Australian survey finds people can reliably detect a change in surroundings, even if they cannot accurately describe it
If you can eerily detect the presence of unseen people or have prescient knowledge of danger, it may be disappointing to learn that scientists have ruled out the existence of a “sixth sense”.
A year-long University of Melbourne study, published in the journal Plos One, found that people could reliably detect a change in their surroundings, even if they could not accurately describe what that change was.
However, the research concluded that this was not due to any kind of supernatural ability, but rather from cues picked up from more conventional senses such as sight.
Researchers presented pairs of photos of a woman to 48 different people. In some cases, the appearance of the woman in one of the pictures would be different – such as a different hairstyle or the presence of glasses.
The pictures were shown to the subjects for 1.5 seconds with a one-second break between them. The people were then asked whether a change had occurred and, if so, to pick the change from a list of nine possibilities.
The results showed that while the subjects could “sense” a change had occurred, they could not verbalise what it was. While this confirmed to some subjects that they possessed a sixth sense, or extrasensory perception, researchers said it showed there was no such ability.
“What people were doing was processing information that they couldn’t verbalise but were picking up on, often subconsciously,” Dr Piers Howe from the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences told Guardian Australia. “It’s a bit like an abstract painting – it doesn’t depict anything you can label, such as a sea or mountain, but you can still get a lot of information on what’s going on.
“The information was enough to tell them that a change had occurred, because they could tell the picture was more crowded, but not enough to say what that change was. Many believed they had a quasi-magical ability even though we had set them up.”