Precognition: More Scientific Than You’d Think

You’re probably heard of precognition. The word, of course, comes from the Latin “pre-” meaning “before” and “cognition,” meaning knowing or perception. The idea that humans can somehow “know” the future before it happens is everywhere–it’s the subject of ancient myths, modern TV dramas, numerous careers, and…government-funded scientific research?

That’s right. I was surprised myself to hear that our government is still funding empirical study of “psychic” abilities. And not just in a “Men Who Stare at Goats” way, either–there are now scientists who use sophisticated computer software and rigorous methodology to empirically test whether or not humans are able to predict the future with a higher-than-random rate of success.

Last night’s episode of Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman addressed two different studies suggesting that precognition does, indeed, exist. I’ll discuss these, as well as my own personal experience with precognition here.

Through the Wormhole is, by the way, possibly the best thing to happen to public science programming since Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. It has covered everything from the evolution of life on Earth to questions about God with evidence rigorous and comprehensive enough to satisfy my tastes, which is hard to do. Go learn more about this amazing series here:

Anyway, Prof. Emeritus Daryl Bem of Cornell University put together the most striking study. He gave participants the following test: Two curtains appear on a computer screen. One of them will have the curtain drawn back to reveal an image. You, the participant, must guess which curtain will reveal the image. The computer will randomly choose which side to display the image on five seconds after you make your choice. If precognition doesn’t exist, the success rate should be an even 50%.

But instead of a 50% success rate, Bem found something fascinating. His test subjects scored an average success rate of 53.1%–only when the images they anticipated were erotic in nature. For non-erotic images, they scored only 49.8% successes, well within the expected range. A 3.1% deviance might not sound like much, but this is huge; if any empirically measurable precognition is going on, this completely alters our understanding of time and the brain’s abilities. Also, it breaks time.

The specificity of the effect for erotic images also makes a surprising amount of sense. From an evolutionary standpoint, it would be logical to assume that precognition only “evolved” if it could give you a reproductive advantage. Sensing danger might be a great way to do that, but so might the ability to sense the possibility of sex.

And Bem’s research isn’t the only to suggest that predicting the future appears not only to be possible, but to actually happen in current reality. Dr. Roger Nelson, former Coordinator of Research at Princeton University’s Engineering Anomalies Research laboratory, now devotes his time to the Global Consciousness Project. The GCP seeks “meaningful correlations in random data” by analyzing output from a network of random number generators around the globe.

This sounds pretty weird. What could random number output possibly have to do with the ability of humans to predict the future? Well, Nelson and his colleagues at the GCP believe that consciousness is not restricted to humans–that it is in fact an inherent property of the universe, of which humans are merely a part.

I don’t understand Nelson’s results as well as I understand Bem’s straightforward experiment. From what I’ve been able to gather, the GCP’s network of random number generators showed a statistically significant trend of ever-increasing numbers during the time window from ten minutes before to four hours after the attacks of 9/11/2011. Analysis shows that this fluctuation had a 2.8% chance of happening randomly–well within the realm of possibility, but still, the graph (below at left, courtesy of is striking.

Nelson theorizes that the universe has consciousness in such a way, and that human consciousness communicates in such a way, that the emotional energy of humans (apparently including their precognition, since the time window starts before the planes even hit), actually altered the functioning of the computer’s random number generators worldwide. A bold claim. Perhaps–or perhaps not–bolder than the evidence he presents.

But the 9/11 date resonates with me. Why? For a combination of two reasons: for one, this finding makes no sense. Several natural disasters have claimed far higher death tolls since 9/11/2011, yet this event is the only one that has caused a statistically significant change in random number generation. And two: the GCP’s results mirror my own (very limited) personal experience with precognition.

Let me explain. I am a pretty hardened scientific skeptic. But if I have one experience in my past that I am utterly at a loss to explain through science, it’s the evening of September 10th, 2011.

Around 10pm on 9/10/2011, I began to feel that something was wrong. The only way I can describe is that I knew, in the same way you know the contents of a sentence on the page in front of you, that something in the world was going horribly wrong. And that there was nothing I could do about it. I knew at the time that I had no reason to believe this; I was not anticipating any catastrophic events in my personal life. Yet the knowledge remained, as clear as the nose on my face.

