What counts as a precognitive dream?

I’m preparing to attempt to replicate J. W. Dunne’s Experiment with Time (as described by Bruce Charlton here and here), but before I do so, I want to try to set some kind of standard for what dreams can reasonably be considered precognitive. For example, here’s a dream which I had recently. Should it be considered prophetic?


I raise mealworms at home and feed them, among other things, stale bread which I keep in a plastic bag in the freezer. I dreamed that I took the bread out of the freezer to feed them and found that it was crawling with worms which had somehow survived in the freezer — not mealworms, which are rather handsome and clean-looking as larvae go, but short black maggoty things which really looked horrible. Most of them were quite small, but there was one larger one, striped with blurred bands of black, maroon, and deep blue, which was slithering through the bread with a motion similar to that of an aquatic snake. This big worm also looked like it had a strange texture, like marzipan or Play-Doh; its appearance and movements made me think of claymation.

I was disgusted by the wormy bread and just set the whole thing, bag and all, down in the wide shallow dish where I keep my mealworms. “There are worms in the bread,” I told my wife.

“You mean mealworms?”

“No, little black worms, and one big worm that looks like a snake but isn’t a snake.” The big worm, very big indeed now, was out of the bag and slithering very quickly, astonishingly quickly, around the house, head and neck raised off the ground cobra-like.

My wife said, “Actually, I think it is a snake.”

“No, it looks like a snake, but it isn’t.” As we spoke, though, it was starting to look more and more snakelike.

“I think it’s an O.A.M.,” she said.

I understood to be an abbreviation for some particular species of mamba. “A mamba. So it’s poisonous. It’s a dangerous snake.”

At this point, two very old people whom I thought of as “mom and dad” (though they didn’t look much like my actual parents or in-laws) came in, and I warned them to be careful of the snake. Ignoring me, and without saying a word, one of them (not sure which) stepped down hard on the snake’s tail, pinning it to the floor. I thought for sure the snake would turn its head back and bite, but instead its whole body straightened out like a rod, its head still up off the ground, its mouth agape in an expression of cartoonish surprise which made me think of a frilled lizard. Then the other member of the old couple stamped down on its head, killing it. The two stamps came in immediate succession — just one-two, and the snake was dead, as if efficient snake-killing were almost a reflex for them. I though to myself, “It seems cruel, but it was necessary. It was a dangerous snake.”


The day after the dream, I went to get some mealworms to feed the gliders, and I noticed that one of the worms — a big one — had escaped from the dish and was crawling around on the floor — rather quickly for a mealworm, I thought, and taking a closer look I saw that it was actually a little black venomous centipede. This was only the second time I’d encountered a centipede in Taiwan, despite having lived here for over six years. The gliders would surely attack it if they found it, their instinct being to jump on anything that looks even remotely wormlike, and a centipede bite could conceivably be fatal to such a small animal. Not wanting to take any chances, I decided to kill the thing. It had crawled under the worm stand by now, so I picked up the stand and moved it, saw the centipede scurrying around, and stepped on it, crushing it. I don’t normally step on pests, preferring to use my hands or a bug zapper, but it was moving fast and I had to get it.


In real life, as in the dream, there was a fast-moving, dangerously venomous, black worm-shaped animal which I at first thought was a worm; I found it near the mealworms; and it was killed by someone stepping on it. Many of the details are different, of course, but would you consider the dream to contain a garbled anticipation of actual events?

I’m guessing that most people would probably say no, that the similarities are too inexact to be worth noticing, that what we have here is perhaps a mildly interesting coincidence but not anything that could reasonably be considered evidence for precognition.

But suppose instead that I told you that the centipede incident had happened the day before the dream, not the day after, and offered it as evidence that dreams sometimes contain garbled memories of recent waking-life events? Would your reaction be any different?

