A Trick of the Mind

Our brains can fool us into thinking we have psychic powers

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 Prince 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.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

33 thoughts on “A Trick of the Mind”

  1. We lived half a continent away from my grandparents for about half of my childhood. One day I was goofing around in the kitchen and the phone rang. On the first ring, before Mom picked up the phone, a sudden, odd, cold, dark feeling came over me and I heard myself (seemingly involuntarily) blurt out “Grandma”. On the other end of the line was my mom’s brother, calling to inform her that their mother had passed.

    I don’t know what that was, and I’m pretty skeptical about claimed psychic abilities, but it seems possible that there might exist some sort of quantum effect between people who have strong emotional connections to each other.

  2. You’ve probably also forgotten many insignificant times that you gave a passing thought to the then-alive colleague. The time he ended up dead stuck in your mind for obvious reasons.
    I have had many premonitions of the death of my aging dog that were false alarms. I had had similar premonitions with my earlier aging dog. When he finally did die, I had not had a recent premonition. If my current dog dies shortly after a premonition, that will surely be a coincidence.

    1. You’ve probably also forgotten many insignificant times that you gave a passing thought to the then-alive colleague. The time he ended up dead stuck in your mind for obvious reasons.

      That is a good point. Essentially, what happened was a 1 in 100,000 event (or whatever) and I took no note of or forgot the other 99,999.

  3. Happens to me all the time — although not about the death of someone so much. Usually it’s just a name, and then later THAT VERY SAME DAY, I come across a news item about that person or another a mention by somebody else. It’s very spooky. I believe the technical term for this is “coincidence.” And, I’m pretty sure, the arcane and mysterious power governing this phenomenon is referred to as “probability.” I am drawn to conclude that I spend way to much time allowing my mind to wander and free associate (seems to go along with reading blogs too much), thereby generating so many names. Some of the “coincidences” are quite weird, and I enjoy the psychological feeling they induce. Maybe some day this will happen with a number that will bring me millions from Powerball. It would all still be psychological but I would probably succumb to mysticism at that point.

    1. An epigram of Gertrude Stein’s: An accident is when a thing happens. A coincidence is when a thing is going to happen and does.

      1. Most apposite. Isn’t there a military one something like once is coincidence, twice is enemy action?

        1. And then there’s the famous witticism of George W. Bush: Fool me once, shame on – shame on you. Fool me – you can’t get fooled again.

  4. I was walking down the street
    When I thought I heard this voice say
    “Say, ain’t we walking down the same street together
    On the very same day?”
    I said, “Hey, senorita, that’s astute”
    I said, “Why don’t we get together
    And call ourselves an institute?”

  5. I am not a skeptic of psychic phenomenon on principle.

    I am a skeptic of psychic phenomena on principle, for much the same reason I am a skeptic about the existence of God. As described, ESP isn’t consistent with known physical laws – for instance, if ESP is some kind of physical phenomenon, the transmission of information should decrease with distance, but as your story shows, people don’t envision ESP that way. And if it’s not a physical phenomenon, I think Occam tells us that it’s probably not a phenomenon at all.

    Haldane reminds us that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose. So who can say? But I’d bet with standard science on this one.

    (I was thinking about this exact phenomenon earlier today while I was driving to work in rough weather. I was, for some reason, flashing on an image of being involved in a nasty car accident. I drove carefully and didn’t encounter any problems, and I reminded myself how often I have random thoughts that aren’t borne out by events. But if I get t-boned on the way home, y’all will know that I had a premonition.)

    1. A thought experiment:
      How would evolution behave in a world where ESP exists, and is influenced by genetic factors?

      1. I would presume an evolutionary advantage even to split second in advance precognition (the hungry tiger is going to jump at me from the left rather than the right) and a huge advantage to ESP. Think of the differential reproductive success if you could walk into the bar and know instantly who was sexually interested in you! If that is true, then it should be getting more and more prevalent.

        You could speculate further: Are some people resistant to ESP? If so would that be evolutionary conserved?

        1. “Are some people resistant to ESP?”
          Obviously this MUST be true, because nobody is able to ESP reliably.
          By Occam’s Razor, it must be an evolutionary defense that has reached near 100% allele frequency.


  6. To me, the important question is where in Washington were you having lunch with your now-deceased colleague?

  7. There have been many major events which the professional psychics failed to forsee; SFAIK they were all taken by surprise when Princess Diana died. The sudden deaths of other celebrities have also gone unforseen by the tabloid psychics.

    But I have a premonition that Olivia de Havilland is not long for the world, and that she will have gone for a Burton some time in the next ten years.

  8. Five years ago, I woke up on Black Friday morning with an odd thought in my head: “I never got nunchuks* when I really wanted them as a kid. I think I would like to own a pair of nunchuks.” Now, I was well past the age where I regularly pined for martial-arts weapons, and I hadn’t thought about nunchuks in years.

    A few hours later, a friend dropped by and said, “hey, I got part of your Christmas present early.” I need not even mention what he was holding.

  9. “We have solid scientific evidence that the human brain is capable of extraordinarily mysterious feats (e.g., synesthesia)”

    I’m unclear what qualifies synesthesia as a “feat”, rather than a “condition”. It certainly isn’t something you achieve.

    1. I believe this is an instance of the longstanding practice of using teleological language to describe the natural world. Much as a doctor would talk about, say, your immune system fighting off a disease, as if your white blood cells thought about it at all. Philosophically-suspect usage? Sure, but I’m not pedantic enough to get worked up about it.

      1. I think you’re missing my point. Even if it WERE something somebody did deliberately, I don’t think having your senses screwed up so that you see sounds would be worth calling a “feat”. It’s about as “featy” as an occular migraine.

        1. Correct that is not really the point. But neither is the point what you say it is. The true point is this: An interesting discussion was underway but you chose (as usual) to pick one trivial aspect of the post to try to start a fight.

          I really wonder why it is hard for you to just engage in respectful dialogue with other human beings as peers instead of always seeking a way to criticize, one up, be better than other people, be angry etc. It is degrading to civil discourse and it is also just a sad and lonely way to relate to your fellows on this planet.

        2. I’m with you, Brett. Seeing sound isn’t much of a feat. Practically anyone can do that by simply dropping some acid and cranking up the tunes!

  10. ‘Most people, sometime in their lives, stumble across truth. Most jump up, brush themselves off, and hurry on about their business as if nothing had happened.”
    — Winston Churchill

    Voila. Otra vez.

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