Nonfiction

Do We Have A Sixth Sense?

21 March 2016

Have you ever sensed that something bad was about to happen? Have you ever had a dream come true?

We have five senses. Taste. Touch. Smell. Hearing. Sight. It’s common sense, right?

Maybe not.

The belief that some people are gifted with a sixth sense has been around for thousands of years. From oracles in the 6th Century to self-proclaimed psychics in the 21st.  

The sixth sense is an umbrella term for a multitude of phenomena that scientists have termed Extrasensory Perception (ESP).

Dean Radin, a research psychologist, maintains that our hunches can foretell the future.  

Radin conducted a controlled laboratory study where participants sat before a blank computer screen with electrodes attached to their hands, monitoring physiological changes. When the participant clicked the mouse, a randomly generated image – either calming or disturbing – was displayed. This sequence was repeated forty times.

Radin’s study revealed that participants’ bodily changes occurred before the images were shown. This showed that people quite literally do get gut feelings.

Similar studies claim that there is surmounting evidence for the sixth sense. However, Radin’s findings are inconclusive and his method erroneous. His study relies on comparing physiological states and different methods of calculating such changes can yield wildly different results. Not to mention that physiological reactions vary greatly between individuals.

Almost all psychic phenomena has been dismissed by vehement skeptics.

Perhaps the sixth sense is merely a convenient explanation for our strange, anomalous experiences. We seek to make sense of the world but when something seems beyond inexplicable – we turn to the paranormal.

Or it may be that science has yet to catch up to our understanding of the sixth sense.

Researchers at Frieberg University conducted an experiment to attempt to explain that feeling of being stared at.

The feeling of being watched is familiar – you may be on a bus, buying your groceries or waiting for a lecture. Sure enough, when you turn around, you identify the culprit in an awkward and disconcerting moment of eye contact.

In this study, two volunteers sat in different rooms and one stared at the other via CCTV. The second ‘stared-at’ volunteer was hooked to electrodes which recorded the electrical activity of their skin. Dr Schmidt stated in the British Journal of Psychology that “there was a small but significant effect”.

Skeptic, Professor Richard Wiseman from Hertfordshire University, argues that this can be attributed to our memory bias. “The number of times your turn around and find someone not looking at you far outnumber the times when you do.” But you tend not to not remember those moments as distinctly.

Psychic dreams are harder to explain.

A young girl from Aberfan reported that in her dream, “[she] went to school and there was no school there. Something black had come all over it!” The next day, a huge amount of material from a coal mine swept across the town of Aberfan in a landslide, destroying a school and killing 116 children.    

Scientists aren’t so bold as to claim they can explain every instance of ESP. But several psychological factors contributing to these extraordinary occurrences have been identified.

Selective attention, for one. Those uncanny coincidences when a friend happens to text just as you’re thinking of them seem utterly inexplicable. We often think of our friends.

And our friends text us regularly. But we hardly remember the times when those two occurences don’t overlap.

Secondly, our memory is notoriously unreliable – just imagining a past experience can trick us into thinking that it really happened.

This is a major crux for alleged precognitive dreams. We can render “memories” of psychic dreams to befit the event that they were supposedly precognisant of.  

Moreover, our brains are naturally wired to spot patterns.

People with an affinity for pattern-spotting draw connections between unrelated thoughts and events and are more likely to believe in ESP. Sensation-seekers are also more likely to report paranormal experiences.

Science has a lot to say on the subject of the sixth sense.

Namely, that it does not exist.

But we do have a sixth sense – perhaps not in the supernatural sense. And maybe even a seventh, eighth and ninth sense too.

The five senses we learn about in school provide a simplistic understanding of how we perceive. There’s subitising (our ability to quickly estimate numbers – i.e. there are 300 fries on my plate), balance, pain, thermoreception and so on.

Drawing distinctions between our senses seems illogical, since our worldview depends on the interaction of many senses.

When it comes to our senses, it’s all a bit nonsensical.

No amount of scientific evidence will be enough to sway those who hold a fervent belief in the sixth sense.


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