Precognitive dreams seem never to be out of the spotlight. Forever associated with JW Dunne, whose work has seldom been out of print and whose ideas are once again being discussed and re-evaluated with renewed enthusiasm, reports of new occurrences appear too frequently for them ever to be summarily dismissed. Something is going on that demands explanation. But wait a minute – precognitive dreams? Isn't all that just wishful thinking and futile pseudoscience? Well, perhaps that is the explanation. But not every reputable scientist thinks so, even today, and a handful are not afraid to say so. The sceptics are still unshakably sceptical, while those who believe they have experienced precognitive dreams are as convinced as ever. In fact, despite the enormous efforts of the Rhines, their colleagues and successors, it's remarkable how little progress has been made since Dunne's day.
JW Dunne famously claimed to experience precognitive dreams. His attempts to discover a strictly scientific explanation for what was happening to him led him to develop his philosophy of Serialism. His seminal study, An Experiment with Time, set something of a gold standard for the rational and scientific investigation of supposedly psychic phenomena. Husband-and-wife team JB and LE Rhine had just turned their own careers in the same direction and soon came to dominate the field, they and their colleagues generating a huge body of investigations over the following decades. Although their results were positive, other labs could seldom repeat the same success and mainstream science rejected their ideas. Yet despite this, huge numbers of paranormal events, especially precognitive dreams of the Dunne type, continue to be reported. The writer JB Priestley received thousands of accounts following a single television appeal and even today researchers continue the stream of anecdotes.
Most of these reported incidents are never explained. While commonly dismissed by sceptics as "all in the imagination", this is seldom proven with any degree of rigour but usually proves to be the default position of the sceptic when the actual explanation cannot be established. Sceptics claim that such apparent occurrences are no better than chance, yet when you look closely there are seldom any actual statistics put forward to support that claim, and even when they are produced they are themselves riddled with questionable assumptions of their own. Bad science cuts both ways. If a sceptic's science is as bad as a believer's science then neither side can claim victory and the matter must remain undecided.
Dunne proposed that our minds exist in multiple levels or dimensions of time. Our brains are firmly anchored at the physical level and, for the most part, they constantly hold our conscious attention to the present. When our minds are less focused, such as in dreams or trancelike reveries, they can break free of the present's tyranny and rove through their own past and future. In this way, a dream will typically contain fragments of past, present and future, all jumbled up to create an overall image in the typically surreal manner of dreams. Thus for example he might dream of a train crash, tell his sister about it and then, some weeks later, read in the newspapers of a closely-matching but not identical crash. As with past experiences, future ones occurring close to the present tend to be clearer and more accessible than those which fade off into the depths of time. Even age has an effect: a young mind has very little past but a long future and so will experience more precognition, while an older mind will have a long past full of memories with little scope left for the short future still available to it. He regarded this kind of precognition as a common phenomenon frequently experienced by everybody. The problem was, as he found for himself, that occurrences were seldom noticed unless meticulously looked-for and even then were violently rejected as a rational explanation by the critical part of one's mind. Only through a rigorous systematic examination or other related circumstances could specific instances be brought to light, and only by a deliberate detachment of the rational will could the logic be accepted.
This theory does not immediately account for other paranormal phenomena. However he elaborated it with an endless sequence of higher dimensions of time, inhabited by higher levels of consciousness (his logic is a perpetual bone of contention but fortunately is not important here). In these higher levels, an adept may meet other minds roving these same levels and pick up experiences from them. These minds might be fellow adepts, the deceased, or higher spiritual beings. From the perspective of the mundane, such a meeting would be seen as telepathy, spiritualism, angelic encounters and so on. Meeting another mind without realising it might be misconstrued as clairvoyance, and so on. Unlike dream precognition involving only the lower two levels, such encounters would be rare occurrences and most of the many reports one hears of such occurrences would be wrong.
