This happens to me once in a while. I feel like the best way to explain it is through examples.
I was laying on my couch this morning, drifting towards sleep. If you can imagine the state where your body is totally relaxed, and your thoughts are focused on pleasant shifting images, that’s where I was at. And then the phone rang.
My experience of the ringing phone was as follows: First, I felt startled. And then I heard the sound of the ringing phone. It was as if in the instant before the ring, I felt a sensation shock my whole system into alert mode. The atmosphere, both in pressure and sound-volume, seemed to go down for a split second while this happened, right before the loud “brrr-rrr-rrr” of my telephone.
If I were to guess at how far ahead the feeling preceded the sound, I would say 30 milliseconds at least, and 200 milliseconds at most. This will be important later.
I do have one hypothesis to explain this on its own. Well two, but the second might make me sound crazy.
The first hypothesis is that there is a mouse quiet sound preceding the ring that I am subconsciously aware of but have not noticed in my conscious experience. That would allow my body to condition itself over time, Pavlov style, to react when my ears pick up the faint sound of my telephone’s speaker powering on (does that happen?) to emit the harsh ringing sound. It seems possible.
My other hypothesis is that when the base of the telephone emits energy to communicate with the handset, my body is somehow aware of that happening. But I doubt it.
Now my second example.
Earlier today, a friend lead me to read the lyrics of Eminem’s “Rap God”. I submit that I have no memory of viewing this song’s lyrics or title, but that doesn’t mean I’ve never heard it at some point in the past. And that could matter. See if you can figure out why while you read the example.
While reading the lyrics on the bright glowing screen of my iPhone, I had the strange sensation that I was speaking the words before I read them. Which should be impossible.
I would guess the delay between speaking and consciously reading the words was at least 80 milliseconds at one moment. As with the couch story, keep this guesstimate in mind. But for now, let me put it this way: I literally said some words before I was aware I was looking at them.
My speculation about this one is as big of a stretch as I’ve ever made to explain something. But there are people out there who will look at this and say, “Yeah, it’s plausible.” (I might disagree with them later.)
I said earlier that I might have heard the song before, despite not having a conscious memory of it. My elementary and highschool days were spent with friends who listened to rap and hip hop, but I was never interested. But the way brains work, it is possible that I heard Eminem rapping the verse in passing and remember it subconsciously, even if there is no link to its title.
That could have been enough to clue me in on what words came next, since rap is a bit like a linguistic jigsaw. If you have a small hint at the picture ahead of time, there’s only so many ways to put together the pieces. (In fact, that on its own might be enough to fit the right word into my mouth when reading rap as good as Eminem’s.) But there’s something else I know that would explain both story perfectly.
For those of you who follow neuroscience, this will be old news. You might already be pointing at the screen and smirking. But for those of you who don’t, hang on to your seats.
Researchers have showed that a person’s decision between chocolate and vanilla ice cream is measurable at least 200 milliseconds before the volunteer becomes consciously aware of their choice. That means the scientists could accurately predict your decision before you knew you made it. I read this a long time ago, but as I recall the researchers could detect decisions as much as two whole seconds before a conscious choice was made.
This aligns with what I have believed for years – that our subjective experience is a vast simplification of reality.
It also perfectly explains the two stories told above, if you consider that our perceptions probably aren’t rendered with perfect timing. A sensation might happen early of your perception, or late. Even now I can summon memories of this happening in the opposite way – an observation with a delayed feeling. Think back to a time when something awkward happened, and you didn’t notice immediately. In that case, the sensation arrives after the perception. So why couldn’t it happen the other way too?
If anyone has their own experience of “reaction-preceding-perception” to report, or knows what its called in psychology, let me know.
Update: I was wrong. The detected delay wasn’t 2 seconds. It was 7.
(See article here, 2nd paragraph after “On the button”.)