Around seven years ago, Garrett, was in a local Pizza Hut with his friends, having a day so ordinary that it is cumbersome to describe. He was 16 – or thereabouts – and had been told by teachers to go around nearby businesses and ask for gift vouchers that the school could use as prizes in a raffle. There were five other teenagers with Garrett, and they’d just finished speaking to the restaurant manager when suddenly, out of nowhere, Garrett’s his body was flooded with shock. He felt cold and clammy and had an “overwhelming sense that something had happened”. He desperately tried to stop himself crying in front of his peers.
“It was like I’d just been told something terrible,” the now 23-year-old from the southwest of England says (his name has been changed on his request). “I couldn’t tell you exactly what it was, but I just knew something had happened.” Garrett returned home and tried to distract himself from a feeling he describes as grief. The phone rang. His mum answered it. A few hours earlier – around the time Garrett was in the restaurant – his grandfather had died from a sudden heart attack while on a cruise.
Although there’s no way of knowing how many people worldwide feel that they “sensed” a loved one’s death before being told, it’s a phenomenon that’s been explored in everything from Star Wars to Downtown Abbey to Kung Fu Panda 2. Perhaps one of your own relatives has a story similar to Garrett’s – perhaps you dismissed it, perhaps you treat it as family lore. Is there any evidence to suggest this phenomenon is real – that humans can sense one another’s passing from a distance, that Garrett’s emotional afternoon was anything more than a coincidence? In a word, no. Meanwhile, it is well documented that the human mind is a bundle of bias: false memories, grief hallucinations and confirmation bias can easily explain these experiences. Besides which, for every person who feels a shiver when their loved one dies, there are hundreds more who were quietly eating pizza or happily riding a rollercoaster or bored doing maths homework completely unaware of their loss.
But are these dismissals too quick? Too easy? Some scientists claim that the complex world of quantum physics could be used to explain the paranormal (other scientists say they’re unbelievably wrong.) What can stories like Garrett’s tell us about what we do and don’t know? What we are and aren’t willing to believe? About the disconnect between what some claim to experience and others claim is impossible?
Brian Josephson is your prototypical professor. With tufts of white hair atop his head, a knitted vest and a glasses chain keeping his specs safe, he says via Zoom that, “The academic community is a kind of club. You’re supposed to believe certain things and you run into problems you disagree with.” In 1973, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for his work on superconductivity. Later, during his time as a professor at the University of Cambridge, he began using quantum mechanics to explore consciousness and the paranormal.
Quantum entanglement – nicknamed “spooky action at a distance” by Albert Einstein – describes the (proven) phenomenon of two spatially separated particles influencing each other, even over large distances. While the phenomenon is subatomic, academics such as Josephson have theorised that quantum entanglement could explain phenomena like telepathy and psychokinesis.
“There are many accounts of crisis telepathy,” says Dean Radin, a parapsychologist and author of Entangled Minds: Extrasensory Experiences in a Quantum Reality. “Does entanglement explain these effects? No, in the sense that entanglement as observed today in the physics lab, between pairs of photons, is extremely fragile and typically lasts only minuscule fractions of a second. But also, yes, in that we are at the earliest stages of understanding entanglement.”
Radin says studies in quantum biology show that entanglement-type effects are present in living systems (academics from Oxford have successfully entangled bacteria) and he believes the human brain could in turn have quantum properties. “If that is subsequently demonstrated – I think it’s just a matter of time – then that would go a long way towards providing a physical mechanism for telepathy,” he says.
Put down your pen, scrunch up your letter to the editor. You only need an explanation for telepathy if you believe in telepathy in the first place, and experiments purporting its existence have been widely debunked. Josephson and Radin are regularly criticised by peers. In 2001, when Royal Mail released a set of stamps to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prize, there was outrage when Josephson wrote in an accompanying booklet that quantum physics may lead to an explanation for telepathy. In this very newspaper, academics branded the claim “utter rubbish” and “complete nonsense”.
When reviewing Entangled Minds for The Skeptic’s Dictionary, philosophy professor and professional sceptic Robert Carroll wrote that Radin’s book was “aimed at non-scientists who are likely to be impressed by references to quantum physics”.
Garrett has no idea what happened to him on the day his grandad died, but he is certain that it happened. He believes in some kind of “interconnectedness” between people. “I think if it’s happened to you, then there’s an underlying accepting of it,” he says.