Looked at in the light of this Serialism, many paranormal claims can be given new explanations. Racing predictions provide a simple, if perhaps relatively lighthearted, illustration. A number of people have recorded accurate precognitive dreams of racing results or have commented on them in the literature, and some have won a lot of money. Commentators on others, however brief, include Brian Inglis and R.L. Mégroz, both of whom thought highly of Dunne. Several individuals wrote privately to Dunne about their experiences. The author MM Kaye and her father Sir Cecil "Tacklow" Kaye were particularly baffled by the unreliability of their dreams. They were sometimes wrong, but were right far too often for pure chance to be a rational explanation. MM Kaye had also read Dunne and regarded him as essentially sound, but she seems to have missed the subtleties of his theory. For he would have pointed out that any precognitive vision would be mixed with other fragments of past and possibly even present experience. Tacklow and his daughter clearly possessed some faculty in recognising that these dream melanges contained elements of the future, but were not able to disentangle the future elements with any reliability. Such a faculty can be enhanced through practice. The modern investigator Sean O'Donnell claims to have brought himself to a high, trancelike pitch repeatably for more than one run of success, with each such run requiring several days of mental discipline to get himself into the right frame of mind.
The Rhines in particular were inspired by the same rational, scientific approach to precognition as Dunne and in 1926 had given up promising careers in biology and turned to the then non-existent academic research into parapsychology. They went on to develop a theory of extra-sensory perception (ESP) faculties and phenomena, later to be called "psi", and to spend decades trying to demonstrate their existence. Ultimately they failed and the field of the paranormal was dismissed by the establishment as pseudoscience. Was that rejection justified?
The first thing to note is that the man of the pair, JB Rhine, became a legend in his own lifetime (women were on the whole still tacitly ignored by academia). By the time they gave up, the entire field of the paranormal had become subsumed in his published concepts of ESP. Serious discussion only ever took place within his conceptual framework, for none other had any significant presence among researchers. It is seldom appreciated that, logically, this meant that when his ESP model was eventually falsified, the door remained open for other theories of the paranormal which might lead to more successful experiments. It is as sad a comment on the average sceptic as it is on those multitudes who swallowed Rhine wholesale, that any such possibility was passed over in an orgy of sceptical self-congratulation. So the question here must be, what would Dunne have made of it all?
During the early days, the Rhines and their colleagues had tackled various phenomena with some apparent success. But as independent researchers elsewhere tried to replicate their results, methods became more focused and formalised and that apparent success began to evaporate. JB Rhine had quickly adopted a card-guessing experiment, in which the subject has to guess which of five printed symbols is on the next card. A run of many cards should build up a statistical profile of the subject's ESP abilities. At first there were some successes. One of his more baffling discoveries was that in some runs the subject seemed better at guessing the next-but-one card instead of the one asked for. Over time such experiments became more rigorously designed and progressively automated and, the greater the automation and rigour, the more that success of any kind faded from the scene.
Sceptics claim this as proof that the early claims were tainted with too much bad technique and wishful thinking. But there are other possible explanations. The decline is also consistent with the suggestion that the early experiments showed some genuine success, while the later ones methodically screened out any chance of repeating such successes. This would produce almost exactly the same statistical results as the sceptical scenario.
But now, recall Dunne's insistence that precognition references the subject's personal experience and not any external event. Moreover, the brain does not rigidly compartment experiences according to the clock, in the way that a laboratory experiment timestamps its measurements. In this context, this means that Rhine's subject is obliged to guess their subjective experience of seeing the next card rather than what it objectively is, while having little intuition as to which of several such future experiences might be closest and therefore the "next" one. In a poorly-controlled experiment the subject may at least sometimes get to see or be told the accuracy of each guess, while the sequence proceeds at a relatively leisurely rate. As procedures become more rigorous and automated, the subject will be rushed through a long series of guesses without ever being told whether a particular guess was right or not.
The Serialist view must be that lax control and leisurely progress allow precognition to manifest on occasion and one would expect a positive trend to underlie the overall results, however much they might or might not be boosted by wishful thinking. For example it allows for oddities such as the runs of next-but-one hits, which could not have been short-circuited by, say, thin cards with the symbol on the back showing through. On the other hand, the rigorously-controlled subject has no significant time lag to help distinguish the immediate card from the next few and, since they are not told the individual result of each guess, have in any case no future experiences of the results to precognize. The tightly-controlled ESP experiment, as it evolved, is therefore doomed to failure no matter how adept the individual subject might be. Decades of earnest experimentation flushed down the toilet bowl, just like that.
