Seeing the Future and You Don’t Even Know It
The idea of prophecy is not a new one. Various oracles and religious figures throughout history have proclaimed to have some sort of prophetic power. At times, this power is said to stem out of a direct connection to the divine, making the prophet a messenger of God(s). At others, it is a matter of dreaming and visions. Whatever the case, the supposed ability to foretell the future makes these figures very powerful. There is a great and very human anxiety that surrounds the uncertainty of what is coming, so when people hear that there are those that know what shape the future will take, they tend to listen. Of course, whether it is a prophet in the Bible or a psychic on a street corner, there is not a lot of substance backing them up, and most people today –for good cause –will not give their words much thought. But is it possible? Could it be that perhaps the human mind, the vast enigma nestled in each of our skulls, is capable of such divination? I think it may be, and there’s no magic to it. The possibility lies, of course, in the unconscious.
Let me begin by dispelling a popular misconception about the brain. We use all of it. The whole 10% thing is just not true, and as a matter of fact, were any of us only using 10% of our minds, we would not be able to get through a regular day. This misconception has been popularized by the media for quite some time, and I am sure we have all heard from some ridiculous source or another, that with the right training or product, we can unleash the other 90%. That is simply not the case. The reason this misconception has gained so much traction, however, is a valid one, because a large percentage of what the brain takes in and processes happens without our knowledge.
The brain is selective. If the brain were to take in all the stimuli that bombarded it every second, we would go mad. There is too much going on in the world. The colors, the shapes, the sounds, the words. We cannot process it all. Luckily, our frontal lobes decide for us what is important and what is not, allowing us to function normally. Our frontal lobes take up a significant portion of our brain matter, and they take charge over areas requiring higher cognition, such as planning and short-term memory. So, when we drive down the street, rather than remembering the color of every vehicle, we take in what the frontal lobes deem to be immediately important, such as the movement of traffic or the signs on the side of the road. Other neurons still light up, though. Those neural connections, the ones made during the perception of the colors of each car, are still made; the information is simply deemed unnecessary and buried in our minds. The frontal lobes’ executive functions help us make choices by predicting and weighing the outcome, the future. So when you decide to wait to make that left turn because a woman is in the crosswalk with a stroller, you can thank your frontal lobes for not allowing you to run them both over. So I suppose in this small way, we predict the future all the time, but what about real foresight. I mean the kind that makes you feel like you know what you should not, by any reasonable considerations, know at all.
Sticking with the example of driving down the street, a boring but apt metaphor, let us pretend that we were overcome by a ‘hunch,’ a gut-feeling, so to speak, that there was a horrible accident ahead. Now pretend that we find out indeed that the hunch was correct, and two miles ahead you come upon the wreckage. Is it just a coincidence? Maybe. But maybe it is more. Perhaps those details, those stimuli, that your frontal lobes deemed to be immediately unnecessary for your normal functioning, are gathering in the unconscious in such a way that when put together, the disconnected details actually become quite connected and create some sort of conclusive whole. The expressions of the drivers coming down the road the other way. The slight fluctuations of speed in traffic. The smallest of sounds. The recesses of the mind are deep, though, and so it cannot simply spit out conclusions reached at by the higher functions of the unconscious, especially because the conscious working memory of the frontal lobes requires foundation for its conclusions. It works causally. So a hunch cannot emerge as a calculated prediction because the calculations occurred without our knowledge. Maybe this is where prophecy finds its roots. Maybe what is called mere intuition is –at times anyway –more than what it seems.
Could it be that our unconscious minds, behind the impregnable curtain put up by our frontal lobes, are constantly at work ruminating over the insignificant stimuli that enter it? Trying to make sense or use of what the frontal lobes deemed senseless or useless? If dreaming, as many believe, is the raw expression of the unconscious mind, then might not some dreams actually have within them images that allow us to “see the future”? Of course, then, we get into the interpretation of dreams, which is another matter altogether.
I suppose the catch of telling the future thus is that most “premonitions” would be of insignificant outcomes, outcomes that have no bearing on our lives at all. If our conscious mind is deeming the stimuli to be ‘forgettable,’ then the sum of those forgettable parts is probably forgettable itself. Maybe, though –and I say maybe with emphasis –there are times when the sum of forgettable things equate to something impressive, something usable. Professional athletes with their seemingly unnatural reflexes. Geniuses. Visionaries. There is a correlation that researchers are witnessing, giving rise to a theory regarding the emergence of savantism as a result of injury to the frontal lobe, which allows for information that is usually discarded to remain in the conscious mind (link to articles below).
All this being said, the mind is quite a difficult thing to investigate, seeing as our tool for said investigation is the very thing in question. It seems that there is contained within our skulls a vastness akin to that of the cosmos entire. I am no neuroscientist. I do not believe that prophets can speak for the divine or even that the divine speaks at all. I do not believe that psychics can look at your palm and see anything more than wrinkles and dead skin. I do, however, believe that within the uncertainty that runs rampant in the human psyche, there may be forces at work which now seem wildly senseless to us.
What do you think? Can we tell the future? Should we? Do our conscious minds impede us from doing so because it is simply unnecessary, or do they impede us because a working knowledge of the future would have too much of a negative impact on our regular behavior? Neuroscientist or not, I want to hear what you think.