What Is Precognition ?

Precognition (from the Latin prae-, “before” and cognitio, “acquiring knowledge“), also called prescience, future vision, future sight is a claimed psychic ability to see events in the future.

As with other paranormal phenomena, there is no accepted scientific evidence that precognition is a real effect and it is widely considered to be pseudoscience. Precognition also appears to violate the principle of causality, that an effect cannot occur before its cause.

Precognition has been widely believed in throughout history. Despite the lack of scientific evidence, many people still believe it to be real; it is still widely reported and remains a topic of research and discussion within the parapsychology community.



Since ancient times, precognition has been associated with trance and dream states involved in phenomena such as prophecy, fortune telling and second sight, as well as waking premonitions. These phenomena were widely accepted and reports have persisted throughout history, with most instances appearing in dreams.

Such claims of seeing the future have never been without their sceptical critics. Aristotle carried out an inquiry into allegedly prophetic dreams in his On Divination in Sleep. He accepted that “it is quite conceivable that some dreams may be tokens and causes [of future events]” but also believed that “most [so-called prophetic] dreams are, however, to be classed as mere coincidences…”. Where Democritushad suggested that emanations from future events could be sent back to the dreamer, Aristotle proposed that it was, rather, the dreamer’s sense impressions which reached forward to the event.

17th–19th centuries

The term “precognition” first appeared in the 17th century but did not come into common use among investigators until much later.

An early investigation into claims of precognition was published by the missionary Fr. P. Boilat in 1883. He claimed to have put an unspoken question to an African witch-doctor whom he mistrusted. Contrary to his expectations, the witch-doctor gave him the correct answer without ever having heard the question.

Early 20th century

In the early 20th century J. W. Dunne, a British aeronautics engineer, experienced several dreams which he regarded as precognitive. He developed techniques to record and analyse them, identifying any correspondences between his future experiences and his recorded dreams. He reported his findings in his 1927 book An Experiment with Time. In it he alleges that 10% of his dreams appeared to include some element of future experience. He also persuaded some friends to try the experiment on themselves, with mixed results. Dunne concluded that precognitive elements in dreams are common and that many people unknowingly have them. He suggested also that dream precognition did not reference any kind of future event, but specifically the future experiences of the dreamer. He was led to this idea when he found that a dream of a volcanic eruption appeared to foresee not the disaster itself but his subsequent misreading of an inaccurate account in a newspaper. In 1932 he helped the Society for Psychical Research to conduct a more formal experiment, but he and the Society’s lead researcher Theodore Besterman failed to agree on the significance of the results. Nevertheless, the Philosopher C. D. Broadremarked that, “The only theory known to me which seems worth consideration is that proposed by Mr. Dunne in his Experiment with Time.”

In 1932 Charles Lindbergh’s infant son was kidnapped, murdered and buried among trees. The psychologists Henry Murray and D. R. Wheeler tested precognitive dreams by inviting the public to report any dreams of the child. A total of 1,300 dreams were reported. Only five percent envisioned the child dead and only 4 of the 1,300 envisioned the location of the grave as amongst trees. This number was no better than chance.

The first ongoing and organized research program on precognition was instituted by Joseph Banks Rhine in the 1930s at Duke University’s Parapsychology Laboratory. Rhine used a method of forced-choice matching in which participants guessed the order of a deck of 25 cards, each five of which bore one of five geometrical symbols. Although his results were positive and gained some academic acceptance, his methods were later shown to be badly flawed and subsequent researchers using more rigorous procedures were unable to reproduce his results. His mathematics was sometimes flawed, the experiments were not double-blinded or even necessarily single-blinded and some of the cards to be guessed were so thin that the symbol could be seen through the backing.

Samuel G. Soal was described by Rhine as one of his harshest critics, running many similar experiments with wholly negative results. However, from around 1940 he ran forced-choice ESP experiments in which a subject attempted to identify which of five animal pictures a subject in another room was looking at. Their performance on this task was at chance, but when the scores were matched with the card that came after the target card, three of the thirteen subjects showed a very high hit rate. Rhine now described Soal’s work as “a milestone in the field”. However analyses of Soal’s findings, conducted several years later, concluded that the positive results were more likely the result of deliberate fraud. The controversy continued for many years more. In 1978 the statistician and paragnost Betty Markwick, while seeking to vindicate Soal, discovered that he had tampered with his data. The untainted experimental results showed no evidence of precognition.

Late 20th century

As more modern technology became available, more automated techniques of experimentation were developed that did not rely on hand-scoring of equivalence between targets and guesses, and in which the targets could be more reliably and readily tested at random. In 1969 Helmut Schmidt introduced the use of high-speed random event generators (REG) for precognition testing, and experiments were also conducted at the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Lab. Once again, flaws were found in all of Schmidt’s experiments, when the psychologist C. E. M. Hansel found that several necessary precautions were not taken.

In 1963 the BBC television programme Monitor broadcast an appeal by the writer J.B. Priestley for experiences which challenged our understanding of Time. He received hundreds of letters in reply and believed that many of them described genuine precognitive dreams. In 2014 the BBC Radio 4 broadcaster Francis Spufford revisited Priestley’s work and its relation to the ideas of J.W. Dunne.

