Tag Archives: J. W. Dunne

The four dimensions

Preparatory to analyzing J. W. Dunne’s theory of multiple temporal dimensions, as laid out in his book An Experiment with Time, I am trying to clarify my understanding of the four “regular” dimensions of spacetime. This post represents my first stab.

I am very definitely in over my head on this particular topic and would greatly appreciate any helpful comments my readers can offer.

What is a dimension?

Dunne defines a dimension as “any way in which a thing can be measured that is entirely different from all other ways.” This definition requires some modification, since there is no way of measuring which is entirely different from all other ways. Consider, for example, the “ways” indicated by the different colored lines on the below diagram.

lines

Each “way” consists of a pair of complementary directions. For example, the way indicated by the red line is that corresponding to the directions “up” and “down” on your monitor, while the blue line indicates the “left-and-right” way. We do not have convenient words for the ways indicated by the other three lines. In what follows, I will refer to these ways by the colors I have used to represent them above. Thus, Red and Blue refer to up-and-down and right-and-left, respectively; and Green, Yellow, and Purple refer to the other three ways.

If we imagine these lines extending arbitrarily far in each direction, then any motion which would bring something closer to one of the line’s endpoints and farther from the other, constitutes motion in that way.

For any two ways, A and B, A is considered to be “entirely different” from B if it is possible to move in way A without moving in way B at all. Therefore, Red is entirely different from Blue because it is possible to move up or down without moving right or left at all. However, none of the other ways is entirely different from Red, because any movement in the Green, Yellow, or Purple way entails moving “up” or “down.” Likewise, Green and Yellow are entirely different from each other, but neither is entirely different from any of the other ways.

In short, “entirely different” turns out to mean perpendicular. Two ways are entirely different if and only if they are at right angles to each other.

So, which of the lines in the diagram should be considered “dimensions”? According to the literal meaning of Dunne’s definition, none of them — because none of the lines is perpendicular to all the other lines in the diagram, let alone to all the other lines we might conceivably draw.

In fact, dimensionality is not a property of a way, but of a set of ways. Modifying Dunne’s definition, we might say that a set of ways constitutes a set of dimensions if and only if all of the ways in the set are mutually perpendicular. Thus, the set {Red, Blue} is a set of dimensions, and so is the set {Green, Yellow}. No other sets of dimensions are possible using only the lines in the diagram, but of course there is nothing to stop us from drawing other lines. If we drew a pink line perpendicular to the purple one, then {Pink, Purple} would also be a set of dimensions. Infinitely many such sets are possible. However, if we restrict ourselves to ways which correspond to lines on the surface of your monitor, no set of dimensions can ever contain more than two members. That is what is meant by saying that the monitor is a two-dimensional surface. Any motion on the monitor is motion in two dimensions — but if you ask what two dimensions those are, there is no one correct answer (though there are of course many incorrect answers, since no two non-perpendicular ways can constitute a set of dimensions). We tend to think of up-and-down and left-and-right (i.e., Red and Blue) as being the dimensions of the monitor — but this is simply a bias of human psychology; in geometric terms, there is nothing special about that particular set of perpendiculars.

Our three-dimensional world

Once we move off the surface of your monitor and into the world we inhabit, we are in a three-dimensional space, meaning that it is now possible to create a set of three mutually perpendicular ways.

As with the two-dimensional world of the monitor, there are infinitely many possible sets of dimensions, no one of which can be privileged over the others in strictly geometric terms. (Take the three mutually perpendicular ways defined by the edges of a cube. You can rotate the cube every which way, but the edges remain mutually perpendicular and therefore correspond to a set of dimensions.)

In practice, though, one of these infinitely many ways is singled out by us as “special” and is virtually always considered a dimension. This is the vertical dimension of up-and-down, the one defined (for each person) by a line which passes through that person’s body and the center of the earth. The other two dimensions are lumped together under the heading “horizontal,” and it is understood to be fairly arbitrary precisely which two horizontal ways are to be considered dimensions. We might think of the other two dimensions as north-and-south and east-and-west, or as forward-and-backward and left-and-right, or any number of other possibilities — but these ways lack the distinctive character of “up” and “down.”

