Brain timing may trick you into delusional thoughts

Have you ever felt as though you predicted exactly when the light was going to turn green or sensed that the doorbell was about to ring? Imagine the possibility that these moments of clairvoyance occur simply because of a glitch in your mind’s time logs.

What happened first — your thought about the doorbell or its actual ringing? It may have felt as if the thought came first, but when two events (ringing of doorbell, thought about doorbell) occur close together, we can mistake their order. This leads to the sense that we accurately predicted the future when, in fact, all we did is notice the past.

In a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, we found that this tendency to mix up the timing of thoughts and events may be more than a simple mental hiccup.

We supposed that if some people are prone to mixing up the order of their thoughts and perceptions in this way, they could develop a host of odd beliefs. Most obviously, they might come to believe they are clairvoyant or psychic — having abilities to predict such things as whether it is going to rain. Further, these individuals might confabulate — unconsciously make up — explanations for why they have these special abilities, inferring that they are particularly important (even godlike) or are tapping into magical forces that transcend the physical world.

Such beliefs are hallmarks of psychosis, seen in mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, but they are not uncommon in less-extreme forms in the general population. Would even ordinary people who mistime their thoughts and perceptions be more likely to hold ­delusion-like ideas?

Using a scale that measures these kinds of beliefs, we asked participants in our recent study questions such as: “Do you believe in the power of witchcraft, voodoo or the occult?” “Do you ever feel as if you could read other people’s minds?” and “Do you ever feel that you are a very special or unusual person?”

To measure the kind of timing errors that might lead people to mistakenly think they predicted an event that they had already observed, we had participants play a game in which they were asked to quickly predict which of five white squares was about to turn red.

Participants could either indicate that they didn’t have time to finish making a prediction before the red square was revealed or claim that they did complete their prediction before this event and predicted either correctly or incorrectly which square would change color.

The square that turned red from trial to trial was selected randomly. Therefore, we knew — although the participants were unaware — that it was impossible to correctly predict the red square with better than 1-in-5 odds. If participants were confusing the time of their prediction with the time that the red square appeared, however, they might think they had completed an honest prediction before their time ran out despite being subconsciously influenced by the color change. In turn, they would think they had made more-accurate predictions than was statistically possible.

As we hypothesized, the participants who were more likely to report an implausibly high number of accurate predictions were also more likely to endorse ­delusion-like ideas in broader contexts. Moreover, we took aims to ensure that these participants weren’t simply lying to us about their accuracy in the game or answering less confidently.

Interestingly, we also found that the connection between timing errors and odd beliefs was specific to the kind of dysfunction we measured, in which people confuse the time of a prediction with the time of a perception. In the same study, we had participants perform a different task in which they simply had to indicate which of two closely occurring events on the screen occurred first. People who were worse at this purely visual task were no more likely than others to agree to our survey items related to unusual beliefs.

Our work suggests that mistiming thought and perception may be one important driver of distorted thinking. Of course, it is only one component of how people might come to develop unusual — and sometimes downright delusional — views about the world. But it offers hints of a new mechanism by which basic deficits in the machinery of the brain involved in time perception might affect some people’s most deep-seated beliefs, and it offers hope that someday we might be able to better identify who is most at risk for psychotic illnesses.

Bear, Fortgang and Bronstein are PhD candidates at Yale University. Tyrone Cannon, a professor of psychology at Yale, contributed to this report.

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