Precognitions, visions of future events to come, have been noted regularly not only in the literature of psychical research but in that of science itself for more than 2,000 years. The Bible includes a collection of divinely inspired prophecies and promises. Over the centuries, an argument that time is not an absolute has been building up. A great number of psi researchers have suggested that the common concept of time might be due to the special pattern in which humankind's sensory apparatus has evolved. One thing seems certain about true precognition: whether it comes about through a dream or the vision of a seer, the percipient does not see possibilities but actualities.
In 1934, H. F. Saltmarsh issued a report to the London Society for Psychical Research in which he had made a critical study of 349 cases of precognition. In the report, and later in his book Foreknowledge (1938), Saltmarsh established the following conditions that would, in his estimation, make a case of precognition wholly satisfactory:
Saltmarsh used the above criteria to proclaim 183 of the 349 cases as being wholly satisfactory cases of precognition. One of these, the "Case of the Derailed Engine," will serve as an illustration of the sort of experience that Saltmarsh assessed as truly precognitive.
A minister's wife and daughter were staying at lodgings at Trinity, near Edinburgh, Scotland, on July 15, 1860. It was a bright Sunday afternoon, and between three and four o'clock, Mrs. W. told her daughter to go out for a short walk on the "railway garden," the name that she had given a strip of ground between the seawall and the railway embankment. The daughter had only been gone a few minutes when Mrs. W. distinctly heard a voice within her say: "Send for her to come back or something dreadful will happen to her."
Mrs. W. was seized by a sense of foreboding that progressed into a feeling of terror that soon had her trembling and physically upset over the nameless dread. She ordered a servant to go and bring her daughter home at once. The servant, seeing her mistress visibly distraught, set out immediately. Mrs. W. paced the floor, more upset than ever, fearful that she would never again see her daughter alive.
In about a quarter of an hour, the servant returned with the daughter, who was safe and well. Mrs. W. asked the child not to play on the railroad embankment and obtained her promise that she would sit elsewhere and not on the spot where she usually played.
Later that afternoon an engine and tender jumped the rails and crashed into the wall where her daughter had been playing before the servant brought her home. Three men out of five who were there, were killed. Much later, Miss W. and her brother visited the scene of the tragedy and saw that the smashed engine had crashed into the precise spot where she had spent two hours with her brother on the previous Sunday afternoon.
Saltmarsh theorized that what is called the "present moment" is not a point of time, but a small time interval called the "specious present." According to his theory, the human subconscious mind has a much larger "specious present" than the conscious level of being. For the subconscious, all events would be "present." If, on occasion, some of this subconscious knowledge were to burst into the conscious, it would be interpreted as either a memory of a past event or a precognition of a future event. The past is neatly cataloged somewhere in the subconscious. Some psi researchers, such as H. F. Saltmarsh, believe that all events—past, present, and future—are part of the "present" for the deeper transcendental mind.
In view of such concepts as Saltmarsh's, some researchers maintain that the age-old query, "Can the future be changed?" has no meaning. The foreknowledge of the future, of which some level of the subconscious is aware and of which it sometimes flashes a dramatic bit or scene to the conscious in a dream or trance, is founded on the knowledge of how the individual will use his or her freedom of choice. The "future event" conditions the subconscious self. The level of the subconscious that "knows" the future does not condition the "future event." The transcendent element of self that knows what "will be" blends all time into "what is now and what will always be." For the conscious self, what is now the past was once the future. One does not look upon past events and feel that one acted without freedom of will. Why then should one look at the future and feel that those events are predetermined? That a subconscious level in the psyche may know the future, these researchers insist, does not mean that the conscious self has no freedom of choice. Simply stated, if the future could be changed it would not be the future. In a true precognitive experience when one perceives the future, he or she has glimpsed what will be and what, for a level of subconscious, already exists.
The fact that precognitive dreams that tell of future events, accomplishments, dangers, and deaths appear to be so common has persuaded many psi researchers that somehow, in a way that is not yet understood, every individual is aware of the future at an unconscious level of his or her mind. Such knowledge usually lies imprisoned at a subconscious level, out of the grasp of the conscious mind. Occasionally, however, in especially dramatic dreams, bits and snatches of scenes from the future bubble up to become conscious memories. Then, later, as the experience is lived through in waking reality, it is astonishing to have the dream play itself again before conscious eyes.
Psychiatrist Dr. Jan Ehrenwald has theorized that at the lower level of the subconscious— which Freudian analysts refer to as the "id"— time and spatial relationships may be all mixed up. Here and there, past, present, and future may all be interlocked and interchangeable.
Is it possible to avoid foreseen danger? The question is probably as old as humankind itself. Can one change the course of future events or is everything inexorably preordained? It is perhaps not so much a question of free will as it is a matter of what constitutes time. "In any attempt to bridge the domains of experience belonging to the spiritual and physical sides of our nature, time occupies the key position," mused A. S. Eddington in Science and the Unseen World (1929).
There is a general consensus among psi researchers that there are five types of precognitive experiences. At the most elementary level is subliminal precognition, or the "hunch" that proves to be an accurate one. Next would come trivial precognition, which takes place only a short time before the actual occurrence of a rather unimportant event. Then, in the area of full-blown, meaningful precognitions, which indicate a power of mind not limited by space or time, there are beneficial, non-beneficial, and detrimental previsions. In a beneficial premonition, the transcendent self may over-dramatize a future event in such a way that it proves to be a warning that is acted upon by the conscious self's characteristic reaction to such a crisis.
