Some people claim to have a sixth sense — an ability to innately sense imminent danger or the presence of an unseen person. But scientists now say there's a more reasonable explanation after discovering that people can reliably detect a change in their surroundings — even when they can't see or explain what had changed.
A number of people claim to be able to sense changes directly with their mind, a phenomenon known as extrasensory perception, or a "sixth sense." They can do this, they say, without having to rely on the conventional physical senses like vision, hearing, taste, smell and touch, or the senses that go beyond the standard five.
But new research out of the University of Melbourne shows that, while people can reliably sense changes they could not visually identify, this ability does not have to be attributed to ESP or a sixth sense.
For the study, which was led by Dr. Piers Howe from the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences, participants were shown pairs of color photos, both of the same female. In some cases, the photos would vary, such as a different hairstyle. Each of these images were observed for about 1.5 seconds with a one second break inbetween. Once all photos had been observed, each participant was asked if a change had occurred and, if so, to identify the change from a list of nine possibilities.
Results showed that each person was good at detecting a change even though they couldn't say, exactly, what had changed. For example, observers noticed that the two photos had different amounts of red or green, but they were not able to use this information to determine that the person had changed the color of their hat. The researchers ruled out the possibility that the participants were using some kind of unknown verification strategy or were simply guessing.
So, this isn't a slam-dunk against the possibility of ESP, but according to Howe, this research is among the first to show that people can sense information they cannot verbalize.
A possible explanation for this trait is something called "mindsight" — our ability to detect changes before we're able to identify them. It's conceivable that the brain is somehow (unconsciously) collecting and processing information about a certain scene or layout. Or, in the words of the authors:
[S]eeing (i.e., identifying) a change may involve forming a coherent percept of the object that is changed, a process that would presumably involve attention. Without attention, only the underlying components of the objects, i.e. the features, could be detected which may provide enough information to detect a change, but not enough to allow the observer to identify which object has been changed.
Howe and his team suggest that the purpose of this type of detection is to alert us to the possible presence of a change so that we then know to search for this change using our focused attention.
Read the entire study at PLoS One: "Detecting Unidentified Changes."
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