The specialness of verticality has nothing to do with geometry, but is a consequence of the fact that we live in a gravity well. “Down” is the direction in which things fall, and “up” is its opposite. All of the things we interact with in daily life behave as if “up” and “down” were quite different from all other directions, and so we naturally think of them as different.

Time as a fourth dimension

Whatever set of three spatial dimensions we choose, time is perpendicular to them all — because something can extend from past-to-future without affecting its extension in any of the spatial dimensions. Time would thus appear to be a fourth dimension of our world, no geometrically different from the other three — though, like verticality, it is considered “special” or “different” for non-geometric reasons.

As H. G. Wells’s Time Traveller explains it,

any real body must have extension in four directions: it must have Length, Breadth, Thickness, and–Duration. But through a natural infirmity of the flesh, which I will explain to you in a moment, we incline to overlook this fact. There are really four dimensions, three which we call the three planes of Space, and a fourth, Time. There is, however, a tendency to draw an unreal distinction between the former three dimensions and the latter, because it happens that our consciousness moves intermittently in one direction along the latter from the beginning to the end of our lives…. There is no difference between Time and any of the three dimensions of Space except that our consciousness moves along it.

Is that really true, though? Time seems to be really different in a way that the vertical dimension is not.

Consider our cube. We can rotate the cube so that the edge which once extended north-to-south  now extends east-to-west — or up-to-down, or northeast-to-southwest, or (to coin a couple of words) northup-to-southdown. But can we rotate it so that it extends past-to-future? We can turn a cube such that what was once called its “height” is now its “length” — but can we turn it such that its height becomes its duration? Of course not.

Another problem is that, while all other dimensions can be measured using the same units — inches or centimeters or whatever — time cannot. Can we conceive of a tesseract (four-dimensional analogue of a cube) for which time is the fourth dimension — that is, a shape whose length, width, height, and duration are all equal? What could that even mean? How many seconds or minutes or days should be considered equal to an inch? Duration appears to be incommensurable with all other dimensions, which casts serious doubt on the proposition that it is just another dimension.

Sir Arthur Eddington, in Space, Time, and Gravitation (quoted by Dunne), makes the implicit claim that time and space are commensurable:

An individual is a four-dimensional object of greatly elongated form; in ordinary language we say that he has considerable extension in time and insignificant extension in space. Practically he is represented by a line . . .

Eddington’s statement makes sense only if we take it for granted that threescore years and ten is much longer than six feet — implying that there is some common standard of measurement which is applicable to both space and time. But there is no such standard. We consider 70 years a fairly “long” duration as durations go, and six feet is a “short” distance, and so in a metaphorical way we can speak of them as if they were commensurable — just as we might say someone is “as honest as the day is long” or “even more intelligent than she is beautiful.”  Eddington’s characterization of the four-dimensional individual as “greatly elongated,” while it presents itself as an objective scientific description, is in fact just an imprecise metaphor, a figure of speech. However, I will concede that it is a particularly natural metaphor, one that seems like it could be literally true in a way that “Milton was as puritanical as a pig is fat” does not.

But the theory of time put forward by Dunne seems to require that time and space be commensurable — that it be possible to compare a temporal duration and a spatial distance and say which is longer — for, according to Dunne, this difference in length is precisely what makes time time, what distinguishes it from space. In making “an artificial distinction between time and space,” any given observer

would regard Time as stretching in the direction in which his body line extended. It would follow that his body line would seem to him to be running straight up this Time dimension of his, and not bending this way and that in Space — i.e., sitting in a railway train, he would seem to himself (until he began to speculate about it) to be at rest.

Dunne’s language is again somewhat imprecise here. We cannot speak of “the” direction in which a person’s “body line” extends, because it is not a true geometric line but rather a solid extended in four dimensions. However, looking at this four-dimensional object, we see that its extension in one particular direction is very much greater than its extension in any other direction, and we therefore identify that direction as being the time dimension as perceived by that person. This is meaningless unless all four dimensions can be measured in the same units.