Because that’s what really happened. I described the dream as precognitive as a thought experiment, but in fact I killed the centipede on Monday evening just before going to bed and dreamed about the worm/snake that night. When I woke up and recorded the dream, I took it for granted that of course it had been inspired by the centipede incident. In fact, most of my dreams (the ones I can remember, anyway) contain obvious references to or distortions of recent experiences, books I’ve recently read, etc. If the dream had come first and the centipede incident second, though, I doubt if I would even have noticed any connection.

This is exactly what Dr. Charlton (summarizing Mr. Dunne) describes:

Anticipate that the waking mind will resist associations between a dream and subsequent event – therefore read the dream records with care. Associations between dreams and the past will be obvious and acceptable to the mind as obviously causal; but there is an inbuilt reluctance to recognize associations with the future – to do this is more like a process of pattern recognition, and the experimenter tends to become distracted by stories and meanings. Even apparently trivial or tenuous associations need to be properly followed-up and evaluated.

So perhaps this is a reasonable question to ask yourself when evaluating a possibly precognitive dream: If the sequence were reversed — if the waking events happened first and the dream came after — how confident would you be in concluding that the dream had been influenced by memories of those events?


This post was originally going to end with the previous paragraph, but, after spending so much time thinking and writing about this dream, it occurs to me that, in addition to its obvious connections with the past, it did also contain some hints of future experiences.

On Monday afternoon, the day before the dream, I stopped by a bookstore and picked up Hemingway’s hunting memoir Green Hills of Africa, which I had never read before. I glanced at the back cover in the store but didn’t even open the book until Wednesday. I’m about halfway into it now. The plot so far consists of Hemingway, his wife, and a few friends traipsing around Africa shooting various large animals, occasionally for meat but mostly just for the hell of it. Hemingway and his wife are always called Papa and Mama, respectively, by their hunting companions, and Hemingway himself always refers to his wife as P.O.M. (for “poor old Mama”). This is interesting because of the “mom and dad” in my dream, who were clearly not my actual mom and dad, and who showed up to casually kill a large animal. The use of the abbreviation O.A.M. for the snake also seems to have anticipated my reading about P.O.M. (Actually, the excerpt on the back cover, which I read before the dream, includes a mention of P.O.M., but it gives no indication of who that is or what the letters stand for. In the dream, I didn’t know what O.A. stood for, but I assumed that the M stood for mamba — pretty close to Mama.) There is also a passage early on in Green Hills in which Hemingway vividly describes his fear and hatred of snakes.

None of this, I admit, sounds very impressively precognitive. But I ask myself, if I had read the book before having the dream, would I assume that the one had influenced the other? — and the answer is yes. If I’m going to do this experiment properly, I need to get used to thinking this way.


Filed under Anecdotes, Dreams, Precognition / Prophecy

6 responses to “What counts as a precognitive dream?

  1. Bruce Charlton

    Interestingly, you are here making the exact point that Dunne did in relation to evaluating dreams as possibily pre-cognitive – he specifically advocates ‘pretending’ that the sequence of dream and experience were reversed, as being useful in overcoming the inbuilt resistance.

    I personally find one of the problems is the tendency to say OK, but *even if* you are correct, then ‘what’s the use of that?’.

    Supposing that your dream had indeed come before the experience and been pre-cognitive – then the blend of fact and distortion is so intimate that it is hard to see what *practical* value such a pre-cognitive dream would have.

    And this is correct, in its own terms; but of course irrelevant to the question.

    In a sense, if dreams really are (sometimes) pre-cognitive, then they could not be so in a way that might allow people to ‘benefit’ from the knowledge and avoid or alter the outcome, because then they would not be pre-cognitive.

    On the other hand, Biblical prophecies are of different sorts – and some are of the kind: IF you don’t stop doing X *then* Y will happen – and depicting the dreadfulness of Y. In principle, such dreams might be possible.

  2. Dunne and I seem to think alike on several issues. From summaries and reviews I’ve read online, I see that his understanding of time seems to be almost exactly the same as mine, and that he even uses the same metaphor (a book, all of which exists at the same time, even though you have to read it in sequence) to explain it. I’m definitely going to have to read his book.

