Here's an interesting article in the New York Times, entitled "In Battle, Hunches Prove to Be Valuable." The theme is how the neurosciences are beginning to take soldiers' intuitions seriously, and for very pragmatic reasons: "Everyone has hunches — about friends’ motives, about the stock market, about when to fold a hand of poker and when to hold it. But United States troops are now at the center of a large effort to understand how it is that in a life-or-death situation, some people’s brains can sense danger and act on it well before others’ do."
Learning why some soldiers survive in combat better than others is a growing priority in the Department of Defense, and so research funds are beginning to flow.
The cited article reads like an introduction to research I've been engaged in for about 15 years. Except for one difference. Conventional paradigms assume that these intuitions are entirely due to subconscious processing, forgotten knowledge, implicit learning, etc. These are the usual information-processing explanations for intuition, and some of those explanations are undoubtedly valid.
I've been looking at a more radical possibility -- that some of the truly astounding intuitions reflect our mind's ability to transcend everyday temporal boundaries, and to perceive future events directly.
I call this ability "presentiment," an unconscious, physiological reaction to events that are about to unfold. Specifically, in lab studies I am interested in events that cannot be inferred, outguessed, or anticipated, and where there are no sensory cues to provide hints about the future. The physiological measures I and my colleagues have used include skin conductance, peripheral blood flow, heart rate, EEG, and -- as illustrated in the photo above -- eye movement, blinking, and pupillary dilation.
This line of experiments has been successfully replicated by a growing number of independent investigators, and of the 20 or so studies I'm aware of, nearly all have shown effects in the predicted direction. About half of those studies report statistically significant outcomes.
The most common critique of these studies is that a form of the gambler's fallacy might explain the results that we see. This is because these studies involve sequences of repeated trials, some randomly containing calm or control trials, and some containing emotional or stimulus trials. After a few calm trials in a row, most people will start to worry that an emotional trial might appear next, and this rising anxiety might be mimicking, or as the critique suggests, might be what I've called presentiment. My colleagues and I are of course aware of this possibility, so we have looked for evidence of this sort of rising anxiety in the physiological data. So far, none of us have found any indication that such an explanation is viable, so the "presentiment effect" still stands.
My current work is focusing on understanding presentiment in the brain. We're studying how patterns of electrical brain activity are influenced by different types of future events, and how different forms of attention training modulate presentiment effects.