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In parapsychology, precognition (from the Latin præ-, "before" and cognitio, "acquiring knowledge"), also called future sight,[1] and second sight,[2][3][4] is a type of extrasensory perception that would involve the acquisition or effect of future information that cannot be deduced from presently available and normally acquired sense-based information.[5][6]

The existence of precognition, as with other forms of extrasensory perception, is not accepted by the mainstream scientific community.[7][8][9][10]

Scientific investigation of extrasensory perception (ESP) is complicated by the definition which implies that the phenomena go against established principles of science.[11] Specifically, precognition would violate the principle that an effect cannot occur before its cause.[11] There are established biases affecting human memory and judgment of probability that create convincing but false impressions of precognition.[12]


There are a number of organizations which collect self-reported "psychic" experiences from the public at large. Classifications of these (self-reported) experiences by type provide a sense of the prevalence of belief in particular kinds of parapsychological phenomena in the public at large.

In the particular case of precognition, belief is widespread. In one review of a U.S. case collection, Duke University's Parapsychology Laboratory surveyed the public and collected 1777 dream-based and 1513 wakeful reports of personal parapsychological experiences, of which participants categorized 75% of the sleeping and 60% of the wakeful experiences as precognitive, respectively.[13] A similar distribution was identified for a separate collection of 157 cases reported by children; here, the children categorized the majority of their personal experiences as precognitive dreams (52%), followed by precognitive intuitions.[14] A German case collection produced a similar figure: 52% of 1,000 cases were categorized as precognitive.[15] A similar British study of 300 cases showed volunteers categorizing 34% as precognitive.[16]

The mainstream scientific community does not take public belief in precognition (or any other phenomenon) as evidence for its veracity or even credibility, though widespread reports of interesting phenomena might inspire scientific inquiry. Such inquiries are conducted using the scientific method, and the evidence collected in such methodological studies is used to determine the credibility of precognition and other psychic phenomena.

Case collections[edit]

History records many instances of apparent precognition (see Ides of March), and belief in its occurrence as a form of seeing into the future (this can be through visions, déjà vu or through dreams which is usually the cause of recognition).[17] The first thorough collection and critical review of such spontaneous cases was created by the British Society for Psychical Research (SPR). Reports of these cases were authored by Eleanor Sidgwick in 1888,[18] and Herbert Saltmarsh in 1938.[19] Sidgwick believed the evidence warranted further investigation as to the validity of the concept of precognition, and Saltmarsh offered that the evidence, if it did not scientifically establish the phenomenon, at least excluded alternative hypotheses. Nicol, however, in a later review, came to the conclusion that their evidence was not so suggestive, given, in particular, the long length of time between the occurrence of some of the most suggestive cases, and their first report to the SPR.[20]

J. W. Dunne, a British aeronautics engineer, recorded each of his dreams as they occurred to him, identifying any correspondences between his future experiences and his recorded dreams. In 1927, he reported his findings, in An Experiment with Time. In this work, at least 10% of his dreams appeared to represent some future event, pertaining to some relatively trivial incident in Dunne's own life, or some major news events appearing in the press a day or so after the dream. Dunne concluded that precognitive dreams are common occurrences: many people have them without realizing it, largely because they do not recall the details of the dream.[21] Also reported in the book was an experiment Dunne conducted with several other people who studiously recorded their dreams and sought to associate them with subsequent experiences. Dunne felt these confirmed his claims, but a 1933 independent experiment failed to replicate his findings.[22]


Free-response studies[edit]

With free-response methods, experiments have been conducted in precognitive dreaming at the sleep laboratory of the Maimonides Medical Center,[23][24] in precognitive Ganzfeld hallucinations and visions.[25] While such experiments have produced some suggestive evidence for precognition, they have been somewhat limited to studies of selected participants, and have involved procedures that can be too expensive for other researchers to replicate, or too complex to theoretically interpret.[26]

