“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”
There’s a simple experiment that you can do at home that illustrates one way people might convince themselves that they have psychic powers.
You’ll need two identical containers that you can put hot water in, two identical cups, and someone to assist you. Fill the two containers, one with hot water and one with cold water. Now sit silently with your back turned while your assistant pours one of the containers of water into one cup, and then pours the other container of water into the other cup. Make sure they do this without revealing the order they do this in. Also make sure you’re sitting far enough away that you don’t get splashed on or feel the heat rising off the hot water. Now try to guess which one was hot and which one was cold water.
The surprising thing is that most people find they can correctly guess which is which; however, they can’t quite explain exactly how they knew it. Usually people describe simply having a sort of gut feeling about which one was hot.
Logically, this may seem like proof that the subject has some sort of clairvoyance or psychic abilities. If done properly, the subject hasn’t accidentally been given any clues by their assistant, and hasn’t seen any steam rising or felt any heat from the hot water, yet, they know which one was the hot water. It seems like the subject has picked up some kind of information from an extrasensory source.
Proponents of supernatural explanations will probably be disappointed to learn that there’s a perfectly straightforward natural explanation here. It turns out that the sound of hot water being poured is slightly different from the sound of cold water being poured. It’s a fairly subtle difference; subtle enough that that most people don’t even realize they sound different.
Even though the subject hasn’t gone to the trouble of memorizing what hot and cold water sound like, they’ve heard the two sounds so many times that they have formed an association somewhere deep in their brain between the sounds and the temperatures of the water. They probably don’t even consciously know that hot water being poured sounds different than cold water being poured, but when they hear the two sounds they get a weird sort of tingly gut feeling telling them which one is cold and which is hot.
How do we know this is the real explanation, and not that people have legitimate psychic powers? Well, fortunately that’s a proper scientifically testable thing to wonder about. We have two hypotheses:
- Subconscious inference: Your brain has heard hot and cold water being poured enough times that it knows the difference, even though you can’t consciously describe the difference. There’s enough information in the sound you hear for your unconscious mind to make a correct inference about the temperature of the water.
- Psychic powers: You know the temperature of the water through a means other than your usual senses. The temperature of the water comes to you through some other mechanism such as “spiritual energy”, “auras”, or “psychic vibrations”…or something like that.
To test these hypotheses we just need to conduct an experiment. Have a friend pour the hot or cold water again, but this time prevent yourself from receiving any information about it from any of your ordinary senses including, of course, your sense of hearing this time. Maybe sit in another room with headphones or really good earplugs. Then have your friend randomly choose which water to pour (using some good source of true randomness.) Repeat this trial many times, and record how often you’re right.
If your ability to guess the water’s temperature disappears as soon as you can’t hear it anymore, this strongly supports the subconscious inference hypothesis. The lesson to learn is that your brain does all kinds of thinking that you don’t even consciously know about, and this is where your intuitive gut feeling comes from. Amazing, yes, but it’s not supernatural powers.
If your blinding is done properly and you can still consistently guess the temperature of the water significantly better than chance, then you’ve discovered some evidence that supports the psychic powers hypothesis, and you might have some sort of mysterious powers. If you do, you should claim the million dollar prize offered for demonstrating this kind of ability. You might also want to carefully and diligently ensure you’re not still fooling yourself in some subtle way, as more than a thousand people, confident they could prove their paranormal abilities are real, have tried to prove it and claim this prize. None has been successful yet.
There are many other examples to be found of people confusing their intuition with supernatural powers. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, he discusses the story of a Cleveland firefighter who, while fighting a kitchen fire, had a sudden gut feeling that told him to get out. He ordered everyone out and moments later the floor of the kitchen collapsed. He didn’t know why he had ordered everyone out, and was initially convinced he had some kind of ESP. It was only later, in a two hour interview with a decision researcher, that he was able to piece together the clues that his unconscious mind had picked up on.
“The fire didn’t respond to being sprayed in the kitchen because it wasn’t centered in the kitchen. It was quiet because it was muffled by the floor. The living room was hot because the fire was underneath the living room, and heat rises. At the the time, though, the lieutenant made none of those connections consciously. All of his thinking was going on behind the locked door of his unconscious.”
Human intuition is more powerful that many people realize, and our brains process a lot more information than just what we think about consciously. Our unconscious minds are always working, observing, making decisions, watching out for danger. There’s a remarkable amount of processing going on in our own brains that we’re not even aware of, but our unconscious thoughts aren’t anything magical or supernatural. Our unconscious mind is subject to the same information-theoretic limits as as our conscious mind is. As far as science is able to tell, we receive information through our senses and only through our senses. If you happen to know otherwise, please claim your million bucks.