Einstein’s idea of the relativity of simultaneity — which states that precisely which direction is “time” may be slightly different for different observers — also implies that time and space must be commensurable. Time and space are fundamentally the same thing and must therefore be measurable in like terms. I’m sure there’s a Nobel Prize waiting for whomever can discover precisely how many days there are to a cubit, because as far as I know no one has heretofore done so. (If I’m simply displaying my ignorance here, more physics-literate readers are encouraged to set me straight in the comments. I freely admit that my understanding of relativity is roughly three times as shallow as my eyes are blue.)

Clearly, then, time is very different from the other dimensions, and not just by virtue of the fact that “our consciousness moves [sic] along it.” The other three dimensions are arbitrary; provided only that they are mutually perpendicular (and perpendicular to the non-arbitrary dimension of time), any three ways we care to choose will serve equally well. But the fourth dimension must be time. North-and-south is an arbitrary dimension; northeast-and-southwest would serve just as well. Up-and-down is somewhat less arbitrary, but still we could in theory choose to use upeast-and-downwest or some similar “diagonal” way instead. But “spatiotemporally diagonal” dimensions are inconceivable. There can be no such dimension as northpast-and-southfuture, because things can’t be rotated that way and we have no units for measuring extension in those directions.

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If we want to preserve the idea of time as just another dimension, not fundamentally different from the other three, it seems we must commit to the assumption that time and space are commensurable in theory — but that for some extrageometric reason or reasons (e.g., some inconvenient facts of physics or psychology) we are unable in practice to measure them in the same units. Can we make sense of such a supposition?

Imagine a world in which, due to some obscure law of physics, the verticality of everything is fixed. In this world, things can be rotated only on a horizontal plane. You can turn a cube such that its north face becomes its west face, for example, but not such that its top and bottom cease to be its top and bottom. In such a world, it would be impossible to measure a cube’s height with the same ruler used to measure its horizontal dimensions. There would be vertical rulers and horizontal rulers, and neither could be so rotated as to become the other. It would follow that vertical and horizontal distances would have to be measured in different units. We could never discover how to convert horizontal units into vertical ones, because we could never lay the two rulers side by side and see how they lined up.

Still, it seems intuitively that even in such a world we would be able to “eyeball” things and get a rough sense of the ratio of height to width, without any need to use actual rulers. But maybe it would be harder than I imagine; maybe that “eyeballing” ability depends on the ability to mentally rotate things, which in turn depends on past experience actually rotating things. Maybe the inhabitants of our hypothetical world would have very little ability to compare vertical and horizontal lengths even in approximate terms.

So perhaps some analogous state of affairs holds in the real world. Perhaps some contingent fact of physics makes it impossible to rotate things spatiotemporally, and perhaps that in turn makes it impossible for us to compare temporal and spatial distances with any precision. And perhaps Eddington’s intuitive sense that a year is much longer than an inch represents a rudimentary “eyeball” measurement which is valid as far as it goes despite its lack of precision.

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Well, this post has gotten quite long enough, so I think I’ll take a breather. Next I’ll be going through Dunne’s argument that there is more than one dimension of time.

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Dunne’s theory of infinite temporal dimensions

In addition to detailing his experiments with precognition, J. W. Dunne’s book An Experiment with Time proposes a theory of time — which he calls “Serialism” — to account for his observations. Although it was his precognitive experiences that motivated Dunne to rethink the nature of time, he maintains that his theory is not dependent on empirical evidence of that nature but rather follows directly from certain commonsense propositions about the nature of time which are universally accepted by non-philosophers everywhere.

It is never entirely safe to laugh at the metaphysics of the ‘man-in-the-street’. Basic ideas which have become enshrined in popular language cannot be wholly foolish or unwarranted. For that sort of canonization must mean, at least, that the notions in question have stood the test of numerous centuries and have been accorded unhesitating acceptance wherever speech has been made. . . .

