Feb 18

Paranormal activity

I did a short interview with an Australian radio show called Ghosts of Oz, hosted by Danni Remali, on Saturday night.  The show focuses on paranormal topics and they wanted to talk about deja vu — they found me by the Scientific American AskTheBrains column.  They assured me that they wanted a real scientific perspective and some information about the brain.  Of course, I was a little worried about pseudoscience, etc., but decided to give it a shot anyway.

I figured I could make the case for the experience of deja vu as related to a benign misfiring in the brain of a feeling of familiarity — creating a sudden feeling of familiarity even during a new experience.  The idea is based on neuropsychological research by Martin Conway with patients who experience this phenomenon constantly (due to FTD), That seemed to go over ok, I just needed to be careful to say it was a normal experience for healthy participants and did not imply anything wrong with the brain.  It’s more prevalent in younger people as well, for what it’s worth.

On the fly I realized that there is a nice point to make about implicit learning and awareness.  The fact that we have knowledge and some processing happening outside of awareness, that could very likely create the sense that we have some additional mysterious cognitive capacity.  A flash of intuition based on implicitly learned environmental patterns is functionally indistinguishable from a precognitive event.  From this, I tried to make the case that some experiences that get called “paranormal” may simply reflect the fact that the brain is more complex than we realize — we really are smarter than we know.

It felt like a nice way to make contact with the more positive aspects of the show/host’s approach to “spirituality” without endorsing any pseudoscience.  Overall, I think the conversation went well.

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