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I Dream the Future - And So Do You

Some years ago I discovered a remarkable fact: I dream the future, or at least some of my future experience turns up ahead of time in my dreams. I do not make predictions, or pick winners at the races, although some “future dreamers” have. But bits and pieces of what I will come across in the next day or so – or week, or month, sometimes years – will often show up in advance in my dreams. Let me tell you how this came about.

In 1980 I read a book entitled An Experiment With Time by J. W. Dunne. I was reading a great deal of literature about the paranormal and the occult at the time, and I came across a reference to the book and decided to check it out. What interested me about it was that the author, an aeronautics engineer, had no interest in the occult – or at least so he said; I later discovered this was not quite the case – but had discovered by chance that he dreamed the future. The book was published in 1927 and for a time Dunne and his philosophy, “serialism,” which he developed in order to account for the strange temporal anomalies he was experiencing, had a vogue. The playwright J.B. Priestley used Dunne’s ideas for some of his plays, such as Time and the Conways,and H.G. Wells, who knew Dunne – as did Priestley – used them in his “future history” The Shape of Things to Come.

What had happened was that Dunne had woken from a dream in which he was arguing with someone about the time. Dunne said it was 4:30; the person in the dream disagreed. In the dream Dunne thought that his pocket watch had stopped, and reached into his pocket to check. It had stopped, at 4:30. At that point he woke up.

Dunne decided to check to see what time it actually was. He reached for his pocket watch and found that it had stopped at precisely 4:30. He assumed he had noticed this earlier but had forgotten to set the right time and wind the watch, and so had dreamed of it. He wound the watch then went back to bed, assuming he’d have to set it to the right time later. But when he woke up again later that morning, he saw that the watch had the right time. It had stopped at precisely 4:30. His dream had been correct.

In another dream, Dunne was in Egypt, near Khartoum. Three soldiers in ragged Boer (South African) uniforms approached him from the south. He asked them why they should want to travel on foot all this way from the south. They replied that this was exactly what they were doing. The next morning Dunne saw a headline in a newspaper, “The Cape to Cairo: Expedition to Khartoum.” It was an article about the expedition he had met in his dreams.

Another dream involved a more startling headline. He was on an island, and cracks and fissures opened up at his feet. Steam escaped from them and he knew a volcano was about to erupt and that there would be an enormous explosion. He needed to get the French authorities to act, because some 4000 lives were at stake. It wasn’t until he saw a newspaper report on the eruption of Mount Pelée on the island of Martinique, which was under French control, on 8 May 1902, that Dunne realised he had dreamed of it. The odd thing was that the number of deaths reported was 40,000, not 4000. Dunne realised that he had misread the newspaper headline in his dream.

Other dreams confirmed what seemed to be the case. Dunne was dreaming his own future, not a general one. It was as if his life was a film and he was somehow seeing segments of it in advance. And further experiments led Dunne to conclude that this was not some weird oddity of his, but a phenomena common to everyone. All you had to do to prove this, he said, was to write down your dreams.

So I did. I got a notebook and starting writing down my dreams. The results, as Dunne had suggested, came almost immediately. I was a musician in New York at the time, and one morning I woke from a dream in which I was playing a red guitar. I didn’t own one nor did I know anyone who did. But later that day, after having recorded my dream, I went with a friend to the flat of someone I didn’t know. While there he said “Here, check this out,” and handed me a red guitar. I started strumming and remembered the dream.

My next future dream was even more striking. I dreamed that I was in an intimate setting with a woman I didn’t know but very much wanted to. I chalked that dream up to Freudian wish-fulfilment. But that evening, through another chance encounter, I found myself in precisely the setting of my dream with the woman in question. Freud or not that wish was fulfilled. Other similar dreams followed and I was convinced Dunne was right. I did dream the future.

