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    The Science Of Precognition: Cosmic Habituation And Decline Effect
    By Sascha Vongehr | November 16th 2011 06:43 AM | 14 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Sascha

    Dr. Sascha Vongehr [风洒沙] studied phil/math/chem/phys in Germany, obtained a BSc in theoretical physics (electro-mag) & MSc (stringtheory)...

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    Precognition (from the Latin præ-,“before,” + cognitio, “acquiring knowledge”), is usually filed under esoteric pseudoscience. There are scientific articles on precognition, but pointing this out often results in the rare admission that scientific journals’ peer review can be flawed badly, so badly that complete nonsense gets all the way through the long process. The latter is very true but seldom admitted. All this is a cultural phenomenon, a question of belonging; naïve scientism wants to lynch you for mentioning clairvoyance but discussing time travel is fine, go figure.


    Ray Hyman, a noted critic (!) of anything paranormal, remarked:


    “the contemporary ganzfeld experiments display methodological and statistical sophistication well above previous parapsychological research. Despite better controls and careful use of statistical inference, the investigators seem to be getting significant results that do not appear to derive from the more obvious flaws of previous research.” [1]


    I personally have zero tolerance for pseusoscience and a track record of actively fighting against scientific fraud in academia, with my publications and with this science column. Studies on precognition have reached a level of scientific rigorousness that leaves a serious skeptic only the option to engage properly on at least the same level.


    One often encountered immediate reaction against precognition is that such can never be science at all because it is ill-defined. Another interesting aspect is that precognition should be especially difficult to detect by a scientific method that demands large numbers of repetitions. Let us discuss these and a few closely related aspects like the “general decline effect” in detail.


     

    1) Is Precognition merely inconsistent Terminology?

    Precognition would be a form of “extrasensory perception” (ESP). “Extrasensory Perception” is the title of a 1934 book written by the botanist turned psychologist Joseph Banks Rhine. It discusses Duke University research on whether there is perception by something other than the known senses. “Extrasensory perception” is misleading terminology. Given any aspect X that is perceived, the perception of X can be studied and findings published as “Discovery of an X-Sense”. That sense may not be based on easily accessible sensors like our eyes for example, but once perception exists, that sensing is sufficient to have a sense. Hard to isolate neural circuits could conceivably be the sensors. Partially because of these issues, a better term than “ESP” is “paranormal” or “psi”.


    Now what about precognition? I see a flowerpot falling from a balcony above me. I step aside because my brain calculates and perhaps shows to my inner eyes that the heavy pot will fall into the place otherwise occupied by me. My brain’s prediction turns out spot-on correct and the pot falls into that spot – boom. I saw that coming, but this is prediction, not precognition. In fact, precognition is negatively defined somewhat like ESP, namely as paranormal successful foretelling, an above chance prediction that cannot be explained as mere prediction on the basis of what we know (could not otherwise be anticipated through any known inferential process).


    Precognition denotes above chance prediction of future events whose mechanism is not understood, thus paranormal. Once we understand the mechanism, precognition, if such existed, would turn into merely yet another way of prediction and perhaps become normal. The big question is of course: Does any such paranormal thing exist at all?


    2) Why has Precognition not shown up clearly in Science?

    There are scientific studies like D.J. Bem’s “Feeling the Future” [2], which apparently shows precognition with statistical significance (of course - there is the possibility of fraud). However, well done studies are so rare that one cannot claim precognition has been shown to exist scientifically. Why?


    2.1) Cosmic Habituation or General Decline Effect

    Researchers find new phenomena all the time and with much higher significance. Most (!) of these phenomena, even those in the so called “hard sciences”, disappear over time with further studies. They cannot be reproduced with the same significance, which slowly decreases over time. This is sometimes called “decline effect”, a term shaped by Joseph B. Rhine and first found in the very field of precognition studies, where it describes something else though as we will discuss below.


