Updated 16 Feb 2021
Precognitive dreams seem never to be out of the spotlight. Forever associated with JW Dunne, whose work has been out of print even less often 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 parapsychology stuff just self-delusion 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 the gullible are as credulous as ever. In fact, despite the enormous efforts of the Rhines, their colleagues and successors, it is 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 psychic 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 inevitably turns out 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 critical will could the logic of scientific reason be accepted.
This theory does not immediately account for other psychic 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 them would be the mistaken self-deception of the gullible.
Looked at in the light of this Serialism, many psychic 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' reports, 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. For example they might read the name of a loser after the race and this experience might be the name they picked up beforehand, all unawares. 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 psychic phenomena, also known as the paranormal. They went on to develop a theory of "extra-sensory perception" (ESP) faculties and phenomena, later to gain labels such as "psi" and "parapsychology", and to spend decades trying to demonstrate their existence. Ultimately they failed and the field of psychic phenomena was dismissed by the establishment as pseudoscience. Was that rejection justified?
The Rhines defined psychic phenomena negatively, as outside or "extra" to our physical senses, as "para"- to normal psychology. By definition psi phenomena went beyond the bounds of science (one could argue that meant the bounds of known science rather than any and all science, but that was not how the terminiology was coined or how many people saw it). Nevertheless, the strict methods of scientific enquiry were to be adopted as the way to study them. This negative definition of ESP and psi was to prove a recipe for disaster. (e.g. Blackmore 1988-9.)
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. The ESP project ultimately failed.
The man of the pair, JB Rhine, had by now become a legend in his own lifetime (women were on the whole still tacitly ignored by academia). By the time he ultimately gave up, the whole idea of psychic phenomena 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 psychic phenomena 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. Voices such as Susan Blackmore's (1988-9) seem to have been lost in the wave of disillusion.
Sceptics claim the falling-off of Rhine's results with increasing riogour 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.
One question which raises itself here is, what would Dunne have made of it all? Dunne clung througout to scientific rationalism. He maintained that apparent psychic phenomena must all have perfectly rational scientific explanations, we just needed to understand the science better. His Serialism is a phlosophy and theory built on science, above all.
Firstly, Dunne believed that precognition was common when sleeping, and almost equally so when in a suitably trance-like state, but almost wholly absent when paying attention to the present moment. Since all of Rhine's automated experiments involved the fully woken subject paying close attention to the experimental procedure, this would in Dunne's eyes be a recipe for failure.
Then again, 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 attention to wander and precognition to manifest on occasion, so one would expect a very small 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, was therefore doubly 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 (2007) 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 not only tried to prove a negative (the non-normal nature of psi) but in doing so utterly ignored what the first truly scientific experimenter in psychic phenomena was telling us all. Indeed, they flouted Dunne's findings outright. And they subsequently failed. Is there a connection? Did they fail because psychic phenomena are rubbish, because their ESP model was wrong, or because they just did the wrong experiments? Are the sceptics doing good or bad science when they dismiss the whole field of psychic phenomena just because the Rhine enterprise failed? That is the million-dollar question! The sad truth is that, ninety years after Dunne and counting, we still have not done good enough 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 findings, 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 my harsh judgement of ESP/psi research 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 vaguely along such lines 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 are 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.
This was in fact the source of the disagreement between Dunne and the SPR's lead research officer: the officer over-simplified his experimental procedure and subsequently came to a negative conclusion that was so unjustifiable that the Society distanced itself from his report. Dunne then carried out his own analysis, incorporating additional data, and reached the opposite conclusion, but lacked the necessary distance from the subject to maintain objectivity.
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 uncontrolled "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.
All this while the Rhines were busy grasping the wrong end of the stick. It is little wonder then that genuine scientific progress has been almost nonexistent.
Mention has been made above of telepathy and other psychic 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. Anthony Peake, in his 2011 study on The Out-of-Body Experience, similarly suggests a parallel psychic reality though of a rather different kind. Giving some kind of reality or meaning to the OOB experience is perfectly compatible with 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 and Peake each point out, for different reasons, that one should not expect faithfulness to any given physical reality; much detail is of necessity drawn from the subject's brain to fill in the gaps where it expected something real. They both struggle with the problem of whether the thrust – the meaning – of such visions has some independent reality driving them or whether they are wholly artefacts of the subconscious, again agreeing for different reasons that they are a mix of the two; some aspects are pure neural invention, but others reveal the landscape of a deeper reality behind. Of the three, only Blackmore found the lack of evidence for such a parallel objective reality so damning as to give up on it entirely. I cannot see that we know enough neuroscience yet for any of the three approaches to establish a watertight case, however the burden is on the Dunne and Peake models to demonstrate material consequences and thus disprove the accusation of meaningless metaphysics.
For my part, I can offer some small evidence. It is a periodic complaint of investigators that nobody ever reports failed examples of dream precognition, against which their claims of success might be judged. Failed racing predictions do at least provide some useful examples. As it happens I can also report one, in fact it was the event which originally spurred the addition of this section. One night I dreamed that someone I knew well came into my room and told me that "Dave died yesterday at half past four". That person appeared as the child they had been almost thirty years ago, not as they are now. It helped lend the dream a curious air of significance. The dream was also unusually vivid and I can still recall many other details from it. Now, I am not the type to worry overmuch about such things but this one was different. A few minutes later I thought to check my bedside clock and it was nearly seven o'clock. I wondered idly whether that "yesterday" was really the previous evening or might have been just a couple of hours ago. Over breakfast I told my wife about it, again something I almost never do. The punchline? "Dave" (not their real name) is still very much alive, now many months on since I first posted the anecdote. The classic setup for a precognitive anecdote was apparently a spoof. If Dave ever dies at half past four and my acquaintance tells me the following day, I will let you know.
