‘Sixth sense’ debunked with simple test

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Piers Howe from the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences has debunked the myth of having a “sixth sense” — also known as ESP — by carrying out what he claims to be the first scientific study proving people can reliably sense changes they cannot visually identify.

“There is a common belief that observers can experience changes directly with their mind, without needing to rely on the traditional physical senses such as vision, hearing, taste, smell and touch to identify it. This alleged ability is sometimes referred to as a sixth sense or ESP.

“We were able to show that while observers could reliably sense changes that they could not visually identify, this ability was not due to extrasensory perception or a sixth sense,” said Howe.

The test, known as a flicker paradigm, involved showing participants a picture for 1.5 seconds, followed by a one-second gap, followed by the same pictures as before, but with a slight change, for a further 1.5 seconds. For example, the first picture might depict a woman without glasses, whereas the second might depict the same woman, but wearing glasses. Participants were then asked to describe the differences they noticed in the pictures, drawing from a list of possible answers.

Results showed participants were good at detecting changes, even when they could not identify exactly what had changed — instead, they reported “sensing” or “feeling” something was different.

This inability to spot specific differences between two images that are identical except for one change is known as “change blindness” and is often the result of obstructions in the visual field, eye movements, a change of location, or a lack of attention. It is this ability to detect changes without being able to identify exactly what has changed that can often lead people to incorrectly believe they have a “sixth sense”.

Written By: Nicholas Tufnell
continue to source article at wired.co.uk

13 COMMENTS

  1. Well we actually have many senses: sight, hearing, touch, pressure, pain, proprioception, thermoreception, static and dynamic equilibrium sensors, taste, smell, blood chemoreceptors, baroreceptors, muscle spindles etc etc. They are all mediated by discrete physical structures in the body. What a surprise that there is no evidence for a “sixth” (or perhaps sixteenth) sense which can operate entirely without any structural receptor.

  2. I came across something similar in one of the Evo Pscyh books I read a while ago and it confirmed something that I always thought but wasn’t sure if it was just my imagination or actually true, namely that we can tell a lot about people from very brief encounters. I’ve always noticed this my first impressions turn out to usually be accurate:

    “we learn a lot about others in a surprisingly small period of time. A large body of research in psychology known as “thin slicing” refers to people’s ability to make judgments about others from small amounts of information, usually from observing someone for short periods, usually 30 seconds to 5 minutes. Judgments about any number of traits have been investigated— extroversion, personality, intelligence, etc.— and the basic results are that people are pretty good at it and that 30 seconds is as good as five minutes. Basically, small amounts of information might be better. In a review article on the subject, two prominent researchers in this area said their result “contradicts the commonsense notion that more information leads to greater accuracy; the additional information might be redundant, or even counterproductive,”

    Kurzban, Robert (2011-01-03). Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind (p. 91). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

    • In reply to #2 by Red Dog:

      I came across something similar in one of the Evo Pscyh books I read a while ago and it confirmed something that I always thought but wasn’t sure if it was just my imagination or actually true, namely that we can tell a lot about people from very brief encounters. I’ve always noticed this my first i…

      And of course, there is the old and strongly held belief that we can tell much about a person’s character from their eyes.

      • In reply to #7 by Sheepdog:

        …we can tell much about a person’s character from their eyes

        Excluding real-time observation of eyes for a moment ~ for judging faces on computer and photos, it’s been suggested to cover the face from below the eyes. I use a piece of paper to make a clean separation, and for me, it works. E.g., a mugshot of someone you would not suspect, until you view the eyes, in retrospect (different from “hindsight is 20/20″). Obviously this is a biased opinion; in general, if a person’s mouth is smiling, perhaps the eyes signal another emotion.


        One study suggests a possible 6S, as it relates to math / quantity computations of the brain.

  3. There is a beer commercial that (to my knowledge) is running in the US. It plays Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” as a music bed and the various iterations demonstrate fans doing crazy shit that they think is “helping” their team win. The tag line is like “It’s only crazy if it doesn’t work.”

    It drives me nuts.

    1. The song is spectacular. It actually is castigating superstition.

    2. It (the commercial) reinforces crazies’ behaviors and validates it.

    This study, while constructive and demonstrative is likely to be lost on the population that has been indoctrinated that holding a beer with the label facing the field helps the kicker make a field goal.

  4. That is interesting. I’m not sure I would have expected people to be able to reliably report that something had changed if they could not also tell what had changed. The few times I’ve seen change blindness demonstrated have surprised me precisely because the subjects had no idea, sometimes even after given a long time to think about it, what had changed between two pictures. This left me with the impression that had they not been told something had changed they would not have known it.

  5. I have a sixth sense that the title of this article greatly overstates the implications of this study in order to increase readership for its website. On second thought, my conclusion is rationally based on the very limited ramifications of the study. (Although I am still sceptical of any “sixth sense”)

    giggity

  6. Although I completely reject the predictive properties of a sixth sense (duh!), I feel that I’m pretty good at lie detection. Perhaps I’m able to pick up on non-verbal cues given off by the liar, or maybe it’s just life experience that informs my judgement. I know that there are tests for these sorts of claims and I’m not confident that I’d show any ability above the norm. However, to the best of my knowledge, I’ve never been taken in by anyone selling a version of the truth that has been found wanting.

    • In reply to #8 by Nitya:

      Although I completely reject the predictive properties of a sixth sense (duh!), I feel that I’m pretty good at lie detection. Perhaps I’m able to pick up on non-verbal cues given off by the liar, or maybe it’s just life experience that informs my judgement. I know that there are tests for these sort…

      But how would you tell if someone believed something they were telling you, yet was false?

  7. Well, I didn’t need 1.5 seconds to notice such a blatant difference.

    Mind you, very often when someone shaves off a beard – usually a man – I don’t notice it for a while, but I think that’s fairly common.

    I’m sure we are capable of intuiting certain things, it’s a part of our evolutionary inheritance and enabled us to predict, prosper and survive in hostile environments; in Feyman terms it’s guessing, but if you keep Ockham’s razor about you, in my experience it surprisingly often turns out to be the right guess.

  8. Regarding our senses, what always amazes me is how good our ability to recognize facial expressions is. You are often capable of identifying if a person is looking at you from very far away. Of course that person might not be looking at you, but in your direction. But, still to be able to recognize such subtle expressions from so far away is just remarkable. I think this might be one reason why people feel like they have sixth sense. We subconsciously recognize subtle reflections, shadows, sounds and other things that might identify for example a person behind you. This of course would have been of great value back in the days where most things that moved were likely to be dangerous predators.

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