Forced-choice studies[edit]

The first such ongoing and organized research program on precognition was instituted by J. B. Rhine in the 1930s at Duke University's Parapsychology Laboratory.[27] Rhine used a method of forced-choice matching in which participants recorded their guesses as to the order of a deck of 25 cards, each five of which bore one of five geometrical symbols. The test of precognition was based on the fact that these "guesses" were made before the deck was shuffled by the experimenter.[28] In an effort to distinguish between different parapsychological accounts of precognition, and to better understand its conditions, experiments were conducted in which the order of the target deck of cards was determined by hand versus machine, or by reference to macroscopic events, such as randomly selected meteorological readings, or by complex algorithms. Early experiments also sought to determine the temporal scope of precognition by organizing the target deck only 1-2 versus 10 days, or even a year, after responses had been recorded and secured.[29][30][31]

Experiments by Samuel G. Soal ran forced-choice ESP experiments in which someone 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.[32] Rhine described Soal's work as "a milestone in the field".[32] Research chemist George Price who reviewed Soal and Bateman's book Modern Experiments in Telepathy for the journal Science in 1955.[33] It was suggested that the positive results not attributable to error were more likely the result of deliberate fraud.[33] This prompted several replies that Price's criticism was unfair, resting on the mere possibility of fraud rather than actual proof.[32] In 1978, the experiments were exposed as fraudulent. The statistician and paragnost Betty Markwick, while seeking to vindicate Soal, discovered that he had altered his data to create all the extra hits and give the study its statistical significance.[33] The untainted experimental results showed no evidence of precognition in the hits or the ratios.[32]

Other researchers, including Smithsonian Executive Secretary Charles Greeley Abbot and British psychologist R. H. Thouless, introduced the study of precognition in the displacement of guesses to targets. This involved a set of target symbols, and "guesses" as to their identity, but, rather than precognizing the order of a whole deck of symbols, scored for precognition by checking the correspondence between each response and the target assigned to one or more trials ahead of that to which the response was originally assigned. Several studies using this method have continually offered displacement as reliable evidence for precognition.[34][35]

Following these experiments, a more automated technique of experimentation was introduced 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 as random. This involved testing for precognition with the use of high-speed random event generators (REG), as introduced by Helmut Schmidt in 1969[36] and further conducted, in particular, at the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Lab (1979–2007).[37] The psychologist C. E. M. Hansel found flaws in all of Schmidt's experiments into precognition. Hansel found that necessary precautions were not taken, there was no presence of an observer or second-experimenter in any of the experiments, no counterchecking of the records and no separate machines used for high and low score attempts.[38]

Scientific reception[edit]


There is no known mechanism for precognition.[39] Precognition would violate the principle of antecedence (causality), that an effect does not happen before its cause.[40]

The physicist John Taylor has written "since only positive energies are possible, particles going backward in time cannot exist. Any claim that they do is purely a fantasy in the mind of the parapsychologist. There is therefore no direct justification for precognition from physics... experimental evidence from high energy physics is strongly against it."[41]


Various psychological processes have been offered to explain experiences of apparent precognition. These include:

Some psychologists have explained the apparent prevalence of precognitive dreams in terms of memory biases, namely a selective memory for accurate predictions and distorted memory so that dreams are retrospectively fitted onto subsequent events.[12] 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.[42] Another experiment gave subjects a fake diary of a student with apparently precognitive dreams. This diary described events from the person's life, as well as some predictive dreams and some non-predictive dreams. When subjects were asked to recall the dreams they had read, they remembered more of the successful predictions than unsuccessful ones.[43]


Precognition is considered hallucination by mainstream psychiatry.[44]

In dreams[edit]