Since that time I have recorded scores of “Dunne type dreams,” as they are called in the literature on precognition, which is what happens in these kinds of dreams. My dream journals for the past forty years are filled with them. Precognition means knowing something before you know it, or could even know it, given that what you are cognising has not yet taken place and so is not available to our usual means of cognition. All other paranormal phenomena – telepathy, remote viewing, even telekinesis – could, conceivably, be accounted for in terms of some yet unknown mental capacity inherent in human consciousness. But precognition simply shouldn’t happen. Logic tells us this, the same logic that bedevils attempts to account for time travel, which inevitably leads to paradoxes and time-loop cul-de-sacs, popular on series like Devs or Dark and the other time travel programs that are all the rage today.

Yet we know of many accounts of people waking from a dream and knowing that something terrible, some disaster, will happen, either to themselves or more often someone close to them, and taking steps to avoid catastrophe. So once, on holiday in Atlantic City, the suffragette Susan B. Anthony dreamed that she had died in a fire. She took the hint and that morning returned to Philadelphia. Later that day the hotel she had stayed in and those next to it burned to the ground. Other times the dreamers were not so lucky.

The Aberfan disaster, which happened in South Wales on 21 October 1966, is probably the most well documented catastrophe involving precognitive dreams, although 9/11 may be a close runner-up. That day a huge coal slip came down a mountainside, engulfing the village and the school. Of the 144 people who died, 116 were children. A psychiatrist treating the survivors had an interest in the paranormal, and he convinced the Evening Standard to ask its readers if any of them had any premonition of what would happen. It turned out that 76 people did, 36 of the premonitions coming in dreams. One of these premonitions was had by one of the victims. The day before the disaster, a ten year old girl told her mother that she had a dream about “something black coming down” the hillside and covering the school. She was killed in the landslide.

According to Dean Radin in his book Real Magic, there is solid statistical evidence for a precognitive effect in human beings. Radin is one of the leading authorities on parapsychology and his book has enough statistical evidence to convince any open-minded individual that what logic and any number of sceptics tells us shouldn’t happen nevertheless does. I won’t tire the reader with statistics, but the numbers are there and should speak for themselves. And as Jessica Utts, a statistician and parapsychologist at the University of California Irvine, remarks, the evidence would “be widely accepted if it pertained to something more mundane.”[1] As people interested in parapsychology know, this is a refrain echoed down the years ever since J.B. Rhine, whose wife, Louisa Rhine, wrote a book about precognition, produced his own statistical evidence for the paranormal at Duke University in the 1930s. The evidence has always been there, but it is getting harder and harder to ignore it.

But the kind of precognition that happens to me is the kind in which I don’t know I’ve had a precognitive dream until something pops up during the day and tells me that I have. So some years ago, when I worked at a well-known metaphysical bookshop in Los Angeles, I dreamed that I was dancing in a circle with a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks. We had a large knotted ball of thread that we were unravelling. One of the monks tossed it to me and as I unravelled it, it opened up and expanded and the other monks took hold of it until we were all turning it around in the dance like a mandala. That morning when I got to work, one of my colleagues said that he had seen a picture of me in my past life. He opened a copy of Alexandra David-Neels Initiates and Initiation in Tibet, and pointed to a round face monk with glasses that bore a slight resemblance to me. When I told him of the dream he said it meant that I should study Tibetan Buddhism.

Some precognitive experiences happened while I was awake. One day, I was listening to the radio and had a sudden urge to hear Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. But before I got up to get the CD, I waited to see what the presenter would play next. It was Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Another time I was walking on Rosslyn Hill, in Hampstead, and remembered that Rupert Sheldrake lived in the neighbourhood. I thought “How odd it would be to see him.” As soon as I thought this, there he was, walking up the hill toward me. But most times my precognitions come in dreams, and they often have to do with a film or television program.

In what I take to be one of the most convincing of my precognitive dreams, in 1990 I dreamed in advance several details of the 1994 film The Shadow, based on the old 1930s pulp magazine character and starring Alec Baldwin. I can’t go into the details here, but in a dream from four years earlier, I saw in advance at least two of the central scenes in the film, and dreamed that the plot revolved around a sphere. In the film the villain attempts to blow up New York with a “beryllium sphere.”