[The man-in-the-street’s] conclusions regarding the character of his discovery seem to have been very emphatic in detail, if slightly uncertain in synthesis. His idea was that temporal happenings involved motion in a fourth dimension.

Of course he did not call it a fourth dimension — his vocabulary hardly admitted of that — but he was entirely convinced:

  1. That Time had a length, divisible into ‘past and ‘future’.
  2. That this length was not extended in any Space that he knew of. It stretched neither north-and-south, nor east-and-west, nor up-and-down, but in a direction different from any of those three — that is to say, in a fourth direction.
  3. That neither the past nor the future was observable. All observable phenomena lay in a field situated at a unique ‘instant’ in the Time length — an instant, dividing the past from the future — which instant he called ‘the present’.
  4. That this ‘present’ field of observation moved in some queer fashion along the Time length; so that events which were at first in the future became present and then past. The past was thus constantly growing. This motion he called the ‘passage’ of Time.

There is a point here worth noting. . . . An examination of the last paragraph will show that many of the words therein [those in boldface above] refer to another Time, and not to the Time stretch over which the passage of the ‘present’ field of observation was supposed to take place.

I find this to be a very compelling argument for the existence of a second temporal dimension, a sort of “meta-time.” The only way to avoid the necessity of a “time behind time” is to flatly deny our hypothetical pedestrian’s problematic fourth axiom, insisting that some of the most basic, immediate features of our conscious experience are entirely illusory or even meaningless. It is possible to do this, and I have taken such an approach to time in the past (see my post on “Two solipsisms“), but this is in the end a cop-out, a failure of philosophy to take into account all the relevant data. A theory of time which simply denies that time elapses is unacceptable; better even to give up and write time off as an insoluble mystery than to smooth over its apparent contradictions by simply throwing away some of the explicanda and pretending that the problem has been solved. “Eternalism” as I have presented it in the past is simply dysfunctional philosophy.

Later in the book, Dunne illustrates the need for a second temporal dimension by means of an elegant metaphor.

He [i.e., our man-in-the-street] symbolized this general conception of Time in several ways; most exhaustively, perhaps, in his sheets of piano music. In these, the dimension running up-and-down the page represented Space, and intervals measured that way represented distances along the instrument’s keyboard; while the dimension running across the page from side to side represented the Time length, and intervals measured that way indicated the durations of the notes and of the pauses between them. But that did not complete the symbol. So far, the page represented merely what we should, today, call a ‘Space-time continuum’. In order to complete the symbol, it was intended that the player’s point of vision should travel from left to right along the model Time dimension, and that the written chords should be played as this moving point, representing the moving ‘Present’, reached them.

The key point here is that the motion of the pianist’s eyes over the sheet music is something that cannot be represented in the two dimensions of the sheet music itself. The horizontal dimension of the page represents time — but the motion of the pianist’s eyes takes place in a distinct temporal dimension, in a time behind that time.

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However, it quickly becomes apparent that two temporal dimensions are no more adequate than one. Suppose we were to create three-dimensional sheet music — the vertical dimension representing space, the horizontal representing time, and a third dimension (represented diagonally below) representing the motion of the pianist’s eyes in meta-time.

music

It’s clear that this still doesn’t capture the necessary element of motion, of time passing. It now contains the idea that the notes must be read from left to right — but only if we assume the motion of the pianist’s eyes in the third dimension which has been added to the score. Modeling that motion would require the addition of a fourth dimension, and so on ad infinitum.

No matter how many dimensions of time, meta-time, meta-meta-time, etc. (I may as well adopt Dunne’s more convenient terminology and call them T1, T2, T3, etc.) we add to the diagram, the element of motion is still absent. We still have nothing but a static “space-time continuum” — eppur si muove! Somehow the idea of motion and the “moving present” must be modeled, and yet it seems impossible to do so.

Dunne proposes that the problem can be solved by accepting an infinite number of temporal dimensions. For most purposes we need only concern ourselves with a few of these, but the theory implies that, however many temporal dimensions we may include in a given model, there is necessarily another such dimension behind it, one which cannot be depicted in the model.

