Monday, March 16, 2009

Psychic Moments, Soothsayers, and Computerized Mind-Reading

by Julia Buckley
I wrote to my friend John Dandola this weekend saying that I dreamed I went to his anniversary party, and that he had three sons (he doesn't) who sang for him and his wife at the celebration. There was more bizarre detail, and I mostly e-mailed him because it was funny. He then wrote back that it was odd I'd contacted him just then, because he'd been thinking about me a great deal, and this last week in particular.

Moments like these send me back to my questions about the human brain and its potential for mind-melding. Have you ever had those moments where you are about to call someone, and your phone rings, and it's that person?

The best example I have of the mindreading thing goes back to my early days of teaching, when I was fresh out of the wrapper and working in a Catholic school. The little old nun in charge of the AV equipment was named Sister Theresa Rose, and she was very sweet. I once went into the AV lab to sign out a VCR for my class. I had lately been plagued by some unexpected and severe back pain, and I was worried about it, since I was only twenty-something and not prone to this sort of thing. However, I hadn't really told anyone about it. When I entered her domain on this day, Sister Theresa Rose looked at me and said, "Oh, Julia, I've been thinking about you! I had a dream that you were suffering from sciatica."

That's just one example, of course, but it's always stayed with me because I believed at the time that she, a spiritual person, had tapped into something in me.

Interestingly, scientists believe that mind-reading is something that can be done even by computer, and in fact it is being used more and more in the detection of crime. There are Orwellian implications of this, but it certainly would go far to answer some of the mysteries that have, in the past, remained unsolved. According to this Newsweek article, when a witness is being 'read,' "The detective is careful not to mention the murder weapon. Once the suspect has conjured up the scene, the detective asks him to envision the weapon. Pay dirt: his pattern of brain activity screams "hammer" as loud and clear as if he had blurted it out."

The article also suggests, though, that people's mind patterns are remarkably similar: "If what your brain does when it thinks about an igloo is almost identical to what mine does, that suggests the possibility of a universal mind-reading dictionary, in which brain-activity pattern x means thought y in most people." This, then, would allow a computer to read minds by noting brain activity on a brain scan. But is it also what allows people to "read" each other's minds? Or must we believe that every time we have seemingly psychic moments, they are coincidental?

There is, after all, the concept of intuition, which has always existed. How did ancient people define it? In honor of the date, I'll reference Shakespeare's famous soothsayer in Julius Caesar, who warned Caesar to "Beware the Ides of March." Was he acting on intuition? Shakespeare called him a "seer," and many ancient Greek plays reference this idea. How then, did the seers get their ability? Can anyone tap into this phenomenon?

And my final question for the day (geez, all prompted by one innocent e-mail!) is: What have been your experiences with "psychic" moments?


Sandra Parshall said...

I've had countless incidents in my life when I've been thinking of someone for the first time in years, then will either hear from that person or read something about him/her. Yet I'm hopeless at finding objects I've misplaced. :-) I do believe in extra-sensory perception. I just wish I knew how to harness it for a practical use!

Julia Buckley said...

Me, too, Sandra! It seems like that elusive resource that we should all be able to tap.

But I'm with you on the lost things.

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