    I agree with you that precognitive dreams of this kind aren’t really any practical use in themselves, but if dream evidence could be used to establish that access to the future is actually possible, that could perhaps lay the foundation for further study and for the development of more accurate and useful forms of precognition. So I still think the experiment is worth doing.

    • Bruce Charlton

      I certainly agree that the experiment is worth doing, and I am glad that you in particular are doing it – I would take your findings very seriously.

      And, although I think the experiment should be done from a desire for knowledge, and not to get power; it may have unanticipated value – as disinterested knowledge often does.


      Nonetheless, assuming it is true that dreams can in some way fortell the future, I would interpret this knowledge as being of divine or demonic provenance – rather than to do with the physical nature of timje itself.

      As I understand Dunne, I regard his understanding of time as being a secular (hence incomplete and simplified) version of the ‘neo-Platonic’ idea of time articulated by Boethius in Consolation of Philosophy – the view which so influenced educated Christendom for the next 1000-plus years.


      (Aside: our lack of appreciation of historical generations has downgraded Boethius from a core text of philosophy – one of the mere handful of vital books Englished by/ on the orders of King Alfred the Great – to merely a useful recorder and synthesizer.

      And the transcendental optimism of Boethius in the face of his personal experience of the collapse of Empire, its domination by cruel pagan barbarians, loss of learning, imprisonment and the prospect of horrible torture unto death – is set aside by a modern intellectual elite whose idea of human suffering derives from newspapers, movies and novels; and whose greatest personal misfortune was failure in college or employment.

      These modern arbiters of morality think they really *know* the world in all its horror – and see Boethius’s hard-won transcendental optimism as pathetic escapism of someone unable to ‘face reality’.

      Just as mainstream modern literary critics and pundits reject Tolkien and Lewis – veterans of the frontline trenches – as simplistic, facile Pollyannas who do not appreciate the *real* depth and complexity of evil (i.e. as experienced by watching TV documentaries…)

      Until we can recover the sense of Boethius’s greatness, we must consider ourselves as intellectual pygmies. (Since I have not – yet? – properly recovered this sense, I must therefore be categorized with the pygmies.)

      PS: somewhat likewise, we moderns regard alliterative (non-rhyming) English poetry (such as Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Piers Plowman) as a mere historic curiosity – yet English poetry was alliterative for a longer period than it has (so far) been rhymed!

  3. Forgive me for writing as if this were a grant application or something, and thanks for the reminder to clear my mind of cant. You make me feel rather ashamed for not simply saying what is both true and honorable: that the only real reason I’m doing this because I want to know the truth.

    I probably won’t be beginning the experiment right away, by the way. I’ve got a lot on my plate at the moment, and I don’t want to do a hasty half-assed job of it. I also need some time to plan out exactly how the experiment is going to work, lay some ground rules for what counts as a hit, and so on. Perhaps I’ll be able to do it over the upcoming summer vacation. (I don’t get a proper vacation, but my work is usually a bit lighter then.)

    (Speaking of things I’ve been meaning to do but haven’t found the time to do properly, I just want to say I haven’t forgotten about your PC draft or my promise to give you some feedback on it. Soon, I hope! I appreciate your patience.)


    The practical uselessness of dream precognition, by the way, together with the trivial nature of some of the things predicted, is what makes me suspect that it is not divine or demonic in nature but is (if it turns out to exist at all) a natural (or supernatural, if you like) ability of our own minds. Why would God reveal trivia about stepping on centipedes or Hemingway’s nicknames for his wife? And why would a demon tempt us with something that can do nothing for us?


    I’ve never read Boethius, but on the strength of your recommendation I’ve just downloaded it from Gutenberg and sent it to my e-reader. (How did I survive in Taiwan without that thing for so long?) I’ll start on it as soon as I finish with Plutarch (in other words, not terribly soon). I know you don’t like canons, but would you consider putting together a list of recommended reading?

    • Bruce Charlton

      About the provenance of precognitive dreams – I was unclear in expression. In the first place, I don’t think it looks plausibly like something which could have evolved by natural selection – or else surely we would be aware of it?