I’m not really satisfied with this model, in which each dimension passes the buck to the next, and motion or change is never actually modeled or explained. Nevertheless, given the inadequacy of every other model of time of which I am aware, I am willing to entertain it.

Dunne maintains that, in addition to dealing with the problem of motion, his theory of time, Serialism, also sheds light on a number of other thorny philosophical problems. Near the end of his book he lists his theory’s advantages.

  1. Serialism discloses the existence of a reasonable kind of ‘soul’ — an individual soul which has a definite beginning in absolute Time — a soul whose immortality, being in other dimensions of Time, does not clash with the obvious ending of the individual in the physiologist’s Time dimension, and a soul whose existence does not nullify the physiologist’s discovery that brain activity provides the formal foundation of all mundane experience and of all associative thinking.
  2. It shows that the nature of this soul and of its mental development provides us with a satisfactory answer to the ‘why’ of evolution, of birth, of pain, of sleep, and of death.
  3. It discloses the existence of a superlative general observer, the fount of all that self-consciousness, intention, and intervention which underlies mere mechanical thinking, who contains within himself a less generalized observer who is the personification of all genealogically related life and who is capable of human-like thinking and prevision of a kind quite beyond our individual capabilities. In the superlative observer we individual observers, and that tree of which we are the branches, live and have our being. But there is no coming ‘absorption’ for us; we are already absorbed, and the tendency is towards differentiation.
  4. Its proof of the unity of all flesh in the Superbody and of all minds in the Master-mind supplies the logical foundation needed by every theory of ethics.
  5. It accounts for dreams; it accounts for prophecy; it accounts for self-consciousness and ‘freewill’; while, in its disclosure of the relations between the general and the individual fields of presentation, it provides the first essential to any explanation of what is called, loosely, ‘telepathic communication’.
  6. It does not contradict either modern physics or modern physiology.

A theory which can achieve all this is not lightly to be set aside.

I will admit that, after my first reading of Dunne’s book, I do not properly understand the reasoning behind most of these points — and I’m not sure whether this is because I am not bright enough to “get it” the first time around or because Dunne’s ideas are crazy. (Certainly his theory of time, though apparently quite popular in its day, has since been rejected and forgotten by both the scientific community and the general public.) It is my intention to go through Dunne’s book a few more times in my plodding way until I am confident that I understand him, and then to evaluate the plausibility of his theory. So expect future posts on this topic — but don’t expect them too soon!

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Dunne’s experiments in waking precognition

All quotations below are taken from the 13th chapter of J. W. Dunne’s Experiment with Time, in which he discusses experiments he conducted to determine whether or not the sort of precognition he had observed in dreams could also occur in waking life.

A little consideration suggested that the simplest way to set about a waking experiment would be to take a book which one intended to read within the next few minutes, think determinedly of the title — so as to begin with an idea which should have associational links with whatever one might come upon in that future reading — and then wait for odds and ends of images to come into the mind by simple association.

Obviously, one could save a lot of time by rejecting at once all images which one recognized as pertaining to the past. Also, since the images would be perceived while awake and with one’s wits about one, one might rely more upon one’s memories of them than one could when the memories were formed sleeping, and thus save a vast amount of writing. A brief note of each image should suffice.

In my own attempt at waking precognition (qv), I did not follow this method of beginning with an image which could be expected to have associational links with future experiences. I simply tried to pull images out of thin air. At this I was reasonably successful, but it seems probable that for most people most of the time, such an attempt would generate primarily past- and present-associated images without the aid of a future-oriented associational anchor of some kind.

Actually, the anchoring image needn’t be specifically future-related. Any image which is not obviously associated with one’s past experiences should do. One might choose an image which is timeless and iconic but not commonplace — a tarot card, for instance. I know that many tarot readers use the cards in precisely that manner, as starting points for an associational network of images. Rather than “translating” the cards in a straightforward way, using the conventional divinatory meanings given in the “little white book,” they concentrate on the images themselves and see what comes to them. (Of course studying the LWB and other commentaries on the cards still has its place, since the effect of such study is to create an ever thicker and more intricate network of associatons centered on the cards. One wants to cast one’s associational net as wide as possible.)