An early inquiry into this phenomenon was done by Aristotle in his On Divination in Sleep. His criticism of these claims appeals to the fact that "the sender of such dreams should be God", and "the fact that those to whom he sends them are not the best and wisest, but merely commonplace persons." Thus: "Most [so-called prophetic] dreams are, however, to be classed as mere coincidences...", here "coincidence" being defined by Aristotle as that which does not take "place according to a universal or general rule" and referring to things which are not of themselves by necessity causally connected. His example being taking a walk during an eclipse, neither the walk nor the eclipse being apparently causally connected and so only by "coincidence" do they occur simultaneously.[45]

Louisa Rhine at the Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke University compiled the best-known and largest body of dream evidence.[46] Dr. Rhine collected over 7000 accounts of ESP experiences. The majority of these accounts were dream related and were seemingly precognitive in nature. The material for this work was collected by advertisements in various well-known popular media.[47]

In 1932 Charles Lindbergh's infant son was kidnapped and murdered. 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, 3000 envisioned the location of the body buried amongst trees. This number was no better than chance.[48]

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 claims and reached a conclusion that 8.8 percent of the population was having actual precognitive dreams.[49]

Dreams which appear to be precognitive may in fact be the result of the Law of large numbers. Robert Todd Carroll, author of The Skeptic's Dictionary put it this way: "Say the odds are a million to one that when a person has a dream of an airplane crash, there is an airplane crash the next day. With 6 billion people having an average of 250 dream themes each per night, there should be about 1.5 million people a day who have dreams that seem clairvoyant."[50]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Beare, Hedley (2001). Creating the future school. Routledge. p. 192. ISBN 978-0-415-23868-7. 
  2. ^ Campbell, J. G. (1974). Witchcraft and second sight in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Originally published 1902.
  3. ^ Cohn, S. A. (1999). Second sight and family history: Pedigree and segregation analyses. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 13, 351-372.
  4. ^ Insulanus, T. (1763). A treatise on the second sight, dreams and apparition. Edinburgh, UK.
  5. ^ Parapsychological Association (2006). Glossary of key words frequently used in parapsychology. [1]
  6. ^ Randi, James (1995). An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural. St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-13066-X. 
  7. ^ Bunge, Mario. (1983). Treatise on Basic Philosophy: Volume 6: Epistemology & Methodology II: Understanding the World. Springer. p. 226. "Despite being several thousand years old, and having attracted a large number of researchers over the past hundred years, we owe no single firm finding to parapsychology: no hard data on telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, or psychokinesis."
  8. ^ Stenger, Victor. (1990). Physics and Psychics: The Search for a World Beyond the Senses. Prometheus Books. p. 166. ISBN 0-87975-575-X "The bottom line is simple: science is based on consensus, and at present a scientific consensus that psychic phenomena exist is still not established."
  9. ^ Zechmeister, Eugene; Johnson, James. (1992). Critical Thinking: A Functional Approach. Brooks/Cole Pub. Co. p. 115. ISBN 0534165966 "There exists no good scientific evidence for the existence of paranormal phenomena such as ESP. To be acceptable to the scientific community, evidence must be both valid and reliable."
