We are time travelers in our dreams and one thing that goes on, probably every night, is that the dream self travels into the possible future, scouting out challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. Depending on whether we remember such dream scouts, and can read the information correctly, and can then decide on appropriate action, we can move away from undesirable future events and towards ones that are more attractive.
J. W. Dunne (1875-1949) was a pioneer researcher in this field. He was in every way a product of Britain in the Edwardian era. He was not a mystic, a shaman or an occultist. He was a soldier, an aeronautical engineer, a fly fisherman and a crack shot. He came out of the Anglo-Irish military caste. He designed and built the first British military aircraft, and his prototype was soon adopted and manufactured in the United States. In all things, he was a determined scientist and rationalist who looked for the logic in life’s anomalies.
What distinguished him from other members of his upper class military type was that he dreamed and remembered and recorded his dreams. He noticed something remarkable. The incidents he dreamed were often located in the future rather than the past. And their content often involved things he knew nothing about before the dreams.
The data that shifted Dunne’s conception of reality – first when he was a sub-lieutenant of the Imperial Yeomanry, fighting the Boers, then when he was convalescing in Italy, and many times later – were dreams in which he saw, with remarkable accuracy, events that lay in the future. Sometimes his dreams anticipated news of world events that he had not yet received. His dreams gave him “news flashes” of an earthquake in Madagascar and of troop movements in Sudan long before the newspapers arrived with printed reports of those events.
Dunne started keeping a detailed journal of his dreams, and found that he dreamed of the future – on average – as often as the past. This led him to realize that in dreams, time works differently than in our usual experience of waking life. He drew friends and family members into an ongoing “Experiment with Time” and collected a great deal of data on “time displacement” as observed in dreams.
He extended his experiments into waking precognition – for example, by trying to guess what he would find in a book he would later pick up at random in his club. He quickly concluded that precognition can be achieved in waking states as well as in dreams, but requires “a steadying of attention” and practice in controlling the imagination that are not easily attained.
He published his findings in 1927 in a book titled An Experiment with Time that had wide influence in the interval between the two world wars; it was read and eagerly discussed by many leading scientists, writers and politicians. An expanded and revised edition was published in 1934. This is the version I use, and return to frequently.
Dunne evolved a complex mathematical model he called Serialism in his effort to account for the fact that time does not move in a linear fashion in dreams – and perhaps in the larger universe. In his last book, Intrusions?, published posthumously, he makes the bold statement that his precognitive dreams were "caused by something which I was going to experience in waking life later on”.
This is a most interesting theory: that future events not only cast a shadow before them, but cause us to dream of them – and perhaps, in dreaming, to help bring a certain event track into our physical experience, out of an immense range of alternative possible futures.
In Intrusions?, he provided further details of the precognitive dreams recounted in An Experiment with Time that he suppressed in the earlier book, apparently for fear of not sounding scientific and respectable. The strongest dream "intrusions" containing glimpses of the future were often accompanied by inner voices, sometimes a tremendous chorus of voices crying "Look, look, look!" He describes this phenomenon as the "rousing of attention".
Dunne moved towards the understanding that our experience of linear time is an illusion of the limited ordinary mind. Viewed from the fourth dimension, past, present and future are in fact simultaneous and only experienced sequentially because of our mental perception of them. In the dream state the mind is not shackled in this way and is able to perceive events in the past and future with equal facility. The dream self, as "Observer 2" may be able to view past, present and future at the same time. Beyond this 4D view, however, there may be larger perspectives, of an "Observer 3" who watches the watcher observing the actor, and then "observers" on successively higher levels of reality and consciousness.
When he expounds his Serialist theory, Dunne becomes very hard to follow and he fails to take us into one of the most interesting aspects of this inquiry: the possibility that we are consciously choosing, usually unwittingly. between parallel timelines leading to alternate futures. His great contribution is the example of his pragmatic, fact-based approach to gathering and appraising examples of precognition from everyday (and every night) experience.
Dunne's experiment provided impressive evidence that precognition or prevision is quite normal in dreams. Many people are unaware of it because they don't remember their dreams or don't look for correspondences with later events in ordinary life. However, there is nothing weird or special about the "temporal freedom" of the dreaming self. Know it or not - like it or not - we may all be time travelers in our dreams.
As J.B.Priestley summed it up in Man and Time Dunne's experiment demonstrated that the ability to transcend time in dreams "is not a privilege enjoyed by a few very strange and special people. It is part of our common human lot. We are not - even though we might prefer to be - the slaves of chronological time. We are, in this respect, more elaborate, more powerful, perhaps nobler creatures than we have lately taken ourselves to be."
Keep a dream journal over time and watch for subsequent physical events that may resemble a dream and you will soon confirm the reality of dream precognition. You are now on track to do the really interesting stuff. If you can see the future, you may be able to change it for the better. If you can't see whether you are going, you are likely to end up where you are headed.
Make some time in your life to record the time travels of your dreaming self and you may find, with practice, that you can do more. You can enter the perspective of the witness self who can see a whole timeline. You may even, on a high rooftop of the mind, enter the vista of a higher observer who sees the forking paths of the multiverse and the weave of connections between different lives, across time and space, in a spacious Now.
Photo: The young J.W.Dunne, designer of Britain's first military aircraft, as a pilot.