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Where the Illusion of Psychic Powers Might Come From

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Humans build cognitive models by taking in the world and learning how to interpret the input. Children learn language inductively by listening to their parents and other speakers, gradually building up their comprehension and productivity. That strategy never fades — we all take in information about our surroundings and use it to make judgments.

Of course, the world is a busy place, so our brains avoid taxing our cognitive resources by learning what is safe to ignore. The vast majority of sensory inputs never reach our conscious minds, but our brains process environmental inputs and use them to guide our thoughts. This result isn’t surprising on an anecdotal level, given that we all have insights and “feelings” that we can’t pin to a specific input. What’s interesting is how Piers D. L. Howe and Margaret E. Webb from the School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne tested this “knowing without knowing” process.

Howe and Webb presented subjects with 1.5-second glimpses of one photograph, followed by a one second blank gap, and then another 1.5-second look at another photograph of the same person. Some pairs of the photos were identical, but some had subtle differences, such as hair position, clothing change, and so on. Subjects were asked if the photos were identical or different. Even though the differences were subtle and exposure relatively quick, subjects were able to detect that the photos were different even though they were often unable to articulate the difference.

The authors conclude that this “knowing without knowing” process could explain the “sixth sense” phenomenon, where individuals seem to gain information without specific input. Their article, published in the online journal PLOS ONE, provides significant evidence in favor of the theory that our subconscious processes information in a way that lets us make decisions about situations and individuals without understanding why we had those thoughts.

This result is exciting, but also a bit sobering. Security professionals have long known that their instincts serve them well. If something “just don’t look right” (JDLR), even if they can’t articulate why, they should pay close attention. Situations change, though, particularly in social settings so we have to be on guard against mental models that bias us against groups or situations where no threat exists. It’s a tough balance, but it’s all part of being human.

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