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Random Dictionary of the Damned
ESP: Precognition

Psychic hits and misses

Precognition - fractal

Fractal images used in precognition tests.
CSAPP, University of Northampton/David Luke


Professional psychics become professional because, one might suppose, they are good at their jobs. American tabloids such as the National Examiner, the Sun, the Globe, and the National Enquirer like to gather panels of “top psychics” annually to offer their predictions for the coming year. Just as annually, ‘skeptic’ Gene Emery combs through these predictions at the end of the relevant year to check how accurate the seers have been, and publishes the results in the Skeptical Inquirer. Among their failed predictions for 1997 were the following remarkable non-events, all of which are worthy of the old Mad magazine’s series ‘Scenes We Would Like To See’:

• Pamela Anderson Lee and Howard Stern would star in a rock musical vers­ion of Gone With the Wind
• US talk show hostess Kathie Lee Giff­ord would disappear for five weeks, “setting off a massive search in several countries”. She would be found wandering in the Colorado wilderness, suffering from amnesia after being abducted by space aliens (of course)
• Sarah “Fergie” Ferguson, the Duchess of York, would join the cast of Melrose Place and, in real life, marry Calvin Klein
• Madonna would become so concerned about the quality of children’s TV shows she would buy the rights to the Mickey Mouse Club, revive the show and star in it. The Material Virgin would also make a successful run for the US Senate
• Plastic surgeons would discover a way to give dogs the faces of movie stars (that one must have come from the Weekly World News)
• Americans would get a ,000 tax deduction for every career criminal they kill
• Time travel would become as affordable as a Disney World vacation

Notable, and not ‘logically’ predictable, events that actually occurred in 1997 but were unforeseen by America’s psychic finest include: the first appearance of Harry Potter, the birth of the world’s first surviving set of septuplets, the cloning of Dolly the sheep, the murder of Gianni Versace, and the discovery of comet Hale-Bopp (to be followed by the Heaven’s Gate cult suicide). And then there was the event that the celebrity-obsessed psychics really should have presaged, but didn’t, the one we all remember – the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in a car crash in Paris.

We try to strike a happy medium in this Dictionary, but in this instance that would be too cruel. Even so, amateurs – indeed people with no claim to psychic powers at all – seem to be better at precognition than the soi-disant profess­ionals. The anecdotal literature is stuffed with tales of ordinary people envisioning future events, perhaps only once in their lives. That one occasion may be crucial to their own or someone else’s continued existence. Two readers of The Unexplained recounted the following cases of that kind in letters to the publication.

Mr Chris Ross of Hove, Sussex, described what happened to his father when driving an ammunition truck in a supply convoy in France in 1944. At the first rest stop, Mr Ross Senior fell asleep in his cab, but woke when he heard the order: “Get that truck out of here, quickly!” He did as he was told, without thinking – but soon stopped when he realised that he alone had started up his lorry and pulled out. Then he saw a pair of Messerschmitt fighters flying through a gap in the nearby hills to attack the convoy. When they flew off, three trucks were out of action and seve­ral men had been killed. Grilled by his commander as to why he had driven off, Ross answered that he had simply been obeying orders. He then learned that no such order had been given. But there was a bomb crater precisely where Ross’s lorry had been parked. Had the bomb hit that ammunition truck, many more men – and most likely Ross – would have been dead.

In the second account, a Mr EJ Branwell told how, one day in the late 1970s, he was in Peter Robinson’s store in Oxford Street, London. A young man appeared “as if from nowhere”, racing toward an ‘up’ escalator. Riding on it were two women and a child in a pushchair. The young man leaped up the escalator and, as he got to “within three steps” of the women, the pushchair slipped and the child fell out – into his arms. Astonished onlookers remarked on his lightning reaction. But Mr Branwell, who had seen the man charging toward to escalator, asked: “How can you have a reaction to something that hasn’t happened?”

Since we don’t have the young man’s account of the event, we don’t know if he was simply in a hurry to buy himself a pair of longjohns during a short lunch hour, and his saving the child was the happy result of happening to be in the right place at the right time – a coincidence, in short. Nor do we know if he had seen the pushchair at a distance across the shop floor and realised – either consciously or intuit­ively – that it was in a precarious position, and then reacted spontaneously to some set of unconscious cues. Or perhaps it was a case of precognition, “a reaction to something that hasn’t happened”.