As for Dunne’s idea of using the title of a book one is about to read, caution would be necessary, since one’s ideas may have been “contaminated” with past exposure to the book in question. It is not common to buy or borrow a book without first flipping through it a bit, and words and images encountered in that way might stay in the mind after their source has been forgotten. (E-books might be useful in this regard, since it is not convenient to flip through them.) And of course one may also have read reviews of the book, heard discussions about it, etc., and these experiences, too, may leave traces in the mind after the experience itself has been forgotten. It would be best to steer clear of classics and bestsellers.

On the other hand, precognitive images associated with a book title may not necessarily come from the book itself — especially if one is in the habit of reading on trains, taking books on vacations, etc. I know that when I reread a book after many years, my reading often triggers memories of things that were going on in my life at the time of the previous reading, and the same principle could work for future experiences. Dunne’s first book experiment is a good example of this.

The first experiment was a gorgeous success — until I discovered that I had read the book before.

It was interesting, however, as showing the tremendous difficulty the waking mind experiences in freeing itself from its memories. I spent by far the greater part of the time in rejecting images of the past and starting afresh with a mind comparatively blank.

Apart from the items which related to the book (already read), I got only a few ideas, mostly concerning London and the exterior and interior of clubs. The only exception was the single word ‘woodknife‘, which drifted into my mind, seemingly, from nowhere. A little reflection satisfied me that I had never in my life come upon such a word, so I jotted it down.

Two or three days after this I moved, quite unexpectedly, to London. On my arrival, I went to my club, and having for the moment nothing better to do, proceeded to the library, picked out a newly published novel, and tried a second experiment. Result — nil. In fifteen minutes I got only eight images, which did not clearly belong to the ‘past’ half of the associational network. One of these eight related to a kangaroo hunt in Australia — riders and hounds chasing pell-mell after the leaping animal. Another comprised the single word ‘narwhal‘. There was nothing in the book that fitted, and presently I threw it aside.

I then drifted into a little inner library, which is an excellent place for a nap. I chose a comfortable armchair, and, for appearances’ sake, equipped myself with another volume — R. F. Burton’s Book of the Sword, opening this in the middle.

Immediately my eyes fell upon a little picture of an ancient dagger, underneath which was inscribed ‘Knife (wood)‘. I sat up at that, and began to dip into the book, turning back after a moment to page II. There I came upon a reference to the horn of the narwhal. Reading on, I found on the succeeding page the words ‘The “old man” kangaroo, with the long nail of the powerful hind leg, has opened the stomach of many a staunch hound.’

In the above experiment, none of the images which later “came true” actually appeared in the book Dunne was using as an associational anchor, but in extraliterary life (London, clubs) or in other books (woodknife, narwhal, kangaroo hunt).

Dunne goes on to relate several cases in which he successfully foresaw some of the contents of books he was about to read, but these are mostly inconclusive. His most impressive book-related precognition was, again, fulfilled outside the context of the book.

Here I altered the procedure. I opened the book at the beginning, and found the name of one of the characters, being careful not to glance at any other page. It seemed to me that a name which would be likely to occur in close association with many of the incidents of the story would provide a better associational link than does the mere idea of the book’s title. . . .

I then tried a book of Snaith’s, taking the heroine’s name as an associational link. Here I failed completely. But, in the middle of this experiment, I got one very curious image.

It was of an umbrella with a perfectly plain, straight handle, a mere thin extension of the main stick, and of much the same appearance and dimensions as the portion which projected at the ferrule end. This umbrella, folded, was standing unsupported, upside down, handle on the pavement, just outside the Piccadilly Hotel.