On the other hand, many years ago I once dreamed of an aeroplane flying overhead. It was a large, delta-winged jet with a curious triangular symbol writ large in black across the whole underside of the wing. Its engines produced that echoing, pulsing rumble from a high-flying plane that rolls about the sky though it was, somewhat unrealistically, as much the sound of propellers as of jets. It was such a bold but slightly incongruous image for an aviation enthusiast like me that it stuck in my mind. Some years later I was searching the Internet for aeroplane images and suddenly, there it was buried in the search results! A "what-if" model made from a plastic kit and a little imagination. The only thing lacking of course was the curiously inappropriate sound. It is that sound, more than anything, which suggests that the original dream is not a false memory, for a false memory would be a post-rationalisation while the presence of the sound is irrational. Precognition, coincidence, or my memory playing tricks on me? It is all too easy to believe the answer one wants to.
As some guide to how we should approach these things, I offer my experience of déjà vu. Mostly these feelings get left unresolved. But I once got the feeling strongly – and it was unmistakably that "déjà vu" feeling – only to remember a couple of minutes later the time and place of a previous identical event. Usually the search for a lost memory is triggered by quite other feelings, but on this rare occasion the déjà vu sensation was justified at face value. Others who have experienced it, such as the writer and theologian C.S. Lewis, believed it to be triggered when a forgotten dream precognition came true. Yet scientists who research it are confident that it occurs as a symptom of a momentary malfunction in the timing mechanisms of the brain. Who is right? Nobody sensible can deny that not quite recollecting a genuine previous occurrence of an event might trigger it. Nobody sensible can deny that the scientists know what they are talking about. Evidently, some occurrences are genuine while others are spurious. A powerful lesson to all who would debunk the opposition without stopping to think it through first, whichever side you are on! But what about forgotten premonitions? Can they be real enough to trigger a sense of déjà vu or are they wholly fallacious? Do the scientists fully understand those possible aspects of a phenomenon that they are not equipped to study? Ah, now that is a lot harder to answer! Whatever you might decide, you would be wise to get your debunking of the opposition on properly solid ground, and make sure you are immune to those same accusations before you open your own mouth.
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 physics 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 number 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 adherents to "common-sense" particle interpretations. Much of quantum weirdness manifests in exactly this way. As Bohm & Hiley (1993) showed, 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 levels 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. However, as with most things quantum, whether it can be sustained at a macroscopic or classical level, outside the weird microscopic world of the quantum, is another question altogether.
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 quantum cryptography and quantum computing. In nature it is seen in the photosynthesis by 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.
One form of quantum weirdness, called entanglement, has proved unable to carry information directly. This might seem to rule out the transfer of information from future to past. Yet quantum weirdness is the fundamental physics which underlies the quantum computer, which is capable of processing information in ways impossible for conventional systems. Whether some related form of quantum weirdness is capable of transporting such information backwards in time cannot, in our current state of knowledge, be ruled in or out.
Although early attempts at introducing quantum-weird explanations for long-term memory proved hopelessly naive, we cannot therefore entirely rule out the possibility that some retrocausal quantum weirdness might underlie O'Donnell's suggested "pre-collection" of future memories.
Other potentially retrocausal psychic 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 (Dowsing may have a far more mundane explanation.)
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 sleeping brain. Nevertheless, it perhaps lowers the credibility barrier a little to a modern study of dream precognition.
The jelly-like way, in which any theory of one extra-sensory phenomenon impacts on attempts to study another, was a key motivation for the Rhines' original bold formulation of a specific taxonomy and also drove their experimental methodologies to try and isolate them. Dunne's was not the only contemporary model they chose to ignore. The Rhines were brave, but either foolhardy or 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 more for the residual flaws in their methods than for the progress they made in improving them. Much the same can be said of Dunne. 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 psychic studies which has so driven science to improve its expectations of itself.
Dunne blazed the trail, with the first scientific theory of precognition. It stands up very well against the more recent competition, although it 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.
The Rhines took on the hard graft and institutionalised the discipline. That their own thesis failed should not be held against them, in fact they deserve to be held up among the great scientists of their generation.
Despite their many overlaps, different psychic phenomena do have fundamentally different characteristics. For example where the apparent reality of the OOB or déjà vu lies within the quality of the experience itself, the apparent reality of precognition lies only in its subsequent physical fulfilment. Distinctions between classes of psychic phenomena may be difficult to pin down, but they do exist and they are highly significant. Some must surely prove to be delusory or illusory, others may yet – once the false starts have been falsified and discarded – prove real. For now at least, the jury remains out on them. Precognition belongs in this latter class.
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; our ability to directly observe the dreaming brain is increasing in leaps and bounds. It is time to revisit Dunne's theory of precognition in a twenty-first century setting, to conduct his "new experiment" with a vengeance. And it is time to make sure that the sceptics do their science with as much understanding of the theories and claims they are testing as the proponents of the theory have. They will find it harder than they are accustomed to think.