    This effect of that “The Truth Wears Off” (J. Lehrer) has also been called “cosmic habituation” by Jonathan Schooler, who saw his celebrated phenomenon of “verbal overshadowing” entirely disappear over the years. We will call this henceforth the “general decline effect” instead of the somewhat silly “cosmic habituation”. One cannot stress enough that this effect is found in all sciences. Especially nowadays, general decline of significance is often followed by science eventually supporting the opposite of the originally discovered effect.


    These problems with the scientific method generally imply that a few sporadic studies discovering some phenomenon never prove its existence conclusively. This sounds like criticism of psi studies, but can also read as a defense! In uncontroversial fields, the general decline effect is mostly due to confirmation bias by the researchers and publishing bias in favor of positive results.


    Except for perhaps confirmation bias, the aspects to do with publishing culture do not explain why precognition suffers a strong decline effect during studies (the proper decline effect discussed below). This topic is extremely difficult to publish anyway, so the general decline effect that occurs over several studies due to publishing bias is not applicable. You cannot count immediate refutations that are obviously done fast and under pressure to produce null results (also, a perverted form of Bayesian updating is increasingly used to combat undesired science, for example in order to counter the Bem study). In this particular field, namely precognition, not positive results, but null results are strongly preferred right from the start.


    2.2) Precognition needs Future Influence

    Many hold the impossibility of any form of influence from the future as a dogma. For them, precognition does not show up because it does not exist, period. This may be, but one must still test and prove to people scientifically that certain claims cannot be scientifically supported. This is best done by avoiding all dogma, else the appearance of science being establishment conspiracy against the truth is nourished and snake oil flies of the shelves even faster.



    The dogma is, as dogmas usually are, quite unfounded. Future Influence has been seriously discussed by established scientists. Wheeler’s and Feynman’s “absorber theory” includes advanced waves coming from the future on equal footing with retarded effects (“retarded” signifying after the cause). Quantum interference can be interpreted as future influence (quantum physics is time symmetric, so inverting usual explanations about interfering histories is already proving this, but there is more to this as will be discussed in a future post).


    Many skeptics construe the mentioning of “quantum” as indication of “woo”. They may not appreciate that classical physics (read: non relativistic and pre-quantum) is trivially without future influence. The naïve “real world-box being changed by time” concept is the very core of classical physics. Future influence is strictly modern physics and needs quantum concepts.


    Usual Evolution

    Once there is a physical mechanism, any minute physical effect, evolutionary selection is expected to tap into the physical effectiveness eventually. Quantum interference along molecules is used by plant chlorophyll to harvest light. Quantum effects have been shown to be exploited by birds’ sensing earth’s magnetic field in ways that were previously thought impossible (see discussion of surprising quantum biology). The necessary quantum entanglement should (according to established knowledge) be immediately destroyed in warm macroscopic systems like bird brains.


    The Dawn of Quantum Biology

     

    2.3) Precognition may Necessitate Strong Emotions – the proper Decline Effect

    The following factors correlate with positive scores in Ganzfeld experiments: Belief in psi; prior psi experiences, practicing forms of meditation (yoga), creativity/artistic ability, emotional closeness between sender and receiver, extraverts rather than introverts. Insisting on that the scientific method is better served by selecting subjects randomly is obviously counterproductive; that such studies nevertheless find significant effects the more significant.


    In all the reported cases of precognition, successful “media” are always extremely motivated to participate. Strong emotions float about whenever test subjects perform especially well. The latter may be due to biased reporting, i.e. the emotions are interpreted as especially strong in the light of the just gotten streak of correct predictions. Nevertheless, rather than being and ad hoc excuse, emotions have all along been said to be involved in precognition, which is often premonition (affective apprehension) or presentiment, both signifying effect from future events that is perceived as emotion.


