JW Dunne's "An Experiment With Time" (1927)

Professor Solomon, author of the indispensable How To Find Lost Objects and a history of Coney Island, now introduces us to JW Dunne, an Irish aeronautical engineer who in 1927 published a curious essay titled "An Experiment With Time." The gist is that the past, present, and future are all happening simultaneously. But the core of the book is Dunne's description of a simple experiment he performed involving his dreams to test his theory. Interestingly, the book seems to have been quite influential, having been referenced by everyone from TS Eliot and Aldous Huxley to William S. Burroughs, Robert Heinlein, and CS Lewis. From Professor Solomon:
Experimenttttt Dunne had been bewildered by a series of precognitive dreams. In one of them, he had dreamt of the eruption of a volcano on a French island and the death of 4000 islanders. When the newspaper arrived, it headlined the eruption of Mount Pelée on Martinique and a death-toll of 40,000. Seemingly, the horrifying dream had been prompted by his later reading of the newspaper account. Of his predictive dreams, this one was the most dramatic; but all were perplexing. They seemed to violate rules far more fundamental than those of contract bridge.

His experiences led Dunne to make a study of the relationship between time and dreaming. He went to sleep each night with a notebook and pencil under his pillow. And in the morning he quickly recorded his dreams, before they faded from memory. When he compared their images with the occurrences in his daily life, Dunne made a startling discovery. Generally, a dream derived its imagery from vivid or unusual happenings within a space of 24 hours—24 hours in either direction.

"Professor Solomon on An Experiment With Time"

JW Dunne's "An Experiment With Time" (Amazon)


  1. If you successfully repeat the experiment, James Randi has a million dollars for you.  Of course, if you have a vivid dream about some event, what are the chances of SOMETHING happening ANYWHERE in the world (within 24hrs) that can be fit into your “precognition”?  How specific is is your vision?

    1. But wouldn’t it be disqualified from the get-go because it isn’t possible!?!?!
      Rhetorical question of course, such things can’t be proven scientifically because the follow rules that are unmeasurable. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, just means it isn’t scientifically provable. And really, who cares? I think it’s foolish for those with a spiritual view to seek some sort of benediction from the Randis of the world. There are liars and scammers out there, and kudos to him for uncovering them, but that’s not all there is to it.

      1. Thing is, if you have a really specific predictive dream and write it down, and get witnesses of what you wrote, and then the thing predicted actually happens, then it’s just a matter of applying Bayes’ theorem to determine how unlikely it was.  If very unlikely, then congratulations: you’ve observed something unlikely happening.  But as you say, spiritual view notwithstanding, “who cares?”.

        If you want to form a hypothesis involving information going backwards in time, then you need *repeatable* observations to work from. It’s not about getting Randi’s benediction (or $1M), just that you are astronomically more likely to be wrong than right when trying to decide what meaning to ascribe to an isolated observation of an unlikely event.  If you think about it, you know that must be as true for as-yet-unexplained phenomena as is has been for ordinary physical processes that took us thousands of years to understand properly.

          1. Jim, now that was spooky! LOL


            A little humility please. It wasn’t long ago that we thought the universal constants were constant. Only a little while before that we thought the universe was heading for a big crunch. Not only is it expanding, as of 5 billion years ago it began expanding exponentially.

            What if God (this universe brane) is a child in the future, tidying up a messy room, fractally packing away the mess (entropic universe), to get it back into an orderly singularity, his toy cupboard.

            For God, the experience is ever increasing order out of chaos, but for the toys, who experience this process backwards, it is like a long drawn out unraveling. Both are true.

            Coincidence and recursive structure are built in by the packing process, the universe resembles a hologram from both points of reference. Both theologians and scientists scratch their heads.

            It was six men of Indostan
            To learning much inclined,
            Who went to see the Elephant
            (Though all of them were blind),
            That each by observation
            Might satisfy his mind.

            The First approach’d the Elephant,
            And happening to fall
            Against his broad and sturdy side,
            At once began to bawl:
            “God bless me! but the Elephant
            Is very like a wall!”

            The Second, feeling of the tusk,
            Cried, -“Ho! what have we here
            So very round and smooth and sharp?
            To me ’tis mighty clear
            This wonder of an Elephant
            Is very like a spear!”

            The Third approached the animal,
            And happening to take
            The squirming trunk within his hands,
            Thus boldly up and spake:
            “I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
            Is very like a snake!”

            The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
            And felt about the knee.
            “What most this wondrous beast is like
            Is mighty plain,” quoth he,
            “‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
            Is very like a tree!”

            The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
            Said: “E’en the blindest man
            Can tell what this resembles most;
            Deny the fact who can,
            This marvel of an Elephant
            Is very like a fan!”

            The Sixth no sooner had begun
            About the beast to grope,
            Then, seizing on the swinging tail
            That fell within his scope,
            “I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
            Is very like a rope!”

            And so these men of Indostan
            Disputed loud and long,
            Each in his own opinion
            Exceeding stiff and strong,
            Though each was partly in the right,
            And all were in the wrong!


            So oft in theologic wars,
            The disputants, I ween,
            Rail on in utter ignorance
            Of what each other mean,
            And prate about an Elephant
            Not one of them has seen!

