A long time ago, before cell phones, I was in the house, and some relatives were going to go out and do fun stuff. I was tired, so I declined to join them and instead took a nap. When I woke up, I looked at the time, and I was surprised that my relatives had not returned. I started getting an uneasy feeling. Why were they late? I went about some task I decided to perform in the house, but I could not shake off the feeling that something was wrong. Outside it was a warm, bright, summer day with blue skies, but inside I got the impression that the house had darkened and gotten colder. I tried to distract myself, but I kept looking at the time and my unease kept growing. I started getting the feeling that something bad had happened to my relatives. Perhaps they were involved in a car crash, or something else. As more time went by, my unease started transmogrifying into panic. I began to feel certain that something bad had indeed happened, and the churning of the wheels of destiny became very noticeable all around me. I was having a premonition!
Our culture is filled with stories of how people past and present knew that something had happened or that something was going to happen. These premonitions are hailed as instances where our minds are able to gain knowledge of events that are not yet known or to peer into the future to see events that have not yet happened. Some people are claimed to be gifted in the art of having premonitions, being able to have these events with a high frequency or even on demand, and they are known by many names such as prophets, oracles, mediums, clairvoyants, seers, soothsayers, fortune tellers, spiritualists, diviners, psychics and others. Stories about premonitions range from mere personal and family anecdotes to events enshrined in the holy texts of many religions.
So what happened to me that day? My relatives came back unharmed and we laughed at my freaking out over them being late.
The vast majority of premonition stories can be explained by what are called “selection and confirmation bias”. There are billions of people in this world and a good number of them have these feelings, or dreams, or inklings, or hunches about things that will happen. At the same time, there are multitudes of things both good and bad happening in our societies on a daily basis. It is easy to understand how a few of these premonitions will end up being associated with any of these events.
The vast majority of premonitions are not fulfilled and are forgotten, but (and here is the key) those that are fulfilled are remembered and assigned a special meaning thus consummating the selection bias. As to the confirmation bias, if something bad had indeed happened to my relatives, I could have ended up believing that somehow I managed to gain information of this event in a way that cannot possibly be explained. If I had been an extremely religious person and, for example, had prayed that nothing happened to my relatives, the fact that they came back safe would have reinforced in me the notion that I somehow managed to ward off anything bad happening with my praying.
The most powerful experience related to premonitions is when people act on them and prevent a bad thing from happening. For example, someone dreams that there will be a ghastly traffic accident downtown and convinces a friend not to go to town for the weekend. The friend stays home, and indeed there is a terrible traffic accident that kills several people in the area the friend was planning to visit. These types of premonitions are hailed as indisputable proof that there is something beyond our regular senses that can furnish us with this type of information. Unfortunately, these cases are nothing but mere anecdotes and cannot be accepted as evidence because they don’t rule out that the occurrence was a coincidence.
This is not to say that the brain cannot come up with ideas in a manner that we are not conscious of. Most of us have experienced trying to solve a problem with no success, and then going to sleep just to come up with the solution to the problem in a dream or during the interval when we were walking up. The brain is constantly and unconsciously tallying information and integrating it with experience, and sometimes the end result of this process enters our conscious mind suddenly. For example, a month ago we may have seen some cracks in a retaining wall down the street and forgotten about seeing them because we normally don’t walk by that wall. However, if it has rained vigorously since then, we may wake up one day with the “feeling” that the wall will fall. If the day we get this “premonition” we find out that the wall indeed did fall and killed someone, this is not proof that something supernatural happened. It was just a combination of chance and our brain doing its job.
Despite all claims to the contrary, there is no conclusive evidence that human beings can gain knowledge of events that have not happened or of events that have happened but about which they have received no information in any way. We perceive reality through the specialized receptors that make up our senses. There is no way such receptors can detect the type of events that are involved in a premonition, and not a single instance of the so-called extrasensory perception or ESP has ever been conclusively demonstrated.
For many people whose premonitions have led them to have life-altering experiences, it is frustrating to hear scientists say these things, but it must be understood that, in the absence of a plausible mechanism by which we can gain the information that we allegedly gain when we have a premonition, the bar for proof that something real has occurred is set very high. Demanding this level of proof may strike some people as unfair and narrow-minded, but science is very conservative, and there are real risks in keeping an open mind when dealing with subjects like premonitions. Science is in the business of determining what is possible and what is impossible, and so far the evidence for premonitions has not cleared the bar.
Image of crystal ball from Pixabay by Tumisu is in the public domain.