    Even assuming it exists, precognition is a feeble effect. If it is indeed coming about via emotions, there is an obvious problem: Studies that want to increase significance must repeat the same experiment over and over again. Repetition kills emotions, positive as well as negative. You do not fall on the floor laughing after hearing the same joke a hundred times. Recalling a tragic personal loss again and again is one way to overcome emotional involvement; psychotherapy exploits this. This could be the proper “decline effect” in its original meaning.


    Joseph B. Rhine reported this proper decline effect in the 1930s. An undergraduate, Adam Linzmayer, guessed cards that were not yet revealed to him with a hit rate far above chance. There are five different cards in a Zener deck (see picture below), thus chance would be a 20 percent hit rate. He had three streaks of guessing nine cards in a row, which has a one in two million chance already if it occurs just once. Yet repeated testing again and again for thousands of times wore him down and he lost the talent. So did many other subjects; it always happens this way in these studies, and it is not explained away by an initial chance fluctuation towards positive results slowly drowning in the large numbers, a so called “regression to the mean”. The latter would have different detailed statistics and would be the same for fluctuations into the opposite direction, but people who are phenomenally bad at guessing never show up.



    In 2004, also Jonathan Schooler found a remarkable decline effect during precognition studies. The latter was not biased towards finding precognition! He did not embark on that study to find precognition but in order to find the decline effect. And he found that one, maybe “because he desired to find it”, but his finding of precognition along with it is not falling to confirmation bias. Schooler would have been perfectly happy if he had found the decline effect for phenomenally below chance guessing. However, subjects guessed correctly above chance.


    The neat thing is that recent studies keep emotion constantly inside the experiment, for example by using sexually explicit images. Sexual images get people probably as often more excited over time than that they habituate. Moreover, sex or threat relating emotions are evolutionarily especially important. Bem found the strongest effects with the sexually explicit images involving studies.


    2.4) The next time in this series I add an extremely speculative idea: The influence of belief. Quantum physics will play a major role, but not in any way that would need David Bohm (the later pseudoscientists, not the early scientist), Michael Talbot’s holographic nonsense, or any of the other usual suspects (Stapp, ... ).

    --------------------------------------------

    [1] Ray Hyman: "Evaluation of Program on Anomalous Mental Phenomena." The Journal of Parapsychology (December 1995) [Note: This journal publishes a lot of nonsense!]

    [2] Daryl J. Bem: “Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 407-425 (2011) [Note: Quoting peer reviewed research does not imply any commitment toward the truth of the research.]

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    Comments

    Gerhard Adam
    My primary problem with something like precognition, is that regardless of the tests or the guessing, it seems like a highly suspect event if the individual doesn't actually "know" the information they are guessing about.  In other words, how would one distinguish between actually "knowing" about a future event versus simply having a vivid imagination or coincidence?

    In short, regardless of how one wants to interpret the experimental results, it seems that whatever may or may not be occurring isn't of much actual use to the individual.  While it might be an interesting psychological artifact, it isn't something that is particularly reliable for the individual.  In turn, this argues against any possibility that it could be an evolved trait, which renders the argument even weaker.

    In fact, I'd be much more inclined to consider what kinds of unconscious cues and perceptions may increase the results rather than anything to do with the transmission of thoughts.
    Mundus vult decipi
    vongehr
    actually "knowing" about a future event versus simply having a vivid imagination
    The tests here are about presentiment, not about people interpreting previous dreams or day dreaming as somehow related to present events.

    or coincidence?
    That is what statistics is for.
    whatever may or may not be occurring isn't of much actual use to the individual.
    Even just a tiny bit of early onset of arousal/adrenaline in the presence of danger would be a huge evolutionary advantage.
    rather than anything to do with the transmission of thoughts.
    Who talked about transmission of thoughts?
    Gerhard Adam
    Even just a tiny bit of early onset of arousal/adrenaline in the presence of danger would be a huge evolutionary advantage.
    True enough, but if the danger were present, then how would you distinguish it as precognition versus simply unconscious awareness of information that was already available?  It seems that for anything resembling precognition to occur, it would have occur in the absence of anything that could provide that foresight.  This is precisely why I mentioned it, because you distinguished between precognition versus prediction.
    Who talked about transmission of thoughts?
    Sorry, I was merely extrapolating to many of the ideas that people assume when talking about ESP and/or precognition, etc.  However, precognition requires the transmission of some information from some source in order to be translated into the brain.  So we need a means by which transmission occurs (i.e. only living things, inanimate objects, etc). and we need a general mechanism that is capable of picking up such a transmission.