There may, too, be a non-paranormal explanation for Mr Ross’s escape from death in 1944. If he had particularly acute hearing and was merely dozing, he may well have subconsciously recognised cert­ain near-inaudible low frequencies of the attacking Messerschmitts’ engines. After all, identifying aircraft from their engine notes was a common pastime for schoolboys in World War II – a ‘trick’ with a severely practical application for a soldier in a combat zone. The ‘order’ that woke him is reminiscent of ‘the Voice’ that kept mountaineer Joe Simpson alive after a disastrous accident on Siula Grande, Peru (see Touching the Void, Jonathan Cape 1988, passim).


A few people have repeated precognitive dreams. As a general rule, these are marked by the irregularity of their occurrence, and a certain imprecision. A celebrated instance is the erratic series of winning horses that appeared in dreams to John Raymond Godley, later the 3rd Baron Kilbracken. These began in March 1946 while he was an undergraduate at Oxford. Godley dreamt of reading the racing results from the next day’s evening paper: a horse named Brindal and another called Juladin (both names he recognised) had each won their races at odds of 7–1. The following day, he discovered that they were running at Plumpton and Wetherby respectively, but at odds of 5–4 and 5–2. He placed his bets nonetheless, and both horses won. Godley had his last winning dream in 1958. In that dream, What Man won the Grand National. A horse named Mr What was actually on the card; Godley backed it, and it came in at 18–1, netting him £450.

It has to be noted that from early youth Godley was a keen and knowledgeable follower of the turf – at Eton he had been thrashed for setting himself up as the coll­ege bookie. His dreams may have been the result of unconscious calculat­ion, working in much the same way as August Kekulé’s revelation of the struct­ure of the benzene molecule came to him in a dream in 1863. What Man was by no means unheard-of among racing cognoscenti, and came third in the National the following year and in 1962. (Worth adding here is a correction to the Godley myth. Most accounts of his intermittent talent maintain that he also dreamed the Grand National Winner in April 1946. The story goes that in Godley’s dream the horse was called Tubermore; Godley bet on the runner with the nearest name, Tuberose, at 100–6. The winner of the National in 1946 was in fact Lovely Cottage, at 25–1.)

It’s a little more difficult to rationalise away the experience of a resolutely anti-gambling man, as recounted by GNM Tyrrell in The Personality of Man (Penguin 1947 (1954), pp78–9):

Mr John H Williams of Dulwich, a Quaker, woke on the morning of the 31st May, 1933, and dozed off again at 8.20 a.m. He then dreamed that he heard the radio announcer giving the names of the first four winners of the Derby, which was to be run that day – Hyperion, King Salmon and two others…”. Between 11 and 11.30 that morning, Mr Williams told three people about his dream. One, a neighbour, was “heard to relate in a restaurant long before the race what I had told him at 11 a.m.” The two others, Mr CA Young and Mr WE Rowland Doughty, gave their signed statements that Mr Williams related to them his dream on the morning of Derby Day… Mr Williams said: “I knew the crystal set was out of order but was so impressed with the seeming reality of the account [in the dream] that I resolved to put the set right and listen at 2 pm. This I did and when the race was proceeding heard the identical expressions and names as in the dream.”


Of all the aspects of extra-sensory perception (ESP), precognit­ion is perhaps the most difficult to test, or at least to identify in tests for ESP. As we’ve noted before, the ‘hits’ in these experiments cannot be attributed with certainty to either tele­pathy (direct mind-to-mind communication) or to clairvoyance (perception of the general scene, at a distance). Indeed, someone correctly identifying a target picture – say Picasso’s Guernica – in a Ganzfeld ‘telepathy’ experiment might unknowingly be scrying the future in which that picture is revealed as the target. But a number of psi researchers, mindful too of the long-standing suspicion that laboratory conditions inhibit ESP, have been making some sterling efforts to identify precognition experimentally while sidestepping the problem of inhibition.

They recalled that earlier researchers had wondered if the anecdotal evidence suggested that precognition (and other forms of ESP) occurred unconsciously, whereas laboratory experiments demanded conscious attention and concentration – and had obtained mixed results. They had also noted among other findings that, given more than two or three data in making a judgement – say in choosing which car to buy – people tended to make the best choices when not consciously thinking about the problem. The challenge then was to set up an experiment in which the subjects did not know they were being tested for precognitive powers and were not given data-heavy, ‘rational’ decisions to make.

