Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Do coping strategies look psychic?

Being a super-recognizer could appear like a psychic ability. A super-recognizer (SR) is someone with an exceptional ability to recognize individual human faces. Around 2% of the population have this ability. A SR can remember someone they may have only met once many years before. They may also remember things about that person. This ability to know things about people they cannot normally recall might make SRs appear psychic.

In this week's New Scientist a few more bits of information about this little studied ability were described. For instance, SRs don't seem to be able to visually distinguish objects, other than faces, any better than most people. Also, it appeares that SRs process faces as a whole, rather than concentrating on parts, when recognizing them.

But perhaps even more interesting is that there are also around 2% of the population who are prosopagnosics - they cannot recognise faces at all! And the weird thing is, some people with this condition are not even aware of it. That's because they have unconsciously developed mental coping strategies which mean it hardly affects them. So, they may remember individuals by things other than their face, like their gait.

This is interesting because it means that people with prosopagnosia may have unknowingly developed an enhanced ability to notice things about people that most of us simply miss. This, again, can potentially appear like a psychic ability. Such people may notice a lot about a person they've only just met and be able to deduce much more about them than other people. It's a bit like the way Sherlock Holmes could deduce facts about someone he'd only just met simply be noticing small things in their appearance.

I think many people who believe themselves to be psychic may actually have 'unconscious insight'. That is, they have an enhanced ability to notice things about a person or place that most of us miss. And these abilities may come either from an exceptionally developed ability (like being a SR) or having to cope with a lack of such an ability (like prosopagnosia).

I have personal experience of mental coping strategies. I have a terrible memory which means I have always had problems with exams. There was one occasion where I HAD to pass an exam and discovered, to my horror, I could not answer any of the questions. Once panic had subsided, I looked at one question in detaill and realized I could derive the answer by extrapolating from one of the few principles I could remember concerning this subject. Amazingly, I passed! I guess they gave bonus points for starting from first principles! Since then, I've found that extrapolating from a few known facts is actually quite useful in paranormal research, where definite knowledge in thin on the ground. I'm sure many people use mental coping strategies all the time without even realizing that they are.

One plausible definition of a psychic might be "someone who supplies information, on a particular subject, that they were not previously consciously aware they had". If you accept that as a starting point, it soon becomes obvious that anything that enhances someone's ability to notice and remember things could easily appear as a psychic ability. We all know much more than we can consciously recall at will and, in certain circumstances, this information can reappear unexpectedly, usually in response to some mental trigger. It would be worth studying psychics to test for unusual, but non-paranormal, mental abilities and coping mechanisms. Did I mention I have a bad memory?

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