I recalled having heard that some people and animals could pick up shifts in the Earth’s magnetic field before an earthquake. After that I had to talk myself out of calling the USGS to tell them I thought there was going to be a massive earthquake somewhere populated in the next 24 hours. I knew they wouldn’t do anything about such a call, but I still almost made it. I don’t quite recall how I got to sleep that night.

Stranger still, I know of at least two other people who experienced inexplicable premonitions of their own. A classmate recounted to me how she had suddenly found herself thinking intensely about the history of the Middle East and burst into tears in class minutes before the first plane hit. A business partner of my father who typically breakfasted at the cafe on Trade Center’s top floor recounted to us how his wife had begged him to break his routine that morning for no reason she could put her finger on.

I should also note that all three of these are people who, so far as I’m aware, had not made prior claims to precognition. Their experiences appear to be real events that took them completely by surprise. After my own experience, I spent a few years getting nervous whenever I felt nervous; I was afraid my anxiety may have been portended another catastrophic event. But I never had an experience of clear knowledge with zero outside stimuli before or since.

If 9/11 really did register so widely in the “global consciousness,” that doesn’t make any sense at all; it shouldn’t be the strongest event, even in the first decade of the 21st century, in terms of emotional impact or death toll. The “Christmas tsunami” killed almost ten times as many people a few years, and that apparently didn’t show up on the radar in the same way as 9/11. But does that make the whole thing less convincing, or more? The fact that we don’t quite understand what’s going on here, that this phenomenon does not behave in the way we’d expect, may be an indication that we are truly observing an outside phenomenon.

Now, a very quick note on the physics involved; it’s actually not shocking to suggest that something could travel backward in time. We know that spacetime is a fabric, and we know that it can be bent; we know that “ripples” in space and time generated by stellar explosions can be detected on Earth. It’s not utterly outrageous, then, to suggest that some sort of influence could spread through time, radiating both forward and backward from an event.

What is quite revolutionary is the suggestion that our brains could have some mechanism for detecting these. If such a mechanisms exists, if our brains have even the smallest capacity to know things before they happen, we could well learn to augment that capacity in the future.

I personally am going to wait for more data before I render judgement about the reality of precognition. But knowing that there’s evidence pointing both ways is huge; it opens up a whole new frontier that was previously thought to be utter nonsense and physically impossible. If the brain really can perceive ripples from the future, who knows what other widely discounted abilities might turn out to be real?

What do you think?

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3 Responses to Precognition: More Scientific Than You’d Think

  1. K. Howard says:

    Very interesting article! I’ll be following your blog more often. Anyway, I wanted to comment on the fact that 9/11 resonated more in the human consciousness than the natural disaster a few years later. My theory, and this is just a theory from a non-scientific individual, is that perhaps because 9/11 was caused by humans, and was indeed thought about for quite some time. Therefore, it would have already been in the collective human consciousness, granting others to perceive it. Natural disasters aren’t considered for months at a time before they happen, unless the planet itself has a consciousness, but current evidence seems to suggest otherwise.

    • kagmi says:

      That is an interesting perspective! Perhaps other humans may indeed have picked up the “vibes” of the planners, or some similar kind of interaction.

      I had my enthusiasm checked somewhat by an economist friend of mine who pointed out that both of these results are really within the realm of chance–the random number correlation has less than a 5% chance of happening randomly, which makes it “statistically significant” by established norms, but the arrangement does have about a 1 in 35 chance of happening randomly. Likewise, the curtain experiment, although its results are, again, in the realm of “fairly unlikely,” did not have enough test subjects (only 100 of them) to truly rule out the influence of chance.

      Still, I think this definitely warrants more research! Better to research the subject than to assume we already know the answer. And of course I have a very hard time dismissing this because of my own single, bizarre experience. I’ve sometimes thought about how that could be chalked up to random coalescence of thoughts and feelings in my mind creating an illusion, but I’ve never before or since had a situation where I was actually considering calling the USGS to report an earthquake warning!

  2. Lisa Sinervo says:

    I had my own 911 dreams prior to this event but they were mostly about how I felt about the day. I have an idea about ow precognition could work with dreams and the mechinism in this model is the differences in the speed of one’s brain waves when they are sleeping vs when they are awake. If not this model, there will be another, because the phenomena keeps happening.

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