David Luke (now at the University of Greenwich), Chris Roe and others at the Centre for the Study of Anomalous Psycho­logical Processes at the University of Northampton in the UK thus set up a double-barrelled test in which subjects were set two sets of tasks but given the impression that the second was the actual ESP test, while the first – the actual test – was simply a warm-up exercise. This asked participants to make an æsthetic judgement as to which of four fractal images they liked most. The images were randomly chosen by computer. Once the subject had made his or her choice, the computer then –and only then – chose one of the four images as the ‘target’. The team considered that a coincidence of images chosen by both the human subject and the computer (after the human had made a choice) would indicate that precognition was at work. Chance alone would produce one in four correct ‘hits’ or 2.5/10. In fact the first series of experiments produced a hit rate of 2.9 (29 per cent), and the second 3.4 (34 per cent), both regarded as significant. A third and a fourth study showed similar results (29 and 28 per cent). Conclusions are, then, that precognition does indeed occur but that it occurs unconsciously and, crucially, this can be demon­strated experimentally.

This work has since been followed up by measuring subjects’ brain activity while making such choices. The event (or decis­ion) itself shows as a major blip in the graphs. But preceding them is a minor blip of highly similar pattern – suggesting that information was registered unconsciously before making its way into ‘normal’ awareness. But this is only a suggestion. A number of questions raise themselves. What, for instance, is the patt­ern of readouts over a long period before and after the known event? That is, was this noticeable, but minor, blip on the scale a regular event, unrelated to the task set, or an artefact of the machinery? What comparative control experiments have been done? For example, might these minor blips appear moments before someone generates a major blip by, say, making a wisecrack or having a bright idea? (Such things proverbially occur ‘in a flash’ and may be uttered without any conscious thought, not even touching the sides, so to speak.) In other words, are these spikes in the graph indicative of pre-conscious, pre-verbal, but still mundane processes, or of something that one can isolate as specifically ‘paranormal’? Which all amounts to asking how, given the inevitable limitations of the measuring system itself (after all we can’t take photos of thoughts), could we be sure that the apparent anticipation of an event really was related – precognitively – to the event itself? We must wait and see, as Mr Asquith said. Meanwhile, the Northampton researchers should be acknowledged for having found some neat ways around previous limitations and criticisms of investigations of this kind.


Dr Rupert Sheldrake takes us to task for feeling superior to the kind of verbiage that was taken as evidence of a ‘hit’ in Ganzfeld experiments we witnessed years ago. His attention and that of readers is hereby directed to the website of the Parapsychological Association, where they may view the following descriptions of target images, which, presumably, we are to take as examples of hits:

1: “I see the Lincoln Memorial… And Abraham Lincoln sitting there… It’s the 4th of July… All kinds of fireworks… Now I’m at Valley Forge… There are fireworks… And I think of bombs bursting in the air… And Francis Scott Key… And Charleston…”

2: “I find flames again… the fire takes on a very menacing meaning… an image of a volcano with molten lava inside… Molten lava running down the side of the volcano… Suddenly I was biting my lip, as though lips had something to do with the imagery… The lips I see are bright red, reminding me of the flame imagery earlier…”

Now try to work out what the target images were.

Answers: (1) George Washington (not mentioned at all in the script). (2) No, not the eruption of Mt St Helens, but a fire-eater (also not mentioned at all). With ‘hits’ like these, who needs misses? [1]


1 See also:
• 'The Evidence for Psychic Functioning: Claims vs reality', Skeptical Enquirer, 20.2, March/April 1996
• 'A Report of a Visit to Carl Sargent's Laboratory', Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 54, 1987
• 'ganzfeld', The Skeptic's Dictionary
• 'New Analyses Raise Doubts About Replicability of ESP Findings', Skeptical Enquirer, 23.6, Nov/Dec 1999
for further discussion of the problems associated with Ganzfeld experiments in practice, and even in theory, and that puts the oft-touted claim of a ‘hit rate’ of 38 per cent for this work under some strain.


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Precognition - kekule

The structure of the benzene molecule was revealed to August Kekulé in a dream.
Getty Images/Hulton Archive

  Precognition - Kilbracken

Precognitive dreamer John Raymond Godley.
Sue, Lady Kilbracken



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