Somewhere between the external world of objects and forces, and the inner world of thoughts, feelings and dreams, lies a realm so paradoxical and incomprehensible we feel compelled to label it “the paranormal”. Whether manifesting as a premonitory dream, a vision of an accident occurring hundreds of kilometers away, or an apparitional visitation at the hour of a loved one’s death, psychic experiences seem to contradict the laws of physics; they defy our commonsense understanding of what’s possible and impossible. Yet, those who have had such experiences typically believe they were “for real” – neither figment of their imagination, nor mere coincidence.
To many, psychic experiences are real, but they should be treated like miracles: they appear once or twice in a lifetime, they come and go unexpectedly, they are hopelessly beyond volition, control, or even understanding – and all that’s okay. After all, in a post-modern world, where pluralism reigns and the hope for eternal, universally accepted truths or explanations seem like a chimera, there seems to be no need to ultimately understand and classify everything.
But not everyone can live with unresolved puzzles and paradox. Scientists, in particular, tend to be phobic of loose ends in their conceptual horizon, particularly when it comes down to things that seem to touch the very fabric of the universe we live in. “Official science” simply denies there is such a thing as “the paranormal”; it just doesn’t seem to fit in with the mechanics of the world, as it is known to science. The attitude is, “it’s all tricks errors, and illusions”; there is no mystery, no conceptual challenge, no puzzle to be resolved. Indeed, the “paranormal” is not just ignored or rejected; it is off limits, taboo. A self-respecting academic scientist who shows sustained interest in psychic phenomena may pay a heavy career cost, for deviating from the party line.
Beyond this stance, however, there also exists a minority position, one more consistent with the true spirit of science. That is to honestly attempt to face the puzzle and paradox of psychic phenomena, and do whatever it takes to resolve them — one way or another. Historically, this is the approach most clearly adopted by psychical research, or parapsychology, which attempts to investigate psychic experiences (or “psi”) through surveys, field studies, conceptual analyses, experiments, generally through accepted scientific tools and methods. The experiences studied include telepathy (also known as “thought transmission”), clairvoyance or Remote Viewing (directly picking up verifiable information about a distant event) precognition (receiving information about a future, normally unpredictable event) and psychokinesis (mentally influencing remote physical or biological systems). The principal aim of parapsychology is to determine whether such experiences are rooted in some objective, verifiable reality or whether they are “just” subjective – errors, illusions, hallucinations.
Despite the extreme elusiveness of the phenomena, and the many obstacles facing those who try to study them, there is now a very substantial body of experimental evidence in favor of the above four types of psi (1). In this article I would like to focus just on one phenomenon, perhaps the most provocative of them all : precognition.
Is the Future Present?
On the timeline we call life, the present and the past have a priveleged status : they’re accessible to the mind. We’re generally pretty sure about what we’re doing and perceiving right now; and, to varying degrees, we do remember what we lived through in the near or remote past. But it seems that our perception of future events is simply excluded, for the future hasn’t quite yet arrived.
From a strictly physical perspective, this is quite strange. Physical dimensions are mostly symmetrical and indifferent to direction (we can move up or down, left or right, etc.); yet the time-dimension seems to flow only one way, thus suggesting a basic asymmetry. On the other hand, if real, precognition appears to challenge this asymmetry, and suggests that the future may also be “present”, even if not quite as accessible as the past. For in precognitive experiences, the person “sees” (via a vision, a presentiment, a dream), a future event which could not, in principle, be deduced from existing knowledge. For example, consider this case:
I had clearly seen, in a dream, a plane crash at the shore of a lake and the roof of the third cottage on that dirt track in flames as a result. There was only one man and he burned up.
I tried to write two overdue letters that morning, but I found myself telling my correspondents about it (the dreamed accident) and also the fact that the fire engine would go in by the canal and be unable to get to the plane until it was too late. It was so clear, I was conscious of every plane that went over that day. Late in the afternoon the lights were on and I was at the electric range stirring something for dinner when I said, “That’s the plane-the one that’s going to crash! Robert, stop the firemen before they try the canal; they have to take the basin road and they don’t know it”.
My husband went outdoors to listen, and put his head in to say, “That plane’s all right”, only to have me shriek, “It is not!” Within seconds the plane crashed. The firemen took the canal instead of the basin road, and the pilot was burned to a crisp. The cottage was only slightly damaged … and I was a wreck for weeks wondering how I could have prevented it (2).
The woman giving this account concludes with a question of existential proportions: could I have prevented it? Like the tortured hero of Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, this question has obsessed any philosopher who has ever tried to deal with the possibility of precognition. If we can accurately foresee the future, does this not mean that our future is already “written”, rather than being an open-ended field of possibilities? Does the reality of precognition open the door to predestination and exclude the reality of free will ? Or, on the contrary, could it it be that precognition gives an extraordinary boost to free will by providing us information and choice which we wouldn’t normally have — for example, helping us to steer us away from a deadly foreseen future? Consider the following case:
A woman in New York dreamed that she heard a scream, turned around, and saw her two year old son falling from an open window. She then heard the siren of an ambulance in front of the house.
