Exploring the Science of Precognition

September 3, 2017

The theme of this article is precognition. I will begin by relating an example, one included in a collection of precognitions compiled by the great psychical researcher of the late nineteenth century Frederic W. H. Myers (1843-1901).

Mr. Haggard of the British Consulate, Trieste, Austria, gives the following account of a premonitory dream and its fulfilment:—

September 21st, 1893.

A few months ago I had an extraordinarily vivid dream, and waking up repeated it to my wife at once. All I dreamt actually occurred about six weeks afterwards, the details of my dream falling out exactly as dreamt.

There seems to have been no purpose whatsoever in the dream; and one cannot help thinking, what was the good of it.

I dreamt that I was asked to dinner by the German Consul General, and accepting, was ushered into a large room with trophies of East African arms on shields against the walls. (N.B. – I have myself been a great deal in East Africa.)

After dinner I went to inspect the arms, and amongst them saw a beautifully gold-mounted sword which I pointed out to the French Vice-Consul – who at that moment joined me – as having probably been a present from the Sultan of Zanzibar to my host the German Consul General.

At that moment the Russian Consul came up too. He pointed out how small was the hilt of the sword and how impossible in consequence it would be for a European to use the weapon, and whilst talking he waved his arm in an excited manner over his head as if he was wielding the sword, and to illustrate what he was saying.

At that moment I woke up and marvelled so at the vividness of the dream that I woke my wife up too and told it to her.

About six weeks afterwards my wife and myself were asked to dine with the German Consul General; but the dream had long been forgotten by us both.

We were shown into a large withdrawing room which I had never been in before, but which somehow seemed familiar to me. Against the walls were some beautiful trophies of East African arms, amongst which was a gold-hilted sword, a gift to my host from the Sultan of Zanzibar.

To make a long story short, everything happened exactly as I had dreamt – but I never remembered the dream until the Russian Consul began to wave his arm over his head, when it came back to me like a flash.

Without saying a word to the Russian Consul and French Vice-Consul (whom I left standing before the trophy) I walked quickly across to my wife, who was standing at the entrance of a boudoir opening out of the withdrawing room, and said to her:– “Do you remember my dream about the Zanzibar arms?” She remembered everything perfectly, and was a witness to its realisation. On the spot we informed all the persons concerned of the dream, which naturally much interested them.

Myers and members of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR, founded in London, 1882) thoroughly researched and verified to their satisfaction all cases that were published in their official Proceedings. In this example, there was a separate signed corroboration from Mr. Haggard’s wife as well as signed statements from the Russian Consul and the German Consul General.

Mr. Haggard’s dream illustrates some salient points of a precognition as opposed to a prediction. It includes various details, in this case details that are apparently quite trivial, which could not have been foreseen rationally by inferring from past and present information. I can rationally predict (or calculate), based on past experience, that the Sun will rise above the horizon tomorrow morning. If I dream that a dear friend whom I have not seen in five years, and last I heard was in excellent health (and indeed is in excellent health at the time of the dream as far as anyone is aware), will die of a heart attack three weeks hence, and this in fact occurs (as I later learn from a mutual colleague), such would be a precognition and not a prediction.

Sometimes the term premonition is used as somewhat synonymous with precognition (as Myers did in introducing Mr. Haggard’s dream as a “premonitory dream”), but usually a premonition is more of a vague feeling that something – generally something of a negative nature – is going to happen. A strict premonition lacks the specificity of a fully developed precognition; for purposes of discussion, premonitions can be considered poorly developed precognitions. Genuine premonitions are probably quite common, but easily ignored as simply coincidences and also difficult to verify as genuine and fulfilled due to the lack of specificity as to what the future event will be.2 Retrocognition is the equivalent of precognition, but in the opposite temporal direction; that is, the reception of information about the past by other than ordinary means.

