Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Sophistic Musings on Premonitions

Yesterday at work we had an electrician in our garage repairing an overhead light. At one point the guy needed someone to hold the flashlight for him, and our maintenance man was at lunch, so I lent a hand. While he stood on a short ladder, working over his head, in my mind I very clearly saw him fall, land on his hip, and lie there moaning in pain. This morning, I arrived at the office to find our maintenance man telling everyone about how the electrician fell, hurting his hip badly.

I used to get premonitions all the time as a child, knowing for example, the night before any of our numerous pets died. As I got older, I’d always know a few minutes before one of my parents, for no apparent reason, would awake in the middle of the night and walk toward the kitchen (which adjoined the den). This trick came in handy as girls and illicit substances tended to be consumed or fondled in the middle of the night, in the den adjoined by the kitchen, he said in the passive voice….

As an adult, I’ve had several “mini-premonitions,” and a couple of actual premonitions. A good example happened during an all company meeting (about 300 people) in which the company held a random drawing for a set of four business class upgrades. As soon as they mentioned the drawing, at the start of the all-day event, I knew that I’d win them. And indeed I did at the end of the day. I knew it like I know this laptop will fall to the ground if I drop it. An odd feeling indeed.

I don’t quite know what to make of this. Certainly confirmation bias plays a huge part in most of the “mini-premonitions” as they tend to focus on things that are likely to happen anyway. I also distinctly recall other equally visceral premonitions that did not come true, again pointing toward confirmation bias when my premonitions do “come true.” Moreover, the Law of Large Numbers tells us that, statistically, most folks will have premonitions that come true, if they stop to think about it long enough.

Nevertheless, for me at least, a distinct feeling accompanies the experience of having a premonition. It’s most similar (if it can be said to be similar to anything at all) to what it feels like when you suddenly remember an important appointment you have completely forgotten. One minute you’re sipping mojitos on a beach in the D.R. thinking of nothing more taxing than whether to snorkel before or after lunch, the next minute everything changes as the insidious and absolutely undeniable truth that you forgot to attend a meeting with your boss the day before you left on holiday explodes in your mind. Not that that’s ever happened to me, of course.

My guess is that when you have a premonition what is actually happening is your subconscious suddenly fits what was until a moment ago random bits of disparate information into a pattern, and this pattern indicates something extraordinary is about to happen. The fact that premonitions “feel” different than normal thought processes leads me to believe that the mind is experiencing something different and unusual. I just think that this different and unusual thing is the sudden and perhaps surprising apprehension of a new pattern. Of course, you might interpret what that pattern means incorrectly, or you might even be seeing a pattern when none is there; hence “false” premonitions.

So in this sense, I think premonitions are potentially useful. Maybe if I’d told that guy he should be a little more careful, he wouldn’t have fallen yesterday. If I had a premonition of a loved one dying (thank god I haven’t), I’d certainly phone them, and that’s not such a bad thing. I’m not sure what I’d do if I had a premonition of my jetliner crashing just before I boarded it. Probably get on anyway and chalk it up to my only intermittently housebroken fear of flying - either that or my subconscious looking for an excuse to get loaded during the flight. And that’s not such a bad thing.


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