This is a sentiment shared by the self-described “naturally sceptical” Cassius Griesbach, a 24-year-old from Wisconsin who lost his grandfather in 2012. Griesbach says that he “shot awake” on the night his grandad passed and began to sob uncontrollably. “It felt like something just rocked me, physically,” he says. When his dad called moments later to say his grandad had died, a teenaged Griesbach replied: “I know.”
Griesbach doesn’t blame anyone for being sceptical of his story. “The further you get away from it, the more I would like to write it off as a coincidence,” he says, “But every time I sit down and think about it, it feels like it’s something else.” Griesbach is “not super religious” and doesn’t believe in ghosts. “ If it is something to do with actual science, I would think that would be science that we are nowhere near yet, you know?”
Many would disagree, arguing that the answer lies in the social sciences. In 2014, Michael Shermer married Jennifer, who had moved from Köln to California and brought with her a 1978 radio belonging to her late grandfather. Shermer tried in vain to fix it before tossing it in a drawer, where it lay silent until the couple said their wedding vows at home months later. Just as Jennifer was keenly feeling the absence of her grandfather, the radio began to play a romantic song. It continued all night before it stopped working for good the next day.
“It’s just one of those anomalous experiences,” says Shermer, a science historian, professional sceptic and author of The Believing Brain: from Spiritual Faiths to Political Convictions. How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. “Randomness and chance play a big role in life and in the world, and our brains are designed to see patterns not randomness.” Shermer argues that experiences like Garrett’s and Griesbach’s are statistically more likely than we think.
“You have billions of people worldwide having dozens of dreams [each] at night,” he says. “The odds are pretty good that on any given night, somebody’s going to have a dream about somebody dying who actually dies. That’s inevitable.” At the same time, he argues, we ignore all the times we suddenly sob or shudder and it turns out that no one’s died – or the times when someone does die and we don’t feel anything at all.
There are other prosaic explanations. While Garrett’s grandfather’s death was sudden and unexpected, Griesbach’s grandfather was hospitalised the week before he died, when he shot awake in the middle of the night, Griesbach’s first thought was, “It happened” – he knew his grandfather had passed. But is that surprising when he’d spent a week by his bedside?
John Bedard, a 36-year-old in Los Angeles, woke suddenly on the night his parents died. He was 10 and sleeping at a friend’s house when he awoke, “just knowing something was wrong”. He called his brother, sobbing. When his brother picked him up, he told Bedard their parents had died in a motorcycle accident.
And yet, there were clues that “something was wrong” much earlier. The sleepover wasn’t planned – Bedard had gone to friends to play when “it started getting later and later” and nobody came to pick him up. It was a Sunday night – an unusual night to have a sleepover. Bedard was uneasy when he went to bed.
Despite these answers, explanations continue to be toyed with. Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist and parapsychologist who conceived of “morphic resonance”, the idea that interconnections exist between organisms. He believes the human mind has fields that stretch beyond the brain, much like electromagnetic fields. This, he says, explains why we can seemingly tell when someone behind us is staring at us, or why we sometimes think of someone right before they call. (Sheldrake’s work has been called “heresy” in the journal Nature.)
“I’m not talking about the supernatural; I think these things are totally natural. I think they’re normal, not paranormal,” he says. When it comes to experiences like Garrett’s, he says empirical studies are impossible. “You can’t ask somebody to die at a randomly selected time to see if their nearest and dearest respond… So unfortunately, the evidence for cases to do with death has to be circumstantial.”
Shermer is not a Sheldrake fan. “The idea that a biologist like Rupert Sheldrake is going to uncover some new force of nature that somehow Einstein and everybody else has missed… is just so unlikely to have happened, that almost any explanation like the ones I’ve been giving you are way more likely.” Josephson’s rebuke of such criticisms: “People say that [science is] always subject to revision and yet they’re secretly convinced that certain things can’t happen.”
What can and can’t happen doesn’t change what many feel has happened – Garrett, Griesbach and Bedard all believe something strange and unexplainable occurred when they lost their loved ones. At the very least, these stories undeniably offer comfort.
“As far as looking into it, I don’t even know what there is to look into,” Griesbach says – after all, the phenomenon doesn’t even have a name. “I think the best thing that we could do for people is validate how they feel and let them grieve. Because whenever people have that happen, they’re also grieving. That is one of the most important times to just be a kind human to somebody.”