Frightened awake, she checked the baby and then the window. Everything was in order. A couple of days later, she put the child’s mattress on the window for airing and pulled the windwo tightly down on it. She was busy in the next room when she suddenly remembered the dream. She ran into the baby’s room. He had managed to push the window up and had climbed onto the window sill. She grabbed him the minute he was about to fall. The mattress had already fallen (3).
Here, at least, it seems that knowing the future helped change it. But if so, then the “true” future (the one that actually manifest) turns out to be different from the one she saw in the dream (in which the woman’s son falls out of the window). So where did that precognitive dream come from, if not from the actual future?
Precognition gets us into mind-twisting paradoxes, along with deep questions on mechanistic vs finalistic causality, and free will vs. determinism or. But before we start worrying about all this, we first should determine how good the evidence for precognition really is.
There are plenty of reported cases, like the ones above, from quite ordinary people. Precognition is one of the most common psychic experiences. For example, a survey in Germany shows that of 1000 psychic experiences reported, 52% were precognitive; in another survey, in the USA, of 3290 cases reported, 40% were precognitive (68% of these experiences occurred during a dream).
But the problem with anecdotes is that human testimony is fallible : experiences interpreted as precognitive may in fact be based on coincidences, faulty memory, unconscious inferences, wishful thinking, exaggeration. Of course, researchers do take such problems into account: to be credible, a reported experience should involve a future event which could not have been anticipated on the basis of current knowledge; it must involve precise, idiosyncratic details about the future event, rather than just vague generalities ; and it must have been recorded or told to independent witnesses before the precognized event occurs. Nevertheless, the fact remains that case-studies are necessarily “after the fact”; they don’t allow us to go very far in establishing why and how such experiences occur. To make a more solid case for precognition, it would better if we could conduct laboratory studies, to examine the phenomenon under controlled conditions, in “real time” rather than after the fact.
The evolution of laboratory precognition
It’s pretty simple to conduct a precognition experiment. Basically you just need two fundamental ingredients:
a probabilistic system (a coin, a die), that generates random, intrinsically unpredictable events (like heads vs. tails);
a person that chooses one of the possible events (for example, heads) before the random system is launched.
Record the subject’s guess, record the subsequent result of the coin-tosser, repeat the whole process a thousand times, and you have a basic quantitative precognition experiment. All that’s left is to count the number of coincidences between the guess and the actual result, and determine statistically whether that number is close to chance (in the case of a coin, about 50% “hits”, 50% “misses”) or whether it exceeds chance expectation to a significant degree – suggesting a small, but detectable form of precognition.
Of course, in actuality the experiments are a bit more sophisticated. They have evolved from early setups with mechanical random systems (like mechanical card-shufflers), to electronic systems based on strictly random microphysical processes (e.g. the decomposition of radioactive material). A global analysis of over 300 such experiments, conducted between 1935 and 1987, and involving over 50000 participantz, shows a small but extremely significant cumulative tendency for subjects to “beat” chance in their predictions (4). This analysis makes a very strong case for the reality of precognition, one based not on anecdotes, but on quantitative experiments that exclude interpretations and subjectivity.
This global analysis revealed a very interesting trend. The sooner participants received feedback about the accuracy of their guesses, the stronger the results ; the worst results were when they received no feedback at all. Why is this important? Because it suggests that the experience of feedback itself may be a key factor in “triggering”, retroactively, the phenomenon of precognition. Put otherwise, if there’s no future sensory perception of the actual “target” event (giving feedback as to whether a guess was right or wrong), then there’s no precognition.
This seems to confirm a curious finding in spontaneous cases: people’s reports suggest that they are “tuning in” not to the objective future event itself, but rather to their own perception of that future event. For example, a person who had a premonitory dream about an earthquake, reported a number he had “seen” corresponding to the death toll. In fact, the earthquake did occur; the person read about it in a newspaper article, and the precognized figure on the death toll was indeed in that article. However, that figure was in error: the real death toll was far off from the one initially reported.
In short, data from experiments and from case studies suggest that precognition is not a “direct” knowledge of things, but mediated by our own future perceptions, and the consequent memories of the event : precognition is our “memory of the future”. If so, then I cannot precognize something I will never live to perceive (i.e., something that occurs after my death), for I will have no future experience, or memory, to “tune into”. Conversely, this theory would have to be rejected if we can establish clearcut cases of long term precognitions -for example, if the prophecies of Nostradamus could be demonstrated to be real.