I happened to pass that way in a bus the next day. Shortly before we got to the hotel I caught sight of a most eccentric-looking figure walking along the pavement in the same direction, and on the hotel side of the street. It was an old lady, dressed in a freakish, very early-Victorian, black costume, poke bonnet and all. She carried an umbrella in which the handle was merely a plain, thin, unpolished extension of the main stick, of much the same appearance and dimensions as the portion which projected at the ferrule end. She was using this umbrella — closed, of course — as a walking-stick, grasping it pilgrim’s-staff fashion. But she had it upside down. She was holding the ferrule end, and was pounding along towards the hotel with the handle on the pavement.

I need hardly say that I had never before in all my life seen anyone use an umbrella that way.

So it does appear that it can be effective to use an unread book — either the title or the name of one of the characters — as a starting point from which to generate potentially precognitive images. However, results which are found in the book itself may be suspect, for the reasons discussed above; the most convincing precognitions will relate to incidents occurring outside of the book being used.

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Dream experiment postmortem

A couple of years ago I attempted to duplicate the “experiment with time” described in J. W. Dunne’s book of that title. The experiment involves keeping detailed records of one’s dreams for a period of time and noting any resemblances between dream events and waking events which occurred shortly before or shortly after the dream in question. The higher the ratio P:F (the number of past resemblances to future resemblances), the stronger the evidence that apparently precognitive dreams are mere coincidences; the lower the ratio, the stronger the evidence that dream precognition is just as real as dream retrospection.

I posted the dream records I kept during the experiment at experimentsintime.wordpress.com. Relatively few of my dreams turned out to be discernibly connected to specific past or future events, and none of the resemblances I did notice were sufficiently strong to be truly compelling. Of the 23 dreams I recorded (or 23 nights’ worth of dreams, rather; I made no attempt to separate a given night’s dreaming into distinct dreams), 8 exhibited resemblances to specific past events (6 weak, 2 moderate), and 5 resembled specific future events (3 weak, 2 moderate). Thus my experiment would seem to be consistent with Dunne’s thesis that dreams are constructed from a roughly equal mixture of past and future components. (If all future resemblances were coincidental, we would expect past resemblances to outnumber them by at least an order of magnitude). However, the small number of resemblances noted, together with their overall weak quality, means that my experiment cannot be regarded as conclusive either way.

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Apparently I am not a “good” dreamer in the sense that the experiment requires. That is, the raw materials from which my dreams are constructed tend to be integrated to a degree that it becomes difficult to identify the specific experiences on which the dreams are based. Dunne touches on this in his appendix to the third edition of An Experiment with Time.

It is a commonplace of psychology . . . that most structures of the imagination are ‘integration’ — blends of several images associated with several different waking impressions. And it is accepted generally that dream-images are mostly of the same character — certainly, it is very rarely that one comes upon one of these exhibiting an unmixed, photographic resemblance to any scene of waking life. Now, the possibility of discovering in one of these composite structures an element distinctive enough to be recognizable as pertaining to a chronologically definite incident of waking life depends, mainly, upon what may be described as the coarseness of the blending. The more intricate — the more fine-grained — is the integration, the more difficult becomes its analysis. And, with practice in constructing dream-images, just as with practice in waking imagery, the integrations become more fine-grained, more beautifully blended, and, so, less easy to associate with any chronologically distinctive waking incident, past or future (p. 137, Hampton Roads reprint).

I suppose I ought to be pleased that my dreams are so “fine-grained” and “beautifully blended” — that my dreaming self exhibits a high degree of creativity (in the Einsteinian sense of knowing how to hide your sources) — but mostly I am disappointed at my inability so far to evaluate Dunne’s thesis conclusively from my own experience.

Individuals apparently vary widely in the relative “coarseness” of their dreams. In an experiment involving six Oxford students, one of the subjects recorded 21 dreams, of which 18 resembled waking incidents, 6 of those resemblances being judged “good” or strong. Another recorded 16 dreams without finding a single resemblance of any value. It is my bad fortune to be closer to the latter end of the scale.

Another factor may be the regular — not to say boring — character of my day-to-day life, which would reduce the chance that anything in a dream would resemble a distinctive waking event belonging clearly to either the future or the past. Not wanting to burden a holiday with the troublesome task of keeping daily dream records, I ignored Dunne’s advice to carry out the experiment during a break from one’s usual routine — preferably during a vacation in an unfamiliar locale — and instead conducted it during a perfectly ordinary period of time. I shall probably be going to Australia next year for the first time, and may attempt a second experiment during that trip.

