Psychic Abilities

Aberfan is a town in Wales that few people, even in the U.K., had heard of before 1966. Then disaster struck, haunting people’s dreams—including, apparently, dreams preceding the accident. A mountain of material from a coal mine had become soaked from heavy rains, and on the morning of October 21, a landslide swept into town, hitting a school and several houses.
Twenty-eight adults and 116 children died. A psychiatrist named J.C. Barker put out a call for people who’d had premonitions of the event. He received dozens of letters in which people described dreams of avalanches, children, and the name Aberfan. Most strikingly, the parents of one girl who’d died in the accident said that she’d reported a dream just the day before her death: “I dreamt I went to school and there was no school there,” she’d said. “Something black had come down all over it!”
According to a Gallup poll, two in three Americans believe in or aren’t sure about ESP, a category of phenomena that includes precognition, remote viewing, and mental telepathy. Scientists can’t explain away every particular instance of presumed ESP, but they’ve identified broad psychological forces at play. One is our selective attention. You probably think about your friends a lot, and they probably call you a lot, but when those thoughts and calls overlap we note a coincidence, ignoring all the times they don’t overlap.
We also have unreliable memory. Just imagining a past experience can create the false impression that it really happened, so memories of “precognitive” dreams can be twisted to fit the event they were supposedly precognizant of. And then there is our egocentrism. Research shows that we find coincidences involving ourselves much more surprising than identical coincidences involving others, because we feel we’re somehow special. (Yes, I know, you really are special.)
Another phenomenon that relies on coincidence is the sense of psychokinesis (PK), or mind over matter. Brisk sales of the book The Secret, with its “law of attraction,” whereby picturing an outcome attracts it to you, demonstrates our hunger for and credence in PK. Rhonda Byrne, The Secret’s author, reports that she cured her eyesight and lost weight just through wishful thinking.
One set of studies by the psychologist Emily Pronin and colleagues revealed a bias to believe in mental causation even among Ivy League students. They were convinced that they’d caused another student’s headache by sticking pins in a voodoo doll and that they’d influenced the outcome of the Super Bowl just by watching it on TV and focusing on the plays.
Pronin argues that apparent mental causation relies on the same rules of thumb we use to assess causation anywhere. Typically, if event A happens before event B, if there are no other obvious causes of B, and if A and B are conceptually similar, A appears to have caused B. This line of thinking applies automatically, even if event A is merely a thought.
As with most forms of paranormal belief, people who do not feel in control of their lives are more likely to believe in precognition, perhaps because to accept premonitions is to think that the future is already laid out for you, without your input.
Peter Brugger, the head of neuropsychology at University Hospital Zurich, has found that the people most likely to believe in and experience mind over matter and precognition are pattern-spotters.
They’re more likely to see briefly-flashed strings of letters as words and jumbled images as faces, and they’re faster to come up with a word that forms a conceptual bridge between two other words.
The experience of ESP or psychokinesis first requires seeing a connection between a thought and an event.
People high in sensation-seeking— those who search for novelty and exciting stimuli—also report more paranormal beliefs and experiences. Perhaps they’re drawn to the idea of a world inhabited by mysterious forces.
So, being a pattern-finding sensation-seeker means you’re more likely to experience odd coincidences in the first place, and then more likely to entertain unconventional explanations for them. A one-two punch.

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