Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Towards a theory of Precognition

Precognition, the alleged ability to see the future, perhaps spontaneously and uncontrollably, is a form of anomalous perception and anomalous cognition (AC). Perception of the present is clairvoyance, perception of the past includes psychometry, time slips and hypnotic regression and Perception of the future is known as precognition (PC).

Precognition may be conscious or unconscious, spontaneous or induced in a number of ways. Spontaneous conscious PC cases may be explained in terms of selection bias – people remember only dreams that came true, misinterpretation, unconscious adjustment of memories or a form of cryptomnesia where the witness had information that could have been used to predict the future event but had forgotten it and then created a dream or vision that was interpreted as a premonition. Some PC skeptics will try to explain PC in terms of clairvoyance or telepathy – explaining one anomaly in terms of another possibly less mysterious.

Spontaneous unconscious PC may manifest itself in impulse behaviour that avoids a bad outcome or results in a good outcome. Or it may result in presentiment, a feeling that prompts a change in behaviour. It may also result in short term changes in, for example, heart beats or the electrical conductivity of the skin. Laboratory experiments have come to rely more on physiological changes and less on reports the participants make when testing for PC ability. Typically these experiments involve monitoring body changes in response to a random stimulus at a future time and seeing whether there is a response to the stimulus before the stimulus is administered. These experiments are similar to experiments in normal cognition but need extra care in design, for example ensuring that the random number generators used are truly unpredictable – typically they involve detecting radioactive decay products which are taken as truly random, an assumption that depends on Bell’s Theorem which rules out hidden variables at the quantum level that might be accessible to the subject’s unconscious mind.

The evidence from experiment suggests a real but weak effect which cannot, at this time, be improved by training but the evidence is not sufficiently compelling to convince skeptics who may also reject Precognition because it raises questions about the nature of time, free will and causality – it is normally considered that an effect cannot precede its cause – and because no mechanism for it is proposed.

Physicists and others have been developing theories of how PC might work, the main focus being on quantum mechanics where the description of nature is symmetric with respect to time at least on the smallest time scales.

The Multiphase Model Of Precognition (MMPC) [1]

Researchers at the Laboratory for Fundamental Research in Palo Alto have developed an interesting model of PC that separates Physics, Neurobiology and Cognition and identify and try to address the problems in each domain. The laboratory president and founder was previously a scientist working with the CIA Star Gate program. Despite a cloud over his role in the project which led to suspicions about the data gathered (2,3) the review that recommended termination of the project admitted a statistically significant effect had been found but noted that the information received, which was to do with remote viewing rather than PC was vague and ambiguous and not good enough for intelligence purposes.

The MMPC is, despite the concerns in the paragraph above, plausibly constructed and references other investigators who appeared to have no conflict of interest and seem to be reliable. The pleasing feature of the theory is its decoupling of the various domains and hence disciplines involved, while the concerns above should prompt a more critical reading of their suggestions.

The authors of the model theorise that entropy gradients, for example those associated with an explosion, are related to how well PC gifted individuals perform on laboratory tests, that there is a “transducer” that maps signals carried from a future time to the time of the experiment into signals within the central nervous system, that cortical processing of the received signal within the central nervous system requires, or at least involves cross modal sensory processing of the sort seen for example in synaesthesia where sounds may be perceived as colours or vice versa and that the cognitive processing of the signals in the cortex uses the same processes as for normal perception. This last assumption means that it will not be possible to distinguish between PC cognitive processing and normal cognitive processing by looking at the behaviour of the brain.

In this model the low incidence of PC ability in the general population is explained by variations in individual sensitivity and efficiency of the presumed transducer and the low incidence of individuals with massive cross modal processing, for example synaesthetes. The last factor is used to explain why PC seems to resist training for excellence.

The MMPC model does not supply a candidate for the signal carrying the information from the future to the past, though they cite other researchers as ruling out electromagnetic waves, or any suggestions concerning the transducer mapping from the Physics domain to the Neural domain. If information is transmitted backwards in time it is impossible to tell when it was received: it could have been received years before the participant entered the laboratory.

The model is rudimentary with few concrete predictions but asserts that PC gifted people may be good at visualisation that those who are good at converting implicit information into awareness may be PC gifted and that PC gifted people may exhibit synaesthesia and vice versa. The search for the transducer is like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack and the other predictions may be hard to test because of the low incidence of synaesthetes, PC capable people and good visualisers in the population. If validated the authors claim it would unite all ESP processes under one model.

Consciousness Induced Restoration Of Time Symmetry [5]

Bierman has produced a model which he claims will unite all ESP processes under one framework.

The problem precognition raises is that while almost all formalisms in physics (excpet possibly thermodynamics) are time symmetric in that any solution of the equations as a function of time holds for negative times as well as positive times. This implies paranormal phenomena are natural and to be expected. But our experience says otherwise. We seem to live in a world where time flows in one direction, the past is inaccessible and the future is not yet created. The cause of this asymmetry is unknown. Simply assuming that the advanced solutions are forbidden is a counsel of despair.