There are literally thousands of well-attested cases of spontaneous (as opposed to laboratory induced) precognition recorded in the literature.3 In an early overview, Harold Francis Saltmarsh (1881-1943) analysed and evaluated records of spontaneous precognitions collected by the SPR during the first fifty years of the society. After sifting through 349 cases of apparent precognition and rejecting 68, Saltmarsh identified 134, which he was satisfied were well documented and contained the necessary details to establish true precognition (as opposed to prediction);

Mr. Haggard’s dream was included among them. Saltmarsh counted another 147 cases, which “by themselves… would not afford a sufficient basis for belief in precognition, but when they are considered as a part of the whole evidence, they certainly lend collateral support…”

Due to the careful work of the members of the SPR, collections such as that analysed by Saltmarsh remain a mainstay of spontaneous precognition research. Personally I agree with Saltmarsh and other researchers in the field who contend that the evidence for precognition is so overwhelming that it cannot be ignored.

To suggest, as some sceptics (a.k.a. debunkers and scoffers) assert, that it is all due to false memories, chance coincidence, misunderstandings, or pure lies and fabrications, is simply a convenient but invalid way to dismiss data that perhaps threatens one’s deepest beliefs and philosophical premises concerning such topics as cause and effect, temporal relationships, and free will versus determinism. As Saltmarsh noted, “Many people overcome the difficulties involved in the problem by the simple expedient of ignoring the whole thing: they refuse to listen to the evidence and behave as though it did not exist.”5

Beyond spontaneous cases, there are numerous laboratory studies that confirm the reality of precognition. Classic precognition experiments are of the forced-choice kind. For instance, a participant is told that there is a picture behind one of two curtains and the task is to guess behind which curtain the picture is located. If no paranormal means are involved, the correct answer should be chosen by chance 50% of the time.

As described so far, this would be a test of “clairvoyance.” However, if the position of the picture (and in some cases, the picture itself drawn from a number of possibilities) is not determined until after the participant makes a guess (for instance, the picture position can be subsequently determined using a random number generator), then the experiment becomes a test of precognition.6 Another example of a forced-choice precognition experiment is simply to guess which of two lights will flash next, where of course the guess is placed first and the randomly generated decision of which light will flash is made after the guess.7

Hundreds of forced-choice precognition experiments have been carried out in numerous laboratories around the world with positive results indicative of the presence of precognition.8 Meta-analyses have been carried out on such studies (taking into account experiments that included both positive and negative results), reconfirming the reality of some sort of anomalous processes taking place. For instance, in one meta-analysis of 309 such studies reported by 62 different senior authors, statistically significant results were found overall.

Particularly interesting is the finding that immediate feedback (as to whether the guess was correct or incorrect) to the participant resulted in the most significant evidence for precognition (highest number of correct hits) whereas progressively delayed feedback resulted in decreasingly significant results. In studies where the participant was never told the results, the evidence for precognition apparently dropped to effectively zero. As Jessica Utts (University of California, Davis) summarised the situation, “The mean effect sizes [a measure of the significance of the data, where larger values indicate higher significance] showed a clear trend, decreasing in order as the time interval increased from minutes to hours to days to weeks to months.”

This confirms somewhat anecdotal observations from spontaneous cases of precognition that the numbers of such cases overall drop off with increasing amounts of time between the precognition and the actual event. Complicating factors in real life occurrences include the “strength” or “significance” of the precognition and event. Thus, the precognition of the death of a loved one (a not uncommon type of spontaneous precognition) may be “stronger” or send a “stronger signal,” and thus be more likely to be received “earlier” than a precognition of a more “trivial” nature. Even in laboratory studies, the nature of the object or event can have an effect on the success of a precognition being received; for instance, in one particular forced-choice precognition experiment with college undergraduates, significant results were obtained only when erotic pictures were used.

Laboratory studies have also been carried out to test for the reality of “premonitions.” Here I am referring to a series of experiments on phenomena known as presentiments or “pre-sponses.” These are essentially a form of short-term vague and subconscious “premonitions” as measured by physiological parameters (heart rate, electrodermal activity, and so forth). Numerous replicated experiments have demonstrated physiological responses of individuals to disturbing photographs, for instance, a second or two before they are actually viewed by the person.