In another precognitive dream, I saw in advance the opening scenes of Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, before actually seeing the film at a special screening I was invited to, prior to its release. More recently, I dreamed of someone asking if an old revolver is loaded. “Is there anything left in that?” someone asks. Later that day, in an episode of Inspector Montalbano I watched, “The Goldfinch and the Cat,” a mugger fires blanks from an old revolver.

In some dreams, as in this last one, the precognition is subject to what I call “symbolic distortion.” The dreamed future isn’t exactly like the experienced one, but the similarities are close enough, especially when we remember that dreams speak in a symbolic, not a logical language. But often enough the dreamed and experienced future are the same.

Once, I was in a bookshop in Camden Town, where I lived at the time, and saw that my ex-wife had come in. I didn’t want to see her, so stayed out of sight until she left. That night I dreamed that I was walking along Parkway toward Regent’s Park, when I heard someone behind me call my name. It was my ex-wife. I chalked that dream up to guilt over not saying hello to her. That evening, I was walking along Parkway on my way to attend a lecture when I heard someone behind me call my name. It was my ex-wife, just as in the dream. She was on her way to the same lecture. I assume my unconscious – or whatever is responsible for these dreams – decided I would see her whether I wanted to or not.

One odd experience I had while going over my journals recently looking for “future dreams” happened during the first Covid crisis. I came across a dream from 1998 in which someone tells me to “Just stay home. There’s no reason to go out. Just stay at home, where it is safe.” This was exactly the message that everyone was hearing in all the media at the time. Was that a future dream that I didn’t know was precognitive, until I found it while hunting down precognitive dream? Or was it a remarkable coincidence, or what the psychologist C.G. Jung would have called a “synchronicity”?

You might ask why, if I’ve been recording these dreams for so long, am I writing about them only now? I have mentioned them here and there in my books, and I did write an article about them some years ago for Quest magazine in the states. But one reason I’ve gone back to them is that at a talk I gave on hypnagogia in Brompton Cemetery in London in the spring of 2019, I added a few accounts of my experiences with precognitive dreams.

What is hypnagogia? It is the strange liminal state in between sleeping and waking that we all pass through twice a day and which is related to several paranormal phenomena, most often precognition. Dunne records a few experiences of “hypnagogic hallucinations,” images we see as we drift into sleep, that were precognitive. I talked about Dunne and my own experiences after reading his book and I suggested that all anyone had to do to find out for themselves if Dunne was right, was to do as I did and write down their dreams.

The next morning, when I went on to Twitter, the first post I saw was from someone who had been at my talk. She said that she had dreamed about picking a hedgehog up off the street and putting it on the pavement, where it would be safe. That morning, the first thing she saw on her Twitter feed was a post about “how to protect hedgehogs.” “OMG!!!” she tweeted, “it’s true. I dreamed the future!” I wrote back that this was an example of symbolic distortion. She didn’t actually save a hedgehog, but she saw a post about how to keep them safe. I added that I imagined they were appreciative.

That tweet inspired me. I put together a proposal and sent it to my publisher who accepted the idea and commissioned me to write a book about my precognitive dreams. I spent the next several months reading everything I could on precognition and related phenomena, and also on synchronicity and coincidence, much of which I had already read.

Along with my precognitive dreams I have recorded scores of synchronicities and unusual coincidences over the years, and they still happen regularly. To give an example, just before Covid hit town, I was on my way to give a talk about Colin Wilson’s book The Outsider here in London. On the way I remembered I needed something and stepped into the local market. At the checkout I glanced at the magazine rack. The magazines were stacked in such a way that all I could see on the issue of Vogue was the headline of a cover article. What was it? “The Outsider.” I laughed, took a photo and posted it on Twitter and included it in the talk. On the way back from the talk, I remembered I needed something else, and went to the market again. At the checkout I looked for the issue of Vogue I had seen, but it was gone. If I hadn’t have stepped in when I did on my way to talk about The Outsider I wouldn’t have seen it. (I later learned the article had nothing to do with the book.)

