Are We Superhuman? Part 2 – Precognition

Could your brain have the potential to predict what will happen in the future?

In the first installment of the series, Part 1 – Feeling the Future, we touched upon the easier to swallow concept of predictive anticipatory activity (PAA), known to the psychic community as presentiment.

It almost seems logical, even expected, that a system that potentially employs quantum principles- your brain – would be capitalizing on phenomena that could aid your survival. But if I said to you that your brain may have the potential to make accurate predictions about what will happen in the future, as opposed to the generalized physiological PAA premonitions indicating something will happen, you might think this is taking things a step too far. No?

Well, it’s not too far for some scientists, who are boldly exploring waters teaming with shrewd scientific sharks ready to chew up and spit out their work. In 2011, one of the most notorious scientific supporters of precognitive phenomena, Cornell University’s Professor Daryl J. Bem, urged researchers to attempt to replicate his time-reversed experimental findings, in order to create a database that as it grows, will increasingly allow for a more scrupulous analysis of precognition research.

Now, in 2014, Bem and colleagues have published a meta-analysis based on this database that included 90 experiments from 33 laboratories across 14 different countries involving 12,406 participants. The analysis yielded an overall positive Hedges’ effect size, albeit relatively small, in favor of the theory that a persons’ cognitive and affective response in the present can be influenced by events in the future that are yet to occur. This was coupled with pretty strong statistical significance (p=1.3×10-11) indicating that the experimental results are not due to chance. But are they due to precognitive thought? Now, that is the real question.

Let’s take a look at the experiments themselves, which were of ten main types, all aimed to test for the existence of the time-reversal of four well-established psychological effects:

  1. Approach/avoidance experiments: The first set of experiments were, in essence, standard presentiment studies, with a cognitive twist. Instead of simply detecting whether a randomly presented image is emotionally and physiologically arousing, in this case sexually arousing, before it is revealed, test subjects had to guess which of two curtains the picture was behind. A time-reversed effect was considered present when the subject was able to correctly identify the location of the image more often than chance, with the effect only observed for emotionally arousing images.
  2. Affective priming: Traditional priming experiments involve using a briefly flashed positive or negative word, e.g. beautiful or ugly, prior to viewing an image and asking subjects to judge as quickly as they can whether a picture is pleasant or unpleasant. When the image and the word are of the same valence (both positive or both negative), we make a correct choice quicker, than if one is negative and the other positive. To time-reverse the experiment, the priming word was shown after the participant made their choice. As priming effects are associated with specific changes in brain activity, extending this experiment to include fMRI analysis would prove very enlightening.
  3. Habituation: This involves repeated exposure to an emotionally arousing stimulus, be it an image, word or sound, resulting in subjects having a dampened emotional response to the stimulus (habituation). To time-reverse the experiment, the session comprising of stimulus familiarization by repeated exposure was performed after the level of arousal was measured from seeing the stimulus for the first time in a single exposure session.
  4. Facilitation of recall: Put simply, random words are displayed which have to later be recalled. Half of the words are repeated (e.g. typed out) in a practice session. In standard experiments the practice session occurs before the recall session, and in time-reversed experiments the practice session occurs after the recall session.

If we put any methodological and interpretational caveats aside and we take the results for face value, all experiments tested for time-reversed psychological capacities. However, most of the experiments were fast-thinking experiments, with the only slow-thinking experiments being of the facilitation of recall type. All of the fast-thinking experiments are quite easily explained by the more palatable PAA phenomenon. Slow-thinking experiments on the other hand, that involve specific details of future events, are clearly more in-line with the concept of precognition.

Interestingly, while the meta-analysis presented a strong effect size for fast-thinking experiments, the slow-thinking experiments achieved a negligible effect size, failing to achieve even a conventional level of statistical significance. Notably, of the 29 slow-thinking experiments included in the analysis, analyzing the 15 that were exact replications of Bem’s experiments (i.e. with minor if any modifications) resulted in a statistically significant effect size comparable with fast-thinking experiments.

All in all, the measured effect does NOT definitively correlate with precognitive slow-thinking. Instead, the results support theories of fast and instinctive retrocausal thinking far more readily, and quite easily aligns with PAA theory. Even meta-analysis of Bem’s results performed by other researchers lead to the conclusion that people may be able to feel the future with strongly valenced emotional stimuli, i.e. presentiment, but did not go so far as to consider precognition.

And even if we consider that all of the modified facilitation of recall experiments had negatively skewed results, remembering one or two words slightly better than expected is nowhere near as grand as psychics’ claims of conjuring up visions and precognitive dreams. So don’t go running for your crystal balls just yet.

Alone, these experiments might not have us believing we have the psychic powers of Professor Xavier, but collectively they certainly warrant further investigation. We may find that all of the experiments suffer from the same fatal flaw, producing false positive results, as some skeptics propose. Further developments in experimental design are undoubtedly needed for theories to be more widely acknowledged, or indeed debunked.

Nonetheless, the progression of research into time-reversed psychological phenomena thus far is impressive, especially with such overwhelming opposition in the scientific community. It is not unrealistic to assume that with a few more years of avid research we shall finally reach a paradigm shift, and enter a world where psychic capabilities like precognition get a modern makeover, or are left for tricksters, dreamers, the gullible and fairy tales.

Whatever holds true, as Lewis Carroll’s Queen in Alice in Wonderland quite aptly put it: “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards”.


Bem, D., Tressoldi, P., Rabeyron, T., & Duggan, M. (2014). Feeling the Future: A Meta-Analysis of 90 Experiments on the Anomalous Anticipation of Random Future Events SSRN Electronic Journal DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.2423692

Bem DJ (2011). Feeling the future: experimental evidence for anomalous retroactive influences on cognition and affect. Journal of personality and social psychology, 100 (3), 407-25 PMID: 21280961

Rabeyron T (2014). Retro-priming, priming, and double testing: psi and replication in a test-retest design. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 8 PMID: 24672466

Rouder JN, & Morey RD (2011). A Bayes factor meta-analysis of Bem’s ESP claim. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 18 (4), 682-9 PMID: 21573926

Schwarzkopf DS (2014). We should have seen this coming. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 8 PMID: 24904372

Image via Nikkytok / Shutterstock.

Carla Clark, PhD

Carla Clark, PhD, is BrainBlogger's Lead Editor and Psychology and Psychiatry Section Editor. A scientific consultant, writer, and researcher in a variety of fields including psychology and neuropsychology, as well as biotechnology, molecular biology, and biophysical chemistry, you can follow her on Facebook or Twitter @GeekReports
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