Some of the most exciting research today focuses on very short-term precognitions, and bypass the conscious mind altogether. In presentiment experiments, rather than asking people to guess “heads or tails”, we use an index of the body’s autonomic activity – heart rate, sweat-gland activity, blood pressure – to determine whether the person’s unconscious somehow anticipates events in the near-future. The experimental subject, seated in front of a computer screen, is connected to sensors that measure, say, skin conductivity (one of the indices used in lie detectors). The computer contains a large databank of photos, which are either agreeably neutral (a nice landscape, two children playing) or very violent and offensive (somebody being stabbed, an attack dog baring its teeth at you, etc.). Every minute or so, a random generator “decides” which of the two kinds of images will be shown, and the computer then displays it. Needless to say, the physiological reaction of the subject will depend on the quality of the image shown, with a rather flat reaction to neutral images, and a sharp peak for shocking ones. Nothing surprising here. But what is surprising, and very exciting, is that the person’s physiology reacts differentially to these two kinds of images even before they are seen. A future violent image somehow “pre-triggers” a spike similar to (though smaller than) what we see following exposure to that image; by contrast, the body’s “pre-reaction” is quite flat, when the future image turns out to be neutral. It is as if, at some deep, unconscious level, the person “knows”, beforehand, whether or not the upcoming experience will be disturbing.
What does it all mean?
If we accept that the scientific case for precognition is quite strong, the next question is… So what? Are there any pragmatic consequences, can we use it, either on an individual or a collective basis?
I think that the best answer we can give right now is a heavily qualified “maybe”. First, it could well be that nature has some built-in laws precluding biological systems from an open-ended access to the future; so, although there are many spontaneous cases of precognition, and although we can demonstrate low-level precognition in the laboratory, we may never get to a fully reliable, operational “psycho-technology” to produce it on demand.
On the other hand, it is true that we’re just in the infancy of psi research. If physics is the “queen” of sciences, and biology is now coming of age, it is largely because these fields have been around for several centuries, and have benefited from a growing influx of brains, money, and societal support. Psychical research has only been around for a century, deals with far more elusive phenomena, and has consistently been marginalized by the orthdoxy on all fronts. So it may be understandable that right now, we’re nowhere near a reliable procedure to produce precognition on demand, like the floating precog’s of Spielberg’s Minority Report. But someday, we might be.
Delphi Associates, a small California-based group of parapsychologists, working with a gifted subject, tried their hand at precognitive applications on the stock exchange. In the first series, they made 9 predictions on the fluctuations in silver fortunes, and invested accordingly. All 9 predictions were correct, both in the direction and amplitude of the movements, and they made a hefty profit of $120,000 (5). It should be noted that these predictions were done in what is known as a “double blind” protocol, completely independently of any rational elements which could help them predict the stock movements. On the other hand, their second attempt, following a much more rapid rhythm and bigger stakes, turned out to be quite unsuccessful ; but it is certainly worth pondering whether these kinds of approaches can be studied and enhanced.
Closer to home, as spontaneous cases suggest, it could be that a low-level, unintentional and unconscious form of precognition subtly shapes our decisions and actions, through intuitions, gut feelings, or premonitions. A study conducted in the 1950s examined train accidents, to determine whether people somehow avoided trains which were destined to have an accident (6). Taking as a basis 28 serous railroad accidents in the US, the researchers found a significant drop in the number of passengers present on the ill-fated trains vs. on the same trains one week earlier. More recently, researchers collecting spontaneous cases report that one of the most dense “spates” of premonitory dreams ever registered came in the days and hours prior to September 11 2001.
Perhaps even a weak trickle of information from the future can be of some use – at least for those individuals who are “open” to such “irrational” forms of information and prepared to act on it, as a study of successful business leaders suggests (7). If so, it is conceivable that we can enhance our access to this kind of information and that we may eventually develop collective “early warning systems” which help move us toward decisions and actions consistent with our future well-being.
But applications isn’t everything — there’s also the question of implications. What does the existence of precognition tell us about ourselves, about reality itself? Does it suggest that time is symmetrical, carrying information not only from the past but from the future as well ? Should we re-introduce the idea of finalistic causality, over and above that of mechanistic, billiard-ball causality ? We’re well accustomed to the idea that our childhood, our genetic heritage, mold our present perceptions and actions; is it time to balance things out and recognize that, somehow, our future also shapes the “here and now” of life? Does precognition imply that the mind — or rather, the unconscious mind – is “spread out”, covering the full life of a person, containing not only individuals’ past, but also, to some degree, their future? How would this affect our understanding of free will and personal responsability?
These are no more than open-ended questions, for now; but perhaps it is time we start taking precognition seriously, and face the challenges and opportunities it poses for mankind.
(1) For a good overview of the experimental evidence, see Dean Radin The Conscious Universe. San Francisco: HarperEdge, 1997
(2) Cited from Richard Broughton The Controversial Science. New York: Ballantine Books, 1991
(3) Cited from Louise E..Rhine The Invisible Picture. New York: McFarland, 1981
(4) Charles Honorton, & Diane Ferrari. “Future Telling : A meta analysis of forced choice precognition experiments 1935-1987”. Journal of Parapsychology, 1989, 53, pp 281-308.
(5) “Did Psychic powers give firm a killing in the Silver market?” Wall Street Journal October 22 1984.
(6) Cox, W. Precognition : An analysis. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research,, 1956. 50, 99-109.
(7) Douglas Dean, John Mihalasky, Sheila Ostrander and Lynn Schroeder, Executive ESP. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1974