It's a bit difficult to appreciate the magnitude of the suggested consequences when you first encounter such an analysis as this, so take your time, have a brew, sleep on it. Read O'Donnell's The paranormal Explained for arguments similar to my own (with the added benefit of getting into print first!). Work through the logic of it until you can follow it through. The Rhines' decades-long programme utterly ignored what the first truly scientific experimenter in the paranormal was telling us all. Indeed, they flouted Dunne's findings outright. And they subsequently failed. Is there a connection? Did they fail because the paranormal is rubbish, because their ESP model was wrong, or because they just did bad science? Are the sceptics doing good or bad science when they dismiss the whole field of the paranormal just because the Rhine model failed? That is the million-dollar question! The sad truth is that, ninety years after Dunne and counting, we still have not done a shred of good science to make the slightest headway, we are still in the dark every bit as much as when the Society for Psychical Research distanced itself from its own botched attempt to replicate Dunne's experiment, way back in 1932. Dunne may or may not have been right, but pretty much everybody else since then, on both sides of the divide, has been horribly wrong.
Please do not think that this judgement overly belittles those who took part. The problem we face in testing dream precognition is truly fiendish. We are trying to draw objective results from a subjective analysis of a subjective phenomenon. That bears some clarification. When somebody records a dream experience, they are writing down a wholly subjective account of it. Not one single shred of it can be objectively confirmed, save perhaps an electro-encephalogram trace that a dream took place. (Brain scans are getting better at indicating the broad nature of a given thought, but individual brains are wired too differently and thoughts too varied for a scan ever to recognise much detail). Later, that dream record is compared to some actual, objectively recorded event. The comparison procedure involves a moderately objective assessment of points of similarity, although the degree of closeness is open to subjective interpretation. The probability of such a correlation must also be assessed and, while certain objective yardsticks can be defined, the application of those yardsticks remains heavily subjective. Ultimately, science demands a numerical probability that the claimed correlation is correct, and secondly a numerical probability of that correlation happening by chance. In practice, both these probabilities are heavily influenced by subjective judgements of the assessor. Thus the end product, a numerical probability that precognition occurred, is a product of both the subjective reporting of the dream and the subjective judgements made in assessing the dream. And yet, we are seeking an objective probability! The unreliability of the final number, what statisticians call the error bound, is horrendous.
Epidemiological studies – trying to establish the existence of precognition by studying reports gathered outside of the laboratory – must fare even worse. No sceptic will ever let themselves be swayed when the excuse of mere "anecdotal" evidence is so conveniently to hand, while nobody who believes they have had such an experience can ever be convinced otherwise. Both states of mind abound. It is little wonder then that genuine scientific progress has been almost nonexistent.
Mention has been made of telepathy and other paranormal phenomena outside of plain precognition. Another such phenomenon is the out-of-body (OOB) experience. Once thought to be genuine, the modern view is that such an experience merely mirrors a certain pathology of brain function and as such is a hallucination. Dunne would have had no problem with the idea that it mirrors brain function, in fact he would have insisted on it. But he would not have bought the "merely" judgement. Despite insisting on a rigorous parallelism of brain activity and thought, he was nevertheless a dualist, believing the world of conscious experience to be a distinct realm which, he suggested, inhabited additional dimensions of time. To my reading, his detailed ideas on this score seem a bit primitive and overly subservient to his Anglican Christian theology, but no matter. Giving some kind of reality or meaning to the OOB experience is perfectly compatible with his theory of mind-brain parallelism plus higher dimensions of consciousness. The psychologist Susan Blackmore records an OOB in which she saw apparent physical detail which, in real life, turned out to be wrong. Dunne of course would point to the juxtaposition of past, present and future experiences likely to be present in any such detached mental state: one should not expect faithfulness to any given physical reality. He himself also experienced visions of a metaphysical nature and was sufficiently sophisticated to realise that much detail was of necessity drawn from his brain to fill in the gaps where it expected something real. He struggled greatly with the problem of whether the thrust – the meaning – of these visions had some independent reality driving them or whether they were wholly artefacts of his subconscious. To this end he developed a theory of what he called intrusions, where in the higher levels of time one mind deliberately intrudes itself upon another. I do not think that he would have ruled out a metaphysical aspect to the OOB experience but, like the other phenomena he encountered, he would have taken each occurrence on a case-by-case basis. But then, he did have a store of astonishing events to draw on as supporting evidence, a luxury denied to most of us.