Along with the reading, I pulled several old dream journals out of dusty storage, some going back to the 1980s, and reddened my eyes trying to decipher my faded, spider-like scrawl. Out of these I collected what struck me as the most interesting of my many future dreams, and over the spring of 2020, during the first lockdown, I wrote Dreaming Ahead of Time: Experiences With Precognitive Dreams, Synchronicity, and Coincidence.

Along with looking at my own dreams, in the book I look at some of the people, like Dunne, who have had strange experiences with time and dreams. I’ve mentioned J.B. Priestley. Priestley coined the name “time-haunted men” for characters, like Dunne and himself, who were, more or less, obsessed with time. Priestley is not read as much as he should be these days, and in his autobiographical books – Midnight in the Desert, Rain Upon Godshil – and his very readable study Man and Time, he records numerous future dreams.

One concerned a visit to the Grand Canyon. Priestley dreamed of being in the “front row of a balcony or gallery of some colossal, vague theatre.” Years later, on a trip to the Grand Canyon in Arizona, one morning Priestley sat near the railing outside his hotel, watching the mist clear. When it did he realised that it was as if he were sitting in the front row of a balcony, looking at “the brilliantly coloured and fantastic spectacle I had seen in my dream theatre.”[2] Priestley was looking out at the Grand Canyon and seeing the vista he had dreamed of years earlier.

Priestley rejected Dunne’s serialism, which requires an infinite series of “times” and “observers” to account for future dreams, but he did accept Dunne’s first three observers. Observer 1, is our everyday self, plodding through life, one second at a time, stuck to each successive “now.” Observer 2 is the consciousness we possess in dreams, which can hover over the temporal landscape of Observer 1, looking either in the direction of the past, or the future. Observer 3, is not only an observer, but can act and change a future seen in advance.

Priestley gives the example of a woman who dreamed that while camping she left her baby at a stream to get something from her tent, and when she returned the baby had drowned. When she did find herself camping and at a stream with her child and realised she had forgotten something, she remembered the dream and brought the child with her.

The ideas of P.D. Ouspensky, another “time-haunted man,” also influenced Priestley. Ouspensky believed in a three dimensional time, an arrangement that aligns well with Dunne’s Observers. But where Dunne believed that déjà vu, the feeling that “this has happened before,” could be accounted for by precognitive dreams, Ouspensky instead held to the belief in “eternal recurrence,” the notion that our lives repeat over and over, a vision he shared with Nietzsche and which found fictional form in his novel Strange Life of Ivan Osokin, said to be the inspiration for the film Groundhog Day.

Another time-haunted man whose work I look at is the Cambridge archaeologist turned paranormal investigator, T. C. Lethbridge. Like Priestley, Lethbridge read Dunne and was led to discover that he too dreamed the future. One morning he woke from a dream in which he was looking at the face of a man he didn’t know. His hands were moving in front of his face and he seemed framed by a kind of mirror, as if he were shaving. Later, while driving, Lethbridge turned a bend and saw the face he had seen in his dream. It was that of the driver in the opposite lane. The mirror was the windscreen and his shaving motions were his hands at the steering wheel.

Lethbridge recognised what most investigators into precognitive dreams soon notice: that most precognitive dreams concern trivial things. We hear about the dramatic ones, those predicting or foreseeing disaster, or picking winners at the derby. But one has to go out of one’s way to find the many accounts of precognitive dreams that concern very mundane business. As the parapsychologist Stan Gooch pointed out, that these dreams are precognitive is the only interesting thing about them. If they weren’t, only one’s therapist would pay attention to them.