  10. ^ Myers, David. (2004). Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. Yale University Press. p. 233. ISBN 0-300-09531-7 "After thousands of experiments, no reproducible ESP phenomenon has ever been discovered, nor has any researcher produced any individual who can convincingly demonstrate psychic ability."
  11. ^ a b Hyman, Ray (2007). "Evaluating Parapsychological Claims". In Robert J. Sternberg, Henry J. Roediger III, Diane F. Halpern. Critical Thinking in Psychology. Cambridge University Press. p. 217. ISBN 0-521-60834-1. 
  12. ^ a b Hines, Terence (2003). Pseudoscience and the Paranormal. Prometheus Books. pp. 78–81. ISBN 978-1-57392-979-0. 
  13. ^ Stokes, D. M. (1997). Spontaneous psi phenomena. In S. Krippner (Ed.), Advances in parapsychological research (Vol. 8, pp. 6-87). Jefferson, NC, US: McFarland.
  14. ^ Drewes, A. A. (2002). "Dr. Louisa Rhine's letters revisited: The children". Journal of Parapsychology 66: 343–370. 
  15. ^ Sannwald, G. (1959). "Statistische Untersuchungen an Spontanphänomene [Statistical analysis of spontaneous cases]". Zeitschrift für Parapsychologie und Grenzgebiete der Psychologie 3: 59–71. 
  16. ^ Green, C. E. (1960). "Analysis of spontaneous cases". Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 53: 97–161. 
  17. ^ Dodds, E. R. (1971). "Supernormal phenomena in classical antiquity". Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 55: 189–237. 
  18. ^ Sidgwick, E. M. (1888). "On the evidence for premonitions". Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 5: 288–354. 
  19. ^ Saltmarsh, H. F. (1934). "Report on cases of apparent precognition". Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 42: 49–103. 
  20. ^ Nicol, J. F. (1961). "Apparent spontaneous precognition: A historical review". International Journal of Parapsychology 3 (2): 26–39. 
  21. ^ Dunne, J. W. (1927). An experiment with time. Hampton Roads Publishing Co. I. ISBN 978-1-57174-234-6. 
  22. ^ Besterman, T. (1933). "Report of an inquiry into precognitive dreams". Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 41: 186–204. 
  23. ^ Krippner, S.; Honorton, C.; Ullman, M. (1971). "A precognitive dream study with a single subject". Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 65: 192–203. 
  24. ^ Krippner, S.; Honorton, C.; Ullman, M. (1972). "A second precognitive dream study with Malcolm Bessent". Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 66: 269–279. 
  25. ^ Sargent, C. L.; Harley, T. A. (1982). "Precognition testing with free-response techniques in the ganzfeld and the dream state". European Journal of Parapsychology 4: 243–256. 
  26. ^ Rhine, L. E. (1967). ESP in life and lab: Tracing hidden channels. New York, NY, US: Macmillan.
  27. ^ Berger, Arthur S.; Berger, Joyce (1991). The Encyclopedia of Parapsychology and Psychical Research. Paragon House Publishers. ISBN 1-55778-043-9. 
  28. ^ Rhine, J. B. (1938). "Experiments bearing on the precognition hypothesis: I. Pre-shuffling card calling". Journal of Parapsychology 2: 38–54. 
  29. ^ Hutchinson, L. (1940). "Variations of time intervals in pre-shuffle card-calling tests". Journal of Parapsychology 4: 249–270. 
  30. ^ Rhine, J. B. (1941). "Experiments bearing upon the precognition hypothesis: III. Mechanically selected cards". Journal of Parapsychology 5: 1–57. 
  31. ^ Rhine, J. B. (1942). "Evidence of precognition in the covariation of salience ratios". Journal of Parapsychology 6: 111–143. 
  32. ^ a b c d Colman, Andrew M. (1988). Facts, Fallacies and Frauds in Psychology. Unwin Hyman. pp. 175–180. ISBN 0-04-445289-6. 
  33. ^ a b c Hyman, Ray (2007). "Evaluating Parapsychological Claims". In Robert J. Sternberg, Henry L. Roediger, Diane F. Halpern. Critical Thinking in Psychology. Cambridge University Press. pp. 219–223. ISBN 0-521-60834-1. 
  34. ^ Crandall, J. E. (1991). "The psi-missing displacement effect: Meta-analyses of favorable and less favorable conditions". Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 85: 237–250. 
