Can your heart predict the future?

January 23, 2006 at 9:22 am | Posted in Ramblings, skepticism | 7 Comments

Of course not! But according to this article from the Instute of HeartMath it can. Your heart rate reacts on events that take place about 4.5 seconds later. Now before you get enthousiastic over this and get visions of making fortune in the casino with a simple heart rate monitor, let me share my opinion on this subject with you. First I will explain their test setup.

Each participant gets to see a series of 45 pictures. In this series there is a change of 2/3 of an calm picture and 1/3 of an emotional (violence, sexual content, etc.) picture. The participant first clicks on a button and then 6 seconds later either a calm or emotional picture appears. And the `suprising’ part is that the heart already knows about 4.5 seconds in advance which of the two types of pictures this is going to be. Amazing!

However, there are two minor problems. First the heart doesn’t predict the future always correctly. The correlation between the heart rate and the shown picture is quite small. However, it’s still somewhat significant and for winning lots of money in the casino it would probably be enough. There is another problem: in their test setup they don’t show the pictures completely randomly. They always put in exactly 15 stimulating pictures and 30 calm pictures. So you will never have a sequence of 45 calm pictures. This severely limits the amount of possible sequences. And what’s worse, this makes it possible to predict the future with a very simple strategy. After a few pictures the human brain will see a pattern and could for example come up with the following simple scenario: after every emotional picture there is quite a large chance of seeing a calm picture. After a single calm picture comes another calm picture. After two calm picture comes an emotional picture. In other words: the brain learns about the distribution of calm and emotional pictures.

If the pictures would be completely random then this strategy wouldn’t work very well. You would have 50 % chance of guessing the next picture. This won’t get you rich. However, with their test setup your chances increase! A brute force calculation on all the possible sequences shows that the odds have increased to 54 %. And this is exactly in the same order of magnitude as the correlation that was mentioned in the article. There are two more things left for me to do: first I would like to derive a mathematical formula for the chance of predicting the right picture. And secondly, I want to see if there’s a difference in predicting emotional pictures versus calm pictures.
My conclusion so far: your heart can’t predict the future and your brain can’t be that easily fooled.


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  1. Great analysis! Exactly what I wanted to know about these “heart predicts the future” articles.
    I’ll update my post at

  2. […] Update: Maurits’s analysis makes it clear that the study doesn’t prove anything! […]

  3. I hadn’t looked that closely at the methods…it’s worse than I thought!

  4. Compliments. At least some hearts can add up 🙂

    Still I am intrigued by the form of the experiment, and by the mere fact that people put time and effort in cheating on themselves; that is surely what these investigators were doing, not?

    Probably you are familiar with the crossword-puzzle-experiment from Rupert Sheldrake invented to corroborate the following:
    Puzzles once solved in the past are filled out faster than puzzles that were never solved.

  5. This study is hilarious. You give them WAY to much credit. If you look at the abstract it doesn’t even say that the pictures were random but that the calm and emotional pictures were grouped making the study completely useless (not just partially useless).

  6. Nice article, but some of the content sounds very naive – if you could derive a mathematical formula for the chance of predicting the right picture maybe million of people could do it before you…!!

  7. how did you get the information of the study??.. nice analysis

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