David Ryback, a psychologist in Atlanta, used a questionnaire survey approach to investigate precognitive dreaming in college students. His survey of over 433 participants showed that 290 or 66.9 percent reported some form of paranormal dream. He rejected many of these reports, but claimed that 8.8 percent of the population was having actual precognitive dreams.

G. W. Lambert, a former Council member of the SPR, proposed five criteria that needed to be met before an account of a precognitive dream could be regarded as credible:

  1. The dream should be reported to a credible witness before the event.
  2. The time interval between the dream and the event should be short.
  3. The event should be unexpected at the time of the dream.
  4. The description should be of an event destined literally, and not symbolically, to happen.
  5. The details of dream and event should tally.

21st century

In 2011 the psychologist Daryl Bem, a Professor Emeritus at Cornell University, published findings showing statistical evidence for precognition in an upper tier journal, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The paper was heavily criticised and the criticism widened to include the journal itself and the validity of the peer review process. Public controversy over the paper continued until in 2012 the results were published of an independent attempt to reproduce Bem’s results, which failed to do so.

Scientific criticism

Claims of precognition are, like any other claims, open to scientific criticism. However the nature of the criticism must adapt to the nature of the claim.

Claims of precognition are criticised on two main grounds:

  • There is no known scientific mechanism which would allow precognition. It appears to require either action-at-a-distance or telepathic effects, which break known scientific laws.
  • A large body of experimental work has produced no accepted scientific evidence that precognition exists.

Consequently, precognition is widely considered to be pseudoscience.

Violation of natural law

Precognition would violate the principle of antecedence (causality), that an effect does not happen before its cause. Information passing backwards in time would need to be carried by physical particles doing the same. Experimental evidence from high-energy physics suggests that this cannot happen. There is therefore no direct justification for precognition from physics.”

Precognition contradicts “most of the neuroscience and psychology literature, from electrophysiology and neuroimaging to temporal effects found in psychophysical research.” It is considered a delusion by mainstream psychiatry.

The relatively new discovery of evidence for quantum retrocausality is sometimes suggested as a possible mechanism for precognition. However it is generally held that such “quantum weirdness”, even if it is shown to exist, cannot carry information at a macroscopic level.

Lack of evidence

A great deal of evidence for precognition has been put forward, both as witnessed anecdotes and as experimental results, but none has yet been accepted as rigorous scientific proof of the phenomenon.

Alternative explanations

Various known psychological processes have been put forward to explain experiences of apparent precognition. These include:

  • Déjà vu or identifying paramnesia, where people conjure up a false memory of a vision having occurred before the actual event.
  • Unconscious perception, where people unconsciously infer, from data they have unconsciously learned, that a certain event will probably happen in a certain context. When the event occurs, the former knowledge appears to have been acquired without the aid of recognized channels of information.
  • Self-fulfilling prophecy and unconscious enactment, where people unconsciously bring about events which they have previously imagined.
  • Memory biases, where people selectively distort past experiences to match subsequent events. In one experiment, subjects were asked to write down their dreams in a diary. This prevented the selective memory effect, and the dreams no longer seemed accurate about the future.
  • Coincidence, where apparent instances of precognition in fact arise from the law of large numbers.
  • Retrofitting, which involves after-the-fact matching of an event to an imprecise previous prediction. Retrofitting provides an explanation for the supposed accuracy of Nostradamus’s vague prediction. For example, quatrain I:60 states “A ruler born near Italy ….. He’s less a prince than a butcher.” The phrase “near Italy” can be construed as covering a very broad range of geography, while no details are provided by Nostradamus regarding the era when this ruler will live. Because of this vagueness, and the flexibility of retrofitting, this quatrain has been interpreted by some as referring to Napoleon, but by others as referring to the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II, and by others still as a reference to Hitler.

Cultural impact

Popular belief

Premonitions have sometimes affected the course of important historical events. Related activities such as prophecy and fortune telling have been practised throughout history and are still popular today.

Despite the lack of scientific evidence, many people still believe in precognition. A 1978 poll found that 37% of Americans surveyed believed in it. According to some psychologists, belief is greater in college women than in men, and a 2007 poll found that women were more prone to superstitious beliefs in general. Some studies have been carried out on psychological reasons for such a belief. One such study suggested that greater belief in precognition was held by those who feel low in control, and the belief can act as a psychological coping mechanism.

Literary references

J. W. Dunne’s main work An Experiment with Time was widely read and “undoubtedly helped to form something of the imaginative climate of [the interwar] years”, influencing many writers of both fact and fiction both then and since. Major writers whose work was significantly influenced by his ideas on dream precognition include H. G. Wells, J. B. Priestley and Vladimir Nabokov. Philippa Pearce’s 1958 childhood fantasy Tom’s Midnight Garden won the British literary Carnegie Medal.

Many American writers of F&SF have used precognition as a plot device. For example Robert Heinlein employed it in Elsewhen and Lost Legacy, republished in his 1953 collection Assignment in Eternity, and Philip K. Dick’s 1956 science fiction short story The Minority Report used precognition as a central plot element, as did his 1956 novel The World Jones Made.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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