Recently I had an incident in which God saved my neighbor's skull from being crushed. Or perhaps it wasn't divine intervention but visions of the future bestowed upon me by cosmic forces that my subconscious is attuned to and allowed me to save my neighbor from a trip to the emergency room or certain death. But it really drove home the many aspects of perception and the various ways human beings, the wholly irrational creatures that we are, interpret events in our lives. From the mundane to the extraordinary and sometimes a confusion of the two.
While installing a privacy fence on my property, we were hammering a tall piece of wood into the ground to tie a string to in order to get accurate depths on a series of posts. I, being the taller of us, began hammering at the piece of wood which was nearly a head taller than me while my neighbor held it in place. My first thought was of the awkward angle the height of this wood was forcing me to strike it at, but this was an impromptu post we were forced to use so I soldiered on using an old hammer bequeathed to me by my father many years ago. Here is where telepathic aliens saved my neighbor. I began to become fearful of the hammer coming apart and the metal portion flying into my neighbors face, as it surely would if it indeed did come apart. I continued to hammer on this temporary post while trying to shrug off this irrational fear. I couldn't shake it though and figured it must be my mother's obsessive compulsive disorder manifesting itself in me now by latching onto this stray thought of calamity. I struck the wood perhaps two or three times while wrestling with these thoughts and emotions. Suddenly, I could stand it no more and before striking again I inspected the hammer and it easily came apart in my hands. My neighbor and I exchanged wide eyed glances.
In Jonah Lehrer's excellent and highly recommended book How We Decide, there is an account of a Lieutenant Commander Michael Riley of the HMS Gloucester, a British destroyer tasked with protecting the naval fleet in the initial stages of the Persian Gulf War. A fatigued crew kept a keen eye on radar blips and they had to distinguish friendly air forces from enemy missiles. A blip off the Kuwaiti coast heading for the fleet, the USS Missouri to be exact, caught Riley's eye. His initial suspicion quickly turned to fear but he did not know why. This blip was located in an air strip frequently used by American A6 fighter planes returning to their carrier after bombing runs. This blip was traveling at the same speed as an A6 and Riley had watched dozens of A6 return in this manner through their radar. But this was different. Was God telling him something?
To make matters worse, the pilots had made a habit of turning off their electronic identification because it made them more vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire. The planes usually flew at a higher altitude than the missiles, but Riley did not have this information because of a mistake of coordinate input on the equipment that would have provided altitude readings. Riley had to choose between possibly standing by while a missile struck an American battleship or possibly shoot down an American fighter jet. He had minutes to decide and they were up. Riley ordered the object brought down.
It took four hours to confirm whether Riley had killed an American pilot or saved the USS Missouri. Turns out he was a hero for his decision. But what was different about this blip? What made Riley become nervous and fearful? At the time he had no indication as to what was causing his emotions but he managed to make the correct lifesaving decision based upon what at first could have been dismissed as fatigue or irrational fear. After studying the incident, the difference between an A6's return run and this missile's coarse was discovered and it was a very subtle difference. A6 blips appeared immediately on their radar screens while the missile, due to it's lower altitude, appeared a full 8 seconds after coming off the coastline. According to Lehrer, "Riley was unconsciously evaluating the altitude of the blip, even if he didn't know he was doing it".
My old hammer was not in the best of shape and it seems that my unconscious brain was evaluating the structural integrity of the hammer while my conscious brain was concentrating on striking the wood instead of my hands. Something must have stood out much like the 8 second delay of those radar blips. Perhaps some subtle movement that was unnatural for a solid and sound hammer? A part of me noticed and the emotional alarm bells went off alerting me to the problem. And much like Riley saving the USS Missouri from a missile, I saved my neighbor's face from a missile made of 1 pound steel.
There have been many studies showing that the unconscious mind handles quite a lot of information for us unbeknownst to our conscious selves. These calculations can be interpreted as intuition, divine messages, paranormal talents, or "gut feelings". For some people it reinforces their belief in a deity, in others it convinces them that they have some unique talent of extra sensory perception that they find agrees with their ego. And in still others, it emphasizes the wonder and mystery of the brain as well as the promise of unraveling these amazing feats and attributes of ourselves in a scientific context. Science has consistently provided more wonderful, complicated, and more interesting answers than our superstitions and these two cases are no exception. But if I had no knowledge of how the brain worked, or was not a skeptic, or had not read Jonah Lehrer's book, then I could have easily fooled myself into believing that a supernatural explanation was the best one for my feelings of fear that warned me of trouble.