On a July morning in 1952, according to a case in the files of Louisa E. Rhine, a woman in New Jersey attempted to avoid the death of a child as she had foreseen it in a precognitive "vision." In this glimpse of the future, which had occurred as she lay resting in a darkened room, she envisioned the aftermath of a dreadful traffic accident. A child had been killed and lay covered on the ground. Because the child was covered, the woman could not identify the victim.
In the morning, she told her next-door neighbor of the strange dream and begged her to keep close watch on her five-year-old child. Next she phoned a son, who lived in a busy section of the town, and admonished him to keep an eye on his two small children. She had another son who lived in the country, but she felt there was little need to warn him to be wary of traffic. Nonetheless, it was his little Kathy who was killed that same day when a township truck backed into her.
To take a final example from Louisa Rhine: A young mother in Washington State awakened her husband one night and related a horrible dream. She had seen the large ornamental chandelier that hung above their baby's crib crash down into the child's bed and crush the infant to death. In the dream, as they ran to discover the terrible accident, she noticed that the hands of the clock on the baby's dresser were at 4:35.
The man laughed at his wife's story, rolled over, and went back to sleep. Although she felt foolish for doing so, the young woman slid out of bed, went into the nursery, and returned with the baby. Placing the sleeping child gently between them, the woman fell at once into a deep sleep.
A few hours later, the young couple were awakened by a loud, crashing noise. The sound had come from the nursery, and the couple found that the chandelier had fallen into the baby's crib. The clock on the baby's dresser indicated the time as 4:35.
For the young woman's deep level of subconscious, the falling of the chandelier was a present fact that was still a future fact for her conscious self. The absence of the baby in its crib was also a present fact to the transcendental self because it was aware of how the conscious self of the young mother would react if she knew the safety of her child were threatened. To stimulate the woman to action, the deep level of her psyche formulated a dramatic precognitive dream with an attached tragic ending. The future, therefore, had not been altered by the woman's action, only implemented.
In his book An Experiment with Time (1938), J. W. Dunne gave many examples of his own precognitive dreams, which he recorded over a period of several years. Dunne firmly believed in sleep and dreams as the prime openers of the subconscious and formulated a philosophy, which he called "Serialism," to account for precognition. In Dunne's view, time was an "Eternal Now." All events that have ever occurred, that exist now, or that ever will, are everlastingly in existence. In a person's ordinary, conscious, waking state, his or her view is only of the present. In sleep, however, the individual's view might be sufficiently enlarged to allow several glimpses of the future.
Although Dunne's theory is considered too deterministic by the majority of psi researchers and has been generally discredited, one of his theories in regard to deja vu, the sense of the already seen, is quite intriguing. Dunne suggested that this curious experience (which almost everyone has had at one time or another) of "having been here before" is due to the stimulation of a partially remembered precognitive dream. When the conversation becomes familiar or the new location becomes suddenly recognizable, one may, according to Dunne, simply be remembering a precognitive dream, which had been driven back into the subconscious.
For those researchers who study precognition, the conventional idea of time existing as some sort of stream flowing along in one dimension is an inadequate one. In this linear view of time, the past does not exist: it is gone forever. The future does not exist because it has not yet happened. The only thing that exists is the present moment. But the present does not really exist, either, since it is no sooner "now" than that "now" becomes part of the past. If the past completely ceased to exist, one should have no memory of it. Yet each individual has a large and varied memory bank. Therefore, the past must exist in some sense—perhaps not as a physical or material reality, but in some sphere of its own. Similarly, certain psi researchers maintain, the future must also exist in some way in a sphere of its own. The subconscious does not differentiate between past, present, and future but is aware of all spheres of time as part of the "Eternal Now."
There are certain kinds of precognitive experiences that can be easily identified as part of the normal process of the subconscious. A woman dreams of coming down with the measles and laughs it off. She did not succumb to the disease as a child; why should she weaken as an adult? In two days, she is in bed with the annoying rash covering her body. Rather than judge this to be a prophetic dream, one might better regard the experience as an example of the subconscious mind being much more aware of the condition of the inner body than the superficial conscious mind.
In other cases, a keen intellect and a great awareness of one's environment will enable one to make predictions. Much of the affluence of the contemporary economy, from stock market juggling to hemline raising, is based upon the ability of certain knowledgeable people to make predictions concerning the preferences of a mass society.
In contrast to these "explainable" predictions, however, are the many examples of men and women who seem beyond any doubt to have experienced precognitions. Parapsychologists will state that this "power of prophecy" rested not in some occult knowledge, but within the transcendent self, which seems to be aware of events that belong in the realm of the future for the superficial self.
Some psi researchers have presented time in an analogy that has a man riding on the rear platform of a train. The man looks to the left and to the right. As the train chugs along, he is able to see a panorama of new scenes as they come into his view. As the train continues, these scenes fade into the distance and are lost to view. They have become the man's past. But these scenes do continue to exist after they have passed from the man's view, and they were in existence before the man perceived them, even though he was only able to see them at the time that they were his present. However, if another man were flying high above the train in an airplane, he would be able to see what has become the train passenger's past and present, as well as foreseeing future scenes that lie beyond the man's limited ground level view. All scenes for the man in the airplane exist as an "Eternal Now."