No sooner had I posted the first version of this piece than the latest issue of New Scientist dropped through my letterbox, containing a feature article titled "Blast from the future". It seems that the weird and baffling consequences of quantum mechanics are such an awkward fact of life that in desperation to explain them, physicists have been invoking causes occurring later in time than their effects, a phenomenon which they call retrocausality. It helps to explain a lot of quantum puzzles which are hard to explain any other way.
The more conservative theorists dismiss it out of hand, claiming that it is a mere artefact of the equations and an unnecessary one at that, untestable by experiment. But that is an old argument, long ago lost by the proponents of "common-sense" particle interpretations. Much of quantum weirdness manifests in exactly this way. As Bohm & Hiley (The Undivided Universe) found out, recasting the equations to draw your favoured interpretation to the surface simply transfers the weirdness somewhere else, it does not get rid of it. And as long as the equations are not actually violated, there is no experimental way to distinguish one interpretation from another. The conservative argument reduces to unfalsifiable sophistry, the very flaw it levelled against its enemy. If retrocausality can be pulled from the quantum equations then there is no escaping the lessons of history. It must, in principle, be accepted as a realistic phenomenon.
Suffice here to note that precognition is an example of retrocausality. If quantum effects can indeed travel backwards in time and the human brain relies on quantum effects for its function (which it does) then technically this might leave open the door to precognition. That quantum weirdness can and does occur at the macroscopic level is evidenced for example by photosynthesis in plants, where the energy harvested from a photon of light is transported at superluminal speed to its collection area some distance away, via the phenomenon of quantum entanglement. Some evidence has been presented that similar kinds of quantum weirdness are present at nerve synapses. We cannot entirely rule out the possibility that some retrocausal quantum weirdness might underlie O'Donnell's suggested "pre-collection" of future memories.
Other potentially retrocausal psi phenomena which extend beyond the brain, such as clairvoyance and prophecy, would require far wider manifestations of quantum weirdness and are to that extent far less plausible.
As yet we are a very long way from a real theory of quantum retrocausality, and even further from any hope of discovering it at work in a macroscopic setting such as a conscious brain. Nevertheless, it perhaps lowers the credibility barrier a little to a modern study of dream precognition.
Dunne's theory is unlikely to be the last word on the phenomena in question. Even if we accept precognition as a plausible phenomenon, while setting aside his contentious serial regress of time and consciousness, many other paradigms are possible. Indeed the jelly-like way, in which any theory of one extra-sensory phenomenon impacts on attempts to study another, was a key motivation for JB Rhine's original bold formulation of one such taxonomy and also drove his experimental methodologies to try and isolate them. Dunne's was not the only contemporary model he chose to ignore. The Rhines were brave, but perhaps unlucky. One of their great achievements was a relentless drive to improve experimental methods and the ways we go about designing them. They were among the first to conduct a meta-analysis across multiple published scientific findings. It is a sad irony that they are remembered as much for the residual flaws in their methods as for the progress they made in improving them. Although the subject of study has progressed little over the years, the methods have advanced out of all recognition. It is hard to think of another discipline besides parapsychology which has so driven science to improve its expectations of itself. Though Dunne blazed the trail, the Rhines took on the hard graft and institutionalised it. They deserve to be held up among the great scientists of their generation.
Despite their many phenomenological overlaps, different paranormal powers do have fundamentally different characteristics. For example where the apparent reality of the OOB lies within the quality of the experience itself, the apparent reality of precognition lies only in its subsequent fulfilment. Distinctions between classes of paranormal phenomena may be difficult to pin down, but they do exist and they are highly significant. Some paranormal powers must surely prove to be imagined, others may yet – once the false starts have been falsified and discarded – prove real. The jury remains out on precognition.
Experimental technique has come a long way since Dunne, nor has it stood still since the Rhines' day. Today, with the advantages of both hindsight and modern methods, we should be able to make better progress. It is time to revisit Dunne's theory of precognition in a twenty-first century laboratory.
Updated 8 Apr 2018