  35. ^ Tart, C. T. (2002). Improving real-time ESP by suppressing the future: Trans-temporal inhibition. In C. T. Tart, H. E. Puthoff & R. Targ (Eds.), Mind at Large: IEEE Symposia on the Nature of Extrasensory Perception (pp. 125-156). Charlottesville, VA, US: Hampton Roads. Originally published 1979.
  36. ^ Schmidt, H. (1969). "Precognition of a quantum process". Journal of Parapsychology 33: 99–109. 
  37. ^ Odling-Smee, Lucy (March 1, 2007). "The lab that asked the wrong questions". Nature 446 (7131): 10–11. doi:10.1038/446010a. PMID 17330012. Retrieved 2007-06-29. 
  38. ^ C. E. M. Hansel. (1980). ESP and Parapsychology: A Critical Re-Evaluation. Prometheus Books. pp. 222-232
  39. ^ Wynn, Charles; Wiggins, Arthur. (2001). Quantum Leaps in the Wrong Direction: Where Real Science Ends...and Pseudoscience Begins. Joseph Henry Press. p. 165. ISBN 978-0309073097 "One of the reasons scientists have difficulty believing that psi effects are real is that there is no known mechanism by which they could occur. PK action-at-a-distance would presumably employ an action-at-a-distance force that is as yet unknown to science... Similarly, there is no known sense (stimulation and receptor) by which thoughts could travel from one person to another by which the mind could project itself elsewhere in the present, future, or past."
  40. ^ Bunge, Mario. (1983). Treatise on Basic Philosophy: Volume 6: Epistemology & Methodology II: Understanding the World. Springer. pp. 225-226. ISBN 978-9027716347
  41. ^ Taylor, John. (1980). Science and the Supernatural: An Investigation of Paranormal Phenomena Including Psychic Healing, Clairvoyance, Telepathy, and Precognition by a Distinguished Physicist and Mathematician. Temple Smith. p. 83. ISBN 0-85117-191-5.
  42. ^ Alcock, James E. (1981). Parapsychology: Science or Magic?: a psychological perspective. Oxford: Pergamon Press. ISBN 0-08-025773-9.  via Hines, Terence (2003). Pseudoscience and the Paranormal. Prometheus Books. pp. 78–81. ISBN 978-1-57392-979-0. 
  43. ^ Madey, Scott; Thomas Gilovich (1993). "Effects of Temporal Focus on the Recall of Expectancy-Consistent and Expectancy-Inconsistent Information". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 62 (3): 458–68. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.65.3.458. PMID 8410650.  via Kida, Thomas (2006). Don't Believe Everything You Think: The 6 Basic Mistakes We Make in Thinking. Prometheus Books. ISBN 978-1-59102-408-8. 
  44. ^ Blom, Jan Dirk (2010). A Dictionary of Hallucinations. New York, Dordrecht, Heidelberg, London: Springer Science+Business Media, LLC. p. 421. doi:10.1007/978-1-4419-1223-7. ISBN 978-1-4419-1222-0. "Precognition

    The term precognition comes from the Latin words pre (before, beforehand) and cognoscere (learning to know). It translates loosely as 'knowing in advance'. The term is used in parapsychology to denote the direct knowledge or perception of a future event, purportedly obtained through extrasensory means. Precognition may present in the form of ideas, associations or intuitive feelings, as well as in the form of * dreams or hallucinations (the latter usually being of a * visual, * auditory, or * compound nature). The term precognition is used in opposition to the terms * retrocognition and postcognition.

    Guily, R.E. (1991) Harper's encyclopedia of mystical and paranormal experience. New York, NY: Castle Books."
  45. ^ Aristotle. On Divination in Sleep
  46. ^ Rhine, L.E. (1969). "Case study review". Journal of Parapsychology 33: 228–66. 
  47. ^ Rhine, Louisa. (1977). Research methods with spontaneous cases in Benjamin Wolman. Handbook of Parapsychology. New York: Van Rostrand Reinhold. pp. 59-80
  48. ^ Murray, H. A., & Wheeler, D. R. (1937). A Note on the Possible Clairvoyance of Dreams. Journal of Psychology 3: 309-313.
  49. ^ Ryback, David, PhD. “Dreams That Came True”. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, 1988.
  50. ^ Law of Truly Large Numbers

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]