According to conventional wisdom, it should not be possible for a person to respond to a stimulus that has not yet occurred, even if the response is only a second (or less) before the stimulus. However, modern experiments show that this does happen. If we have a physiological precognition or premonition ability at a basic subconscious or unconscious level, this only reinforces for me the possibility that precognition at a conscious level might also be manifested.

Given the strong evidence that precognition really does occur, what does this say about the future? Does it already exist? Is the future fixed? What are the implications of genuine precognition for free will? As Saltmarsh astutely noted, just because some future events have been foreseen by precognition, it does not follow that all future events can be foreseen. Occasional instances of precognition do not prove that the future is completely determined (if the future were fully determined, it could be argued that free will does not exist).

Rather, the future may, indeed it seems it must, exist to a certain extent, but some aspects of the future may also be plastic, malleable, subject to change depending on what occurs in the present (and has occurred in the past and perhaps will occur in the more distant future, if influences can traverse time in all directions). Although I cannot argue the case here, based on the evidence, I am of the opinion that certain aspects of the past are “malleable” and in a state of “uncertainty” until “fixed.” Ultimately these are deep and thus far unresolved issues that most people might prefer to brush off and ignore; however, the reality of even a few well-documented occurrences of precognition should force us to face them honestly.

Precognition is just one form of what is often referred to collectively as psi phenomena.
Besides precognition (and retrocognition), psi phenomena are generally considered to include:

1) telepathy – direct mind-to-mind transfer of information from one person to another through some means other than the normal senses and without the intervention of any conventionally known or understood processes, 2) clairvoyance (remote viewing) – the reception of information about objects or events in the physical world by means other than telepathy, and 3) psychokinesis – mind over matter effects, where thoughts or intentions can influence directly physical processes (psychokinesis acting upon biological systems, whether human or non-human, is sometimes distinguished as psychic healing or DMILS (Direct Mental Interactions with Living Systems). I will not address psychokinesis further here, as this is a complex topic (including both laboratory studies and spontaneous incidents, such as poltergeist phenomena), which is not directly relevant to our current discussion of precognition.

I have long been of the opinion that telepathy, clairvoyance, and precognition (in a broad sense, including premonitions and retrocognition, as discussed above) are not distinguishable from one another, and all may be different (or not so different) aspects of the same basic phenomenon. The way I usually think about these psi phenomena is that they are all forms of telepathy – with the understanding that telepathic information transfer can occur not only in the present, but rather telepathically transmitted information may also be transmitted from the future to the present or past and vice versa. Telepathy that transcends the present can be viewed as precognition (if the information comes from the future) or retrocognition (if it comes from the past). It also appears that telepathic information transfer is favoured between “minds” (whether human or otherwise) that are somehow “close” or “bonded” (one can think in terms of close emotional bonds).

Typically, the individual who is closest to a particular person is himself or herself. That is, the person one will typically have the strongest telepathic rapport with is oneself. In this sense, many well-documented cases of precognition can be viewed as the telepathic reception of information by a person from their future self. Thus, simplistically, one has a precognition of seeing an event or learning about an event (transferred telepathically from one’s future self), and this is subsequently fulfilled in terms of later seeing the event or learning about the event in the “present.”

However, one can turn the issue around and suggest that perhaps all phenomena generally viewed as telepathic might actually be forms of precognition. For instance (to give a genuine example), waiting to be served at a restaurant, I mentally concentrated on the number 46 and my wife commented that for some reason the number 46 had popped into her head and she could not shake it. I then told her verbally that I was concentrating on 46 and attempting to send it to her telepathically. Could it be rather that “telepathically” receiving the 46 from me, she “precognized” that I would tell her that I had attempted via telepathy to place the number 46 in her head?

Likewise, in typical tests of telepathy and clairvoyance, the subject is told or learns the correct answers afterwards, so perhaps when she or he arrives at a correct answer paranormally it is via precognition and not by telepathy nor by true clairvoyance – or it is by telepathy from one’s future self who knows the answer. Thus, in my assessment, the case can be made that telepathy and precognition are (at least in many cases) functionally indistinguishable and perhaps two different aspects of the same underlying phenomenon.

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