This is one reason why most people don’t know that they too dream the future. Most dreams are inconsequential, meaning they are what Lethbridge called a kind of “drowsy thinking,” a mulling over of the day’s problems and events, unlike the “big dreams” that come from a deeper level, but are far and few between. But it is often these boring dreams that may contain some future content. And this may appear sooner than you think. Once I dreamed of a car driving backwards. Soon after I woke from this, I looked out the window and saw a van back up the length of the block. The dreams themselves seem insignificant, except for the fact that for some reason we do not understand, in them we get a glimpse of the near and often not so near future.

Clearly this raises more than a few questions. How it can happen I suspect is tops. To be honest, I don’t know, and I’m not convinced by any of the explanations that involve elementary particles like positrons that evidently can travel backward in time or other forms of “backward causation,” although Priestley recorded several experiences of what he calls the FIP effect, the “future influencing the present.” In the first place I don’t know what positrons or any other particle have to do with the eerie feeling I get when I recognise that “I dreamed this,” the “peculiar tone and tang”, as Priestley calls it, the precognitive tingle. And secondly, it strikes me that there are several logical problems with “time travel,” whether in science fiction or fact, one of which is that it may be the case that there is no “time” in which to travel. I go into this in the book, but put briefly, while I believe there are insoluble problems with actual physical time travel – of the kind Wells’ character gets up to – we can and do travel in time in our mind. And this, by the way, is the kind of time travel Wells’ character Philip Raven engages in in his Dunne-inspired “future history,” The Shape of Things to Come, mentioned earlier.

One means of this mental time travel that I look at in the book is what the time-haunted man Colin Wilson called “faculty X,” simply because we don’t have a name for it. It is our strange ability to grasp the reality of other times and places, which is very different than our having knowledge of them, or any form of nostalgia. It is simply our ability to grasp reality, working at its proper level, and reality is always something more than whatever “present” we may be limited to.

An example of this are the “time slips” that the historian Arnold Toynbee wrote about in his monumental Study of History, in which he seemed to have been transported from the present day to some past moment in history. Toynbee writes of visiting the ruins of Mystra, in Greece, a once prominent site, decimated by highland raiders in 1821 and since then abandoned. While looking out at the plain Toynbee had a sudden vivid sense of the reality of the massacre that took place there. It was if he was in the centre of the battle. As an historian, he knew it had happened, but now he really knew it.

Similar “time slips” took him to ancient Rome, to Tenochtitlan with the first Spaniards, to Constantinople with the crusaders – who sacked the city. One “time slip,“ which opened up as he walked near Victoria Station, presented him with all of history, a panorama on parade that passed by him in procession.

It was in fact my reading of Wilson’s accounts of Toynbee’s experiences in his book The Occult, long ago, in 1975, that got me interested in the sort of thing I write about today. It got me interested in the paranormal and the occult, and one result of this was a song I wrote for the band I was in then. “(I’m Always Touched by Your) Presence, Dear” is about the strange shared dreams and telepathic experiences I was having with my girlfriend, before I had read Dunne. In 1978, it went on to become the only top ten hit about telepathy, or with the word “theosophy” in its lyrics. Remarkable what dreams can inspire.

Wilson believed that this ability to step out of the present moment and extend our consciousness into “other times and places” was part of our evolutionary birth right. We experience it now, often, but don’t know that we do. If Dunne is right, we do experience it now, in our dreams, but again, are unaware of it. I followed their example and discovered that they were right. If you have a notebook handy you can do the same.

[1] Quoted in Dean Radin Real Magic (New York: Harmony Books, 2019) p. 96. [2] J.B. Priestley Man and Time (London: Aldus Books, 1964) p. 188.

1 Comment

Michael B
Michael B
Jul 04, 2023

Thanks so much Gary. What a great piece. I was inspired to pull out my own J.W. Dunne, 'The Serial Universe'. The diagram below is from the chapter 'The Immortal Observer and His Function', p.117. I believe this is how he pictured time. Like sheet music.

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