    Even if we could detect such a mechanism in the brain, it is problematic to determine how or what is capable of sending the necessary data to provide such an early alert.  After all, this isn't merely a matter of some time-related signal, the signal must be coherent enough to be understood by the human brain (which would also require an explanation for whether any other animal brain is capable of understanding the same message).

    While I realize that you aren't proposing anything nearly that elaborate in your discussion, nor are you advocating for precognition, I'm simply pointing out some of the fundamental difficulties that I have with the whole concept, and why I'm definitely skeptical about any claims to the contrary.
    Mundus vult decipi
    vongehr
    "Even just a tiny bit of early onset of arousal/adrenaline in the presence of danger would be a huge evolutionary advantage." True enough, but if the danger were present, then how would you distinguish it as precognition versus simply unconscious awareness of information that was already available?
    Did you read for example Bem's study? The methodology of the experiments are explained in the published studies in detail and involve for example hardware random number generators. The information is not classically available.
    Sorry, I was merely extrapolating to many of the ideas that people assume when talking about ESP and/or precognition, etc.
    That is the problem with today's "skeptic" movement as seen on many a "science" blog. The actual issue is not understood or even addressed but straw men are assumed instead. If then people turn against science and trust rather the people on the fringe who at least understand the science involved and can lead a conversation without arrogant dismissal, it is all put down to people being stupid and all responsibility is denied. This is feeding pseudoscience and I sometimes suspect that this is actually the aim. More pseudoscience means more 'war against pseudoscience' blogs can be written about it.
    precognition requires the transmission of some information from some source in order to be translated into the brain.  So we need a means by which transmission occurs
    This is the same misconception as with the EPR problem. The entanglement of particles does not need transmission of information (which would have to be faster than light). All it needs is a proper understanding of empirical probability in order to make the correlation understood.
    Gerhard Adam
    The entanglement of particles does not need transmission of information (which would have to be faster than light). All it needs is a proper understanding of empirical probability in order to make the correlation understood.
    I have to disagree.  You only have two choices here, where either some event (call it signal or process or whatever) either generates a random response in the brain, or it generates a specific response.  If it were random, then it would be uninteresting and unlikely to be of any consequence.  It short, it would just be noise.  However, for a specific response, then we need information.  An event must be specific enough for the individual and relevant enough to raise awareness in the recipient.  In other words, it would be pointless to have a precognitive brain signal that triggered hunger or an itch if the purpose was to alert for danger.  As a result, it isn't a simple as the entanglement of particles, because this would have to be entanglement with a purpose, and it would have to occur without any interaction between any particles.

    The other problem, is that one would have to explain how such individual specificity could occur.  After all, no one suggests that entangled particles entangle with everything in the vicinity and yet this is precisely what must occur in the case of precognition.  To suggest otherwise means that the particular event "knows" which individual is to be the recipient of the signal (or however you expect the brain to be activated).  Once again, without such specificity, it would require that all individuals in the vicinity of an event would receive such a brain notice whether it was pertinent or not.  Similarly, if only certain individuals were receptive to such signals, then that kills the evolutionary advantage argument.

    In short, I find most of these kinds of experiments to be hopelessly flawed by trying to discern the slightest bit of statistical variation and make a big fuss over it while simultaneously arguing that it was an important enough trait to be selected for evolutionarily.  Instead of 50/50 odds with minor variations, why not use a standard 52-card deck and see if ANY real information is ever detected. 

