Until I made myself review events, I forgot all the other people I was thinking about at breakfast. As I flipped back through the newspaper I read over my tomatoes and eggs, I saw the stories and realized that I also thought that morning about Price Charles, my great aunt, Erwin Rommel, the All Blacks rugby squad and Nigel Farage. How many of them promptly joined the choir invisible? None of them (not even Farage, sadly enough). Did I make a mental note at the the time to remember the people of whom I thought who did not immediately die? Of course not. It’s too commonplace to warrant the mental space.

What else did my mind edit for me? The reason why I was thinking of my old colleague in the first place. In the newspaper was a story about the physicist Stephen Hawking. This made me recall the time I was having lunch in Washington D.C. when Hawking and his entourage came in. My lunch companion that day was my now deceased colleague. This may mean that the newspaper’s editors have psychic powers, but pretty well ruins the case for mine.

Before I forced myself to review all the facts, my mind had edited all the dull bits out, leaving only two facts: I was thinking of someone who I hadn’t thought of in a long time and learned of his death only hours later. There is no real connection between those two facts, but the mind is an amazing connector of facts. Indeed, its ability to draw associations is central to the human ability to learn. But it can also, as in this case, fool us into seeing causal links between coincidental events.

Image credit: Psychonauts

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Keith Humphreys is a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and served as Senior Policy Advisor in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy in the Obama Administration. @KeithNHumphreys