Bierman assumes that when sustaining consciousness the brain partly restores symmetry allowing the advanced solutions, which correspond to negative time with respect to the observer, occur. He does not propose a mechanism for this. By assuming that if a stimulus is presented to a subject at a time t then their physical response, say skin conductance, will show only the standard solution S(t) say but if the stimulus is consciously observed then the physical response will have a contribution from the future (forward wave) solution S(-t).

S = S(t) + A*S(-t)

Where A is defined in terms of coherence as measured from EEG studies and the fraction of the brain involved as measured by fMRI [6]. By assuming A is roughly constant he is able to predict the expected response and generate a simple if cryptic rule: What happens after happens before which can be taken to mean that the past and future mirror each other. He then argues that the advanced part mimics the retarded part, thus if the signal peaks four seconds after the stimulus then the retarded art should peak about four seconds before the stimulus. He cites an unpublished study that showed no presentiment of the stimulus when the subject could not report the content of the stimulus, suggesting that consciousness is crucial for presentiment to occur. He then postulates that the peak is symmetric about the moment of conscious experience, which is about 400Ms after the stimulus with the part of the stimulus that is not consciously experienced not being reflected back in time.

His theory does not allow the past to be changed but allows the future to influence the present. Thus a dream of a house catching fire because of a lighted candle that causes all candles to be removed prevents the fire and so there will be no signal from the future. This in itself seems a paradox and seems to clash with the findings by Cox [7,8] who showed that trains which crashed were less populated than usual and the carriages worst affected were even less populated than usual and attributed that to an unconscious premonition.

Bierman’s model puts consciousness in a primary role in PC, which is in line with increasing popularity of the view that consciousness is intrinsic to reality in Philosophy, Neuroscience and even Physics (see references cited in [7]) It is also sympathetic to a dualist conception of consciousness which is in turn more compatible with the notion of a timeless block universe than with Temporal Realism.

Comparison Of MMPC And CIRTS

MMPC is an aesthetically pleasing model that separates the concerns of Physics, Neurobiology and Cognition. In essence it asserts that information is carried from the future to the past by an unknown carrier. A transducer converts this signal into regular central nervous system signal which are then processed by the cortex and enter consciousness and are then processed in the normal way. Consciousness plays no role in the PC process. The low incidence of PC gifted people in the general population results from differences between subjects in transducer efficiencies and in cortical processing. The authors do not mention the possibility that the transducer, if it exists, is a distributed function of the whole brain rather than a discrete organ, which might align it to the hypothesis that the brain is merely a receiver and filter for a universal consciousness.

CIRTS puts consciousness at the centre of the PC process by restoring symmetry which allows the brain to receive advanced waves. These are then registered by the brain with an efficiency that depends on measurable brain properties.

Both models assert time is real and that it is possible for the future to affect the present but not for the present to affect the past. These results appear to contradict those found by Cox [7,8] and a replication of Cox’s work, or alternatively a demonstration that disasters in urban areas tend to be accompanied by fewer than normal people entering the area of the disaster.

While MMPC is neatly formulated it has two big unknowns: The nature of the transducer and the carrier of the information from the future. As Bierman points out what we see is correlations and, I suggest, unless we can detect the carrier, its existence is merely inferred.

CIRTS appears more sympathetic to a dualist or panpsychic interpretation of the mind body problem which is my instinctive preference.


  1. Rethinking Extrasensory Perception: Toward a Multiphasic Model of Precognition: Sonali Bhatt Marwaha and Edwin C. May
  2. Consciousness induced restoration of time symmetry (CIRTS): a psychophysical theoretical perspective, Bierman, D.J, The journal of parapsychology Volume 74 Issue 2 Pages 273-299
  3. Functional magnetic resonance imaging or functional MRI (fMRI) is a functional neuroimaging procedure using MRI technology that measures brain activity by detecting changes associated with blood flow. This technique relies on the fact that cerebral blood flow and neuronal activation are coupled.
  4. SUBLIMINAL PRECOGNITION” A MODERN CRITICAL REVIEW OF “PRECOGNITION – AN ANALYSIS” BY W.E COX (1956). ADRIAN DAVID NELSON (2013) A review of The original work by Cox since the original was unavailable.
  5. Cox, W.E. (1956). Precognition: An Analysis, II. The Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 50(3), 99-109. The original paper by Cox
About The Author
Trained as a mathematician and physicist the author was a contract software developer for many years working in a number of countries. He is now writing a book on Time which will cover a number of aspects of Time. As a result he is constantly short of time.

When not writing the Author plays Capoeira, takes photographs and administers the family run Bed and Breakfast in Edinburgh, Scotland