      But nor does it seem like a random side effect deriving from the nature of time (nor a side effect of something that did evolve).

      Wrt supernatural explanations this is my notion:

      1. The type of unconscious pre-cognitive dreams which Dunne describes (and Tolkien and Lewis seem to have accepted) and which I hope you will at some point evalute – are a part of human nature.

      Put bluntly, God made us such that we did not live only in the present and the past, with the future coming as a complete surprise, but that our dreams are when we are orientated in the world such that it makes sense as we move through it.

      These dreams are not meant to be remembered and used (although it is not necessarily bad if we do become aware. I put this into the comments of one of the discussions but will probably make a blog posting out of it – I get no sense that the characters in the Notion Club Papers are doing anything wrong – their motive are pure, indeed admirable.

      2. But truly prophetic dreams, which are recalled and perceived as such, come from God. This would apply to the character Jane Studdock in CS Lewis’s That Hideous Strength – the dreams are implicitly divine communications to help the battle against evil, and to help her.

      3. The demonic dreams are designed to harm, and they are not truly prophetic, not forseeing what will be – but based on prediction and demonic intervention – nonetheless they may be correct. These dreams come to people who seek supernatural experiences for bad motivations, or without awareness of purposive evil in the world.

      Of course, this applies to almost everybody, even the greatest Saints (on the way to sanctity) – and the Eastern Orthodox literature is full of the Unseen or Spritual Warfare of those who seek advanced holiness (by ascetic disciplines, and solitude) – the higher the aim the greater this hazard, it seems.

      (Which hazard is why some Christians reject mysticism/ the monastic ideal – but at the terrible cost of removing the main purpose of life on earth and the possibility of moving in this life towards communion with God – and indeed at the cost of misunderstanding the nature of sin and objectifyting Christianity into little more than rule following).

      Anyway – I suspect that Dunne type dreams are important for their general form rather than their specific content. I have a hunch that some people with pychosis may get their perplexity and dread from their loss of this function.


      I’m happy to recommend books of specific types or on particular themes if you ask. A lot of my favourite things have been mentioned on the blog. But I myself cannot accept recommendations from other people – I resent being made to read a book when I am not ‘ready’ for it.

      In general, I try to read only books which I believe I will want to re-read.

      You will have gathered that my favourite book/ author is Lord of the Rings/ Tolkien. But in fact I read mostly non-fiction.

      My favourite poet is Robert Frost and The Psalmist in the Authorized version of the Bible (indeed I loved the KJV and the Book of Common Prayer as the greatest literature long before I became a Christian – so much so that this love interferes badly with my ability to become a proper Church member. I am un-reasonably angry that the Church of England abandoned the KJB and BCP; and none of the other Churches use them).

      My favourite ‘light’ fiction is Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome (which goes with my love of Gilbert and Sullivan).

      I probably don’t have a favourite ‘novel’ – none have endured in the way of LotR; and the same probably applies to plays… maybe Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream? Favourite opera is Mozart’s Magic Flute.

      In terms of non-fiction – which is probably what you meant – I don’t really have a canon; rather, different books were very important at different points in my life – and many of these I would regard as having done me harm.

      (A lot of reading is a kind of self-manipulation – and this can of course be badly motivated.)

      But it is interesting that I have never had a sustained admiration for any philosopher. Probably I spent more time on Nietzsche than anyone else; but I never really got anywhere with him, and he is clearly harmful to most people most of the time – including me. I tend to think the whole enterprise of philosophy (as distinct from theology) is fundamentally and fatally misconceived (and theology is mostly misconceived – St John the Evangelist (and author of Revelation) and St Paul did most of what is necessary and the Holy Fathers did the rest, as much by holiness as by philosophy. The rest is neophilia and pride…

      My strangest preference is that I like essays; perhaps more than any other form.

      I also read quite a lot of biographies, memoirs, letters, diaries and the like.

  4. Pingback: Dream experiment methodology | Bugs to fearen babes withall

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