Do Your Focus Tools Work? Are You Drawing on Information from the Future?

August 10, 2016
Julia Mossbridge, IONS Fellow

This blog is the 4th installment of a series entitled “Do Your Focus Tools Work?” which can be found on the focus@will website. This installment has been posted here with permission of the author.

I never know how to start this discussion. I meet new colleagues who aren’t in my field, and when they ask what my research interests are, I say “time perception” or “the relationship between unconscious and conscious representations of events in time.” I generally leave out the time-travel part. But that’s what I’m most interested in — how we can mentally travel in time. And especially how we can do this without knowing we’re doing it.

This blog post is specifically about how the scientifically designed audio available at Focus @ Will helps people access future information that we normally think we should not be able to access. But I feel compelled to point out that there is already plenty of evidence that this kind of thing happens, at least in my view, and what I’m after is understanding the circumstances under which such unconscious mental time-travel occurs. In case you want to dig into the science, here’s some (Bem, 2011, Bem et al., 2015, Mossbridge, Tressoldi & Utts, 2012, Mossbridge et al., 2014, 2015). Those are basically a bunch of papers examining a series of controversial experiments seeming to suggest that even though most of us don’t think we can access information about future events — even though we aren’t usually conscious of doing so — in certain circumstances we can. Those circumstances include when it would benefit us to know something ahead of time and/or when we are responding quickly and not thinking too much about a task.

Some scientists think the jury is still out on this work, but I have seen enough data to convince myself that there is truth to it. But what does getting information from the future have do with focus? As I’ve already discussed in part two of this blog series, Focus @ Will seems to put people in a state in which they are prone to keep doing the same task without changing it — a state of task persistence, which is related to flow. And if you’re truly focused on a task, you are also likely in a state of flow — in which timelessness is a central feature. You hardly notice the passing of time, and the time you spend in the task seems to blend into one solid chunk (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996).

If time spent on a task turns into one solid “event” chunk during Focus @ Will listening, maybe information from the future can become easier to access, assuming it can be accessed at all? We performed a pilot test of this idea by determining how Focus @ Will audio influences the ability to access information from the future. As we mentioned previously, new Focus @ Will subscribers did an extended series of surveys and tests. Half of them listened to music while they did this, and the other half listened to their favorite Focus @ Will channel.

The test that examined access to future information was adapted from a task created by psychologist Daryl Bem of Cornell University (Bem, 2011). We know that, except for the most exceptional learners, when we practice memorizing items on a test, we do better than if we don’t practice. Dr. Bem just flipped the order in time, and showed that when people are in a relaxed state, they do better on words that they will study in the future, as compared to words that they will not study in the future. This effect occurred even though he used a computer program that randomized the words that were to be practiced in the future, so it’s not like only the easy words were also the ones to be studied in the future.

However, this effect has been shown to be difficult to replicate (Bem et al., 2015), and the authors hypothesized that this difficulty was due to the fact that in the original task, there was a lot of time for people to think and deliberate about the words when they were being tested on them. They knew that tasks in which people were asked to think and respond more quickly during the testing parts of experiments like these tended to reveal the effect they originally found. So I thought that it might be a good idea to make a quick-responding version of the same task, and I discussed this idea with Dr. Bem, who had been thinking along the same lines. We swapped ideas about the experimental design. The version I came up with is not endorsed by Dr. Bem, however. It is my own version that is not a true replication of his design, as it is slightly tweaked for use with Focus @ Will listeners.

In this version, people were shown 48 words and asked to memorize them. Then they were given a quick-response test for which they had to remember all the words on the list. Then they were asked to practice half of the words, which were randomly selected after the first test was complete (but before any data were analyzed). Then people were re-tested on all the words. They did all this either while listening to Focus @ Will or while listening to music of their choice.

What happened? For the people who actually practiced the words (as assessed by improved performance on the second test), and after ignoring the top 5% of learners (the people who got almost all the 48 words correct on the first test), the people listening to Focus @ Will had significantly better performance on the first test for the words that would be studied in the future as compared to words that would not be studied in the future. People listening to music did not show this effect. In other words, in the figure, the “to be trained” column should not be different from the “not to be trained” column in terms of the mean number of correctly remembered words if the future practice has no effect — this is the case for the red symbols [representing people listening to their own music]. However, the blue symbols [representing Focus @ Will listeners] show a statistically significant difference between the memory for words to be trained and words not to be trained in the future.

What does this mean? We don’t know. At least I certainly don’t. The effect is significant (p<0.017, two-tailed), but not wildly so. The result needs to be replicated. We also need to understand if it’s a relaxation feature of Focus @ Will or a flow-inducing feature of Focus @ Will that drives the effect, assuming it is replicated.

But on the face of it, it appears that in some way, listening to Focus @ Will may prime our unconscious minds to “remember” future information that can be useful now. And it seems to me, that this kind of mental time travel is very useful!

NOTE: While writing this blog post, I kept focused on my work via the scientifically designed and awesome Kora Beta audio channel, one of many such channels created by Focus @ Will labs.

Summary: This is part four of a series of posts examining how the focus tool Focus @ Will works, based on a recent series of experiments. In part one, I explored self-reported focus and described the evidence that the “focused feeling” you get with Focus @ Will is actually real. In part two, I described the importance of task persistence and explain how Focus @ Will supports persistence without reducing executive function. In part three, I talked about how your inner space (your thoughts and feelings) are affected by Focus @ Will. In this post, I discuss the evidence that Focus @ Will actually helps you use information from the future.

Julia Mossbridge is a visiting scientist and the director of the Innovation Lab at IONS.


Bem, D. J. (2011). Feeling the future: experimental evidence for anomalous retroactive influences on cognition and affect. Journal of personality and social psychology, 100(3), 407.
Bem, D., Tressoldi, P., Rabeyron, T., & Duggan, M. (2015). Feeling the future: A meta-analysis of 90 experiments on the anomalous anticipation of random future events. F1000Research, 4.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New Yprk: Harper Collins.
Mossbridge, J., Tressoldi, P., & Utts, J. (2012). Predictive physiological anticipation preceding seemingly unpredictable stimuli: a meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 390.
Mossbridge J.A., Tressoldi P., Utts J., Ives J.A., Radin. D..and Jonas W.B. (2014). Predicting the unpredictable: critical analysis and practical implications of predictive anticipatory activity. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 8:146.
Mossbridge, J., Tressoldi, P., Utts, J., Ives, J. A., Radin, D., & Jonas, W. B. (2015). We Did See This Coming: Response to, We Should Have Seen This Coming, by D. Sam Schwarzkopf. arXiv preprint arXiv:1501.03179.

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