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How Do I Explain Psychic Powers?

Subscribers to the Brainpower Newsletter ask me about psychic powers from time to time. I suspect that my responses disappoint them more often than not, because I am a skeptic. I just haven't seen a single supposed "psychic" prove his or her powers in a truly and properly controlled test. On the other hand, this does not mean that I doubt the experiences people have. I just don't see the evidence for the explanations that most prefer.

How do I explain these experiences then? Mostly I don't. I happen to think that when we don't understand something it is better to wait for more information than to invent explanations. But I'll get more specific and show you my approach. I recently received an email from a subscriber who had seen a number in a dream and woke up to see the same number on his clock. He said he is normally a skeptic, but in addition to that he had another experience with a song he was listening to and the name of the group, "Girl Talk," was used (in another context) on the front page of the paper he picked up immediately after hearing the song.

He wondered about his dream predicting the future (seeing the time he would see when he woke up a moment later), and other experiences he called synchronicity. He essentially asked if I believe in these things or have an explanation for them. Here is my answer:

My Non-Explanation

I've had similar experiences and several dreams that seemed to either predict the future or see what was going on somewhere at the time. I don't have an explanation.

I could speculate that in your case you may have been half-awake and seen the clock without remembering that when you completely woke up thirty seconds later. It might be possible that we have a better internal clock than we realize and so our brains can calculate the time using the last viewing of a clock hours earlier. I could probably think up another hypothesis or two.

As for events that seem to be synchronicity, consider the actual odds. If you hear a song, for example, what are the chances of shortly afterward seeing or hearing something related? We never specify beforehand what we will consider synchronicity, so the related event or thing could be words from the song, a photo of the singer, the name of the singer, or any of a dozen other things that would be seen as "strange coincidences." With all those possibilities the odds are probably only one in a thousand of having some seemingly unusual experience.

"Only" one in a thousand?" you might ask. Yes, those are pretty good odds considering that in a given day you are hearing songs, choosing clothes to wear, eating a certain food, and so on. There are hundreds of mini-events and things that could be followed by something related that seems strange. With that many possibilities and only a thousand-to-one odds against many of them, it is surprising that we don't have such experiences several times weekly with no need to explain this as psychic power or synchronicity.

This is about the math. For example, if I wrote down a number between 1 and 1,000 and asked you to guess what it is, you might be very surprised if you got it right. But what if I asked 50,000 people who lived in the same city? About 50 of them would probably guess right and though many of these might think they're psychic, this would just be a normal outcome according to the odds. In other words, a thousand-to-one event can happen pretty often, especially when you give it hundreds of opportunities daily.

Consider the classic "synchronicity" of calling a friend at the same time he or she calls you. In my experience this happen more to teens. Is this evidence of more psychic power in adolescence? More likely it is because they call each other more often. Eliminate times when people don't normally call each other, like late night, early morning, and while they are at work or school, and you see that the times one or the other is likely to call is actually fairly limited. Now consider the number of calls made back and forth over the weeks or years during this limited time and you see that the odds of trying to call each other at the same time at some point become pretty high.

After all that I have to repeat that I don't actually have an explanation. All I'm doing here is speculating, and in fact I've had my own experiences that don't fit these types of speculations. My point here is to show that it is just as easy to invent more rational sounding explanations as to call things psychic or imagine how those "forces" might work. Yet we tend to lean towards more interesting speculations and towards explaining in general, even when we have no real data or evidence for any particular explanation.

My solution to this is to simply acknowledge the experience and in answer to the questions say, "I don't know." It is something we should probably say more often, since it is often the only honest answer - as much as we don't like it.

I wouldn't ignore the experiences, though. After all, whatever the real cause is, perhaps you could eventually learn to use these intuitions in some way. I think we should use whatever "tools" we can, even if we don't understand them.

By the way, many years ago I slept on a hard, uncomfortable floor just so I would wake up numerous times to record my dreams. The results were interesting and included two dreams that seemed to predict the future or "see" what was going on in another part of the house at the time I was sleeping. Again, I have no explanation.

This interruption of sleep to record dreams (I used a small cassette recorder) showed just how many dreams I was having in a night - there were nine that I took notes on. The exercise also suggests that if we could remember more we might see more synchronicity or whatever we call it. I'm not sure if there is a way to make this useful or not, or if it is repeatable.

In any case, I remain open minded, but skeptical of "psychics," who have never proven their skills in any controlled and unflawed study that I am aware of. Psychic powers? I don't know that the word has much meaning other than "I don't understand but I want a fun explanation."

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