    2. To quote a line from ‘Jaws’,  “Is that cash or check?”  :)

      Seriously, The Amazing has never had to pay out yet. Interesting.

  2. I haven’t read Professor Solomon’s How To Find Lost Objects so I don’t know if he addresses this, but aside from prediciting global events, I’ve found my dreams are predictive of more personal events, specifically a way that I find lost things. I remember when I was around 13 or 14 losing a prized swiss army knife I got on a trip to Switzerland. I tore the house apart looking for it. After a few months I gave up on it. One night I had a very vivid dream of the knife being in the most obscure place. I woke up and went straight to that spot – and the knife was there.

  3. British playwright J B Priestley used Dunne’s theory in his ‘Time And The Conways’, one in a series of plays on metaphysical themes involving time: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._B._Priestley’s_Time_Plays

  4. And upon finally awakening on that frightful morning of June 18––, Professor Dunne never again slept. For his final dream, the dream that completed his descent into madness, showed naught but the malevolent, viridian face of a cyclopean being gelatenously feeding upon noisome human remains. Remains he recognized, horrifyingly, as his own. He has remained here ever since, in the soundproof ward at Miskatonic Asylum, bellowing that crazed mantra no human throat could properly reproduce:


    1.  Life of the author plus 70 divided by Walt Disney to the square root of Mick Jagger exponential root of money….

      Nope. Probably not public domain.

  5. My son (8 years old) told me about a dream he had, which he felt had predicted events of the following day.  I tried to explain to him that so far causality has proven to be fairly robust.

  6. there were just some scientific results which sort of supported this (in the last 2 months) that showed what appear to be reverse-temporal effects — something like people were more likely to attend to a place on the screen where sexy images were *about* to appear than to other parts of their visual field.  I thought I blogged it, but can’t track it down…

  7. On a few occassions I have had lucid time travel dreams, where I’ll be aware that I’m dreaming, and I’ll believe that I have traveled through time.  Oddly enough, I had one such dream last night, in which I traveled back to the time about which I met my wife.  I explained to her a number of things that would be happening over the course of the next few years…. things that have happened since then … her brother being in a car wreck, us having kids, etc.  All the while being aware that it was happening in a dream.
    On another occassion I traveled into the future and encountered a friend.  I told him the date, and told him that when he also has the dream, to contact me and let me know.  In “real life” I haven’t mentioned this to either of them; will wait and see if either bring it up.  And no, neither read boingboing.
    Did I have that dream last night because I would be commenting on this thread today?  Who knows.

  8. Last year I had a vivid dream that seemed like a movie somehow.  I remembered that John Goodman was in a police uniform in a diner.  So I searched his filmography on IMDB and realized it was the movie C.H.U.D..  I hadn’t seen it in 25 years! Bizarre, but not paranormal.

  9. I’ve had some very odd dreams that seem like “precognition”. The experience of the actual event usually feels like deja vu. I’m open minded about the nature of time but I attribute whatever this is to the vagaries of subjective consciousness and/or neurochemistry rather than physics (or metaphysics, as the case may be).

  10. According to my research, both advanced physics and aboriginal legend claim that everything is happening at the same time. They can’t both be wrong, can they?

  11. John Dunne gets several mentions in my biography of sharpshooter/aviator S. F. Cody (A Pair of Shootists). Dunne was a friend and disciple of H. G. Wells, with whom he doubtless had conversions on time theory. As a scion of a military family, Dunne was favored to be the first heavier-than-air British aviator, but was eclipsed by the brash immigrant from America, Cody. Dunne attempted to present a mathematical explanation of his time theory, and discouraged association with supernatural philosophies.

  12. Multiple unconnected spiritual and channeling sources through the years have suggested the idea that we live in a situation where we can move freely in space, but not in time, and that on “the other side” they live in a situation where they live relatively fixed in space, but are freely mobile in time. This is one of the explanations of the “whole life flashed before my eyes” experience, and the concept of life reviews, where souls between lives are able to access and replay any time from their lives. It’s not an unreasonable suggestion, for those who are able to get beyond what they immediately sense around them (consider, folks, that the Pope no longer burns people who do that! It’s safer now to really think than at any time in the past.)

    My favorite rational site on this kind of stuff: http://www.subversivethinking.blogspot.com/

    Does any sentient human pay attention to Randi these days? Really.

    1. “Does any sentient human pay attention to Randi these days? Really”

      Connecting this statement through your “favorite rational site” makes my head burn.

  13. Dunne’s books were bestsellers in their day and their post-WW2 occlusion is very strange. I’ve been following his work for a couple of decades now and have very recently embarked on a programme to reprint his entire oeuvre (and dozens of associated works)  in authoritative editions.


    The first issue of LSI journal ‘International Serialist’ is due later this year. Contributions are welcome.

  14. Here’s something kinda interesting.
    Last night I had a dream in which I was in training in an ER, as a nurse.  Two black infants came in.  They were in a wreck or something… they had clutched eachother so hard that their fingers penetrated eachother and broke off.  We were wondering how to extract their finger tips from their twins to reattach.  I remember saying “they’re embedded in eachother”.
    Then today, getting ready for work, watching GMA, they had a story about an operation to separate conjoined twins.  Black twins.

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