    Personally I would've been interested in seeing the results of a computer making the precognitive selections while a different computer selected the images.  It would have been interesting to see if the computer produced statistically significant results (I suspect it would have).
    Mundus vult decipi
    vongehr
    it would be pointless to have a precognitive brain signal that triggered hunger or an itch if the purpose was to alert for danger.
    Yes, of course, that is all usual evolution though. You sound like as if you are trying to argue against evolution because little random things cannot do the job and there is initially no mechanism that can give a specific response.
    As a result, it isn't a simple as the entanglement of particles, because this would have to be entanglement with a purpose
    I did not say it is as simple as the entanglement between electrons. I said that your assumption of an actual signal being needed for correlations over space-time distances is faulty. Your "xyz with a purpose" sounds exactly like as if you wanted to argue for intelligent design (RNA needs to be a molecule with a purpose right from the start? No, it does not.)
    no one suggests that entangled particles entangle with everything in the vicinity and yet this is precisely what must occur in the case of precognition.
    You seem to know something about a possible mechanism of precognition. Please explain! ;-)
    however you expect the brain to be activated).  Once again, without such specificity, it would require that all individuals in the vicinity of an event would receive such a brain notice
    You are firmly back in 'signal territory'. There are no such classical signals. There is correlation in empirical records inside a quantum reality.
    if only certain individuals were receptive to such signals, then that kills the evolutionary advantage argument.
    ???? If only certain individuals have (a new gene and thus) an advantage but others not, that kills evolution? This is how evolution works.
    trying to discern the slightest bit of statistical variation and make a big fuss over it
    An surprisingly stable and large effect has been found and published in a peer reviewed journal. This is science. You are making the fuss here.
    while simultaneously arguing that it was an important enough trait to be selected for evolutionarily.
    Well, it is you who wants to immediately have a whole mechanism in order to publish empirical science. Now why would you turn around and blame them to try and come up with mechanisms?
     Instead of 50/50 odds with minor variations, why not use a standard 52-card deck and see if ANY real information is ever detected
    Humans have not evolved to play Bridge! The researchers understand that any perception mechanisms must have an evolutionary origin, and so they design the experiments accordingly. This is proper science.
    Personally I would've been interested in seeing the results of a computer making the precognitive selections while a different computer selected the images.
    Great point Gerhard. Read the paper! This is precisely what was done!
    It would have been interesting to see if the computer produced statistically significant results (I suspect it would have).
    It resulted in a null result (as anybody would of course suspect)!
    MikeCrow
    I have long thought that the electrical signals in the brain creates radio waves, And that it would seem at least plausible that another brain structure that was similar to where the radio wave originated might be susceptible to them.
    This would also provide an answer to Gerhard questioning the source of the signal that would the understandable, what if it was the brains response to the answer that the brain was basing it's prediction on?

    Maybe the brain is detecting it's own electrical signal from the future response.

    Sascha, in these test does the guy see the card as it's reveled?
    Never is a long time.
    vongehr
    ESP test usually shield for radio waves, which are anyway classical and do not 'travel into the past'. Revealed means here that the subject sees the card.
    MikeCrow
    Why do you say they are classical?
    Could you not perform the 2 slit experiment with radio waves?
    Never is a long time.
    vongehr
    You can, and you can do it in the bathtub with water waves, too.
    "While it might be an interesting psychological artifact, it isn't something that is particularly reliable for the individual. In turn, this argues against any possibility that it could be an evolved trait, which renders the argument even weaker."

    I agree with your statements above this one, that precognition is really of no huge value to those who have a handful of insignificant episodes, however I disagree with the quoted part. Just because something is less than reliable does not mean is has no value. Our vision and hearing developed from rudementary light and vibratory perception that compared to what we have now would be barely better than nothing at all. But barely *was* better for some, under some circumstances, either helping them find food, breathable water, light, or shadow, to avoid becoming prey. Let us presume precognition does exist in the manner described above. While it is weak, and far less reliable than simple planning ahead, if having it saves a person from death just once in a great while, while not having it causes a person's death much of the time(!), then any genetic causes would over time be strengthened, particularly in a large population like humanity, where local extinctions are unlikely to affect this gene's or suite of genes' existence or prevalence. In fact, one might expect that in some local populations where the gene had gained prevalence, it may have done so because of the deaths of other groups who had little or none of that gene present. That would explain why every human group known has the concept of having a precognitive experience.