*

Some months after the end of my experiment, I did finally have a dream which bore a conclusively strong resemblance to a specific future event.

In my dream, I had the idea that I ought to write a book entitled Pineapples and Apple Pies. It would be an English textbook for use in Taiwan. The title was perfect because it illustrated the rules of compound formation in English: pineapple and apple pie were made up of the same two components (sic) but in a different order; also, pineapple was written as a single word with the stress on the first element, while apple pie was written as two with the stress on the second. I was delighted to have discovered two such common words which were thus related — much more natural than such strained pairs as songbird-birdsong and housecat-cathouse. As an added bonus, a pineapple was something typical of Taiwan, while an apple pie was a well-known symbol of America. (Upon waking, I naturally realized that the elements of the two compounds were not identical after all, that pine and pie were not the same.)

The day after the dream, I was teaching E., a child whom I tutor privately. At each of our sessions, he has to sign a record sheet, and, with a young child’s normal love of nonsense, he often writes a random word or two (often ghost or pig) on the paper after signing his name. This time, the random “word” he wrote was — applepine. When I said, “Applepine? What’s that?” he said, “You know, like pineapple but the other way!” Of course I had never in my life encountered the “word” applepine before, and the odds of running into it by chance the day after my dream are effectively zero. In fact, E.’s choice of that word is so bizarre and unaccountable that I’m almost more inclined to consider it evidence of mind-reading on his part than of precognition on mine.

Unfortunately, even this does not really count as conclusive evidence, since it occurred outside the formal experiment. The key thing is the ratio of clearly precognitive dreams to clearly retrospective ones, and I wasn’t keeping any records of the latter at the time. However, it did serve to keep me interested in the question, and I shall probably conduct further experiments in the future.

*

Dunne also describes similar experiments in waking precognition, something I may try in the future, since my dreams seem to be of such poor quality, and since I have experienced some success with waking precognition in the past, before I ever encountered Dunne’s ideas. The following is taken from an email I wrote to a family member.

Here’s an experiment you can try. Go somewhere dark, roll your eyes up and to the side like people do when they’re trying to remember something, and “try to get something.” Just try to pick something up, like tuning a radio — easier done than explained. When I tried this, the first thing I “got” was the nonsense words “wudder-wudder-wudderfly” followed by a rapid succession of mental images: a green parrot viewed in profile; a short, wide, yellow tin; and something else which I no longer remember. Hours later, at work, one of my coworkers who had just come back from abroad (the Philippines, if memory serves) gave me some snack food from that country — in a package decorated with a green parrot in profile. Another colleague, a Japanese teacher, was doing some sort of cooking activity with her students and has brought some kind of Japanese bean paste or something in a yellow tin like the one I had seen. I can’t remember now what the third image was — this was years ago — but it also “came true.” (Nothing came of “wudder-wudder-wudderfly,” though.) I haven’t tried that particular exercise again — partly because I didn’t know what I was “tuning in” to and it seemed a little creepy, and partly because I didn’t want to ruin the magic by trying it again and not getting anything.

Given that, against the background of Dunne’s theories, precognition no longer seems “creepy” to me, I may try an organized experiment in waking precognition in the near future. Of course it will be impossible to calculate a ratio of precognitive to retrospective images, but if the results are sufficiently striking they may be conclusive anyway.

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The dream experiment is up and running

I’ve begun my Dunne-inspired experiment in dream precognition and will be posting my dream notes (records of dreams, together with notes on their connections with my past and future waking life) on this site. The notes on a given dream will not be published until one month after the dream itself, but I started the experiment just over a month ago, so a couple of dreams are up already. You can read more details of the experiment here.

I’ve found several links between dreams and future events, but so far nothing impressive enough to cast serious doubt on the null hypothesis that dreams do not contain precognitive elements.

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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.

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