    As far as quantum entanglements, which I am looking forward to reading about, I had been under the impression that it was thought that positively charged particles are moving "forward" through time, while negatively charged particles are moving "backward," but since we live in the matter part of the universe (as op to the antimatter part), our positive particles are larger, and being more massive, pull their constituent atoms forward, with the drag of electrons allowing us to sense this motion, and its trending direction. We may literally be getting information passed backward in time via electrons present in our brains either in both settings (future and now), or by a transmission of a quantum state between two electrons entangled with each other not at different points in space, as has been proven to exist, but rather, to be entangled at different points in time. If space-time is a foam that surrounds and presses in on us, that completes the picture, and it would eventually become easier to literally predict the future, perhaps even develop technology to view it, and the past.

    Gerhard Adam
    Regardless of how you want to interpret it, you cannot possess information that, by definition, doesn't exist yet. 
    While it is weak, and far less reliable than simple planning ahead, if having it saves a person from death just once in a great while, while not having it causes a person's death much of the time...
    This is an argument claiming that "precognition" is a currently evolving trait, which makes for an even weaker claim, since arguably it would have been significantly more useful in the past. 
    We may literally be getting information passed backward in time via electrons present in our brains either in both settings (future and now)...
    This is an argument for the most stringent of deterministic arguments.  It is a contradiction to the fundamental claims of quantum physics.  If "information" were being passed backward in time, then one can only conclude that the "information" in question is incapable of being modified.  This makes the future completely pre-determined.  In addition, for this to occur, the argument must include the fact that the information is available prior to an event occurring [since it is being passed backward in time].  That means that in our "flower pot" example, we have to conclude that the physics that would result in the pot falling have already "conspired" to make it fall without the conditions for this fall to be present (and thus predictable).
    Mundus vult decipi
    vongehr
    Gerhard, you made a good point: "Precognition" does not apply if the effect itself is felt in the present. Such is prediction based on the present. That is why I started with discussing terminology. ESP and precognition make only sense as unfortunate terms that are about the paranormal (relative to what we happen to know as normal today). Once we know what the sense is, it is not extra-sensory anymore. Once we know what the effect is, you could insist on a description where this effect is put in terms of present-to-future causation. Once we know the paranormal, it becomes normal.

    Would you be satisfied if one points out at the beginning of an article that all this precognition/premonition/presentiment stuff is better called "paranormal prediction" and then use that term henceforth?

    Apart from this terminology issue: Your argument is pre-quantum. The future equals a parallel world that happens to be somewhat further along in cosmic time. That parallel world is already in superposition with ours.
    Although an effect (the trigger of the presentiment say) would be in the present and thus in a sense not from the future by definition, this is only classically watertight. Probability is the frequency found in records (memory/laboratory log). In a many world interpretation (MWI), it is sufficient if there are more future worlds remembering having felt the correct presentiment. The past worlds are equal in number, half feeling that heads will come up, half feeling tails. There may be no "effect" to be found in those past worlds at all (not even some parallel world interference). Nevertheless, if you do the study, you may find yourself with high probability in a world where the laboratory log shows significant effects. This is precisely how physics finds violation of Bell inequalities!
    MikeCrow
    I think that's what I was trying to suggest :)

    If there is an effect to be found, I think it could be used to study the branches of our 'local' parallel universes. You make a good point, flipping a coin, will make a different kind of branch as a 1 in 5 card turn would.

    I also want to suggest that a higher emotional state, might elevate the state of neurons, making them more responsive to the slight nudge of a signal.
    Never is a long time.