Precognition (from the Latin praecognitio, or "to know beforehand") is the ability to see or know the future through paranormal means, and is a form of extra-sensory perception, or ESP. More specifically, precognition is a type of clairvoyance, or "second sight." This sort of foreknowledge is distinct from any that could be obtained through current knowledge and deductive reasoning. While there is a long tradition of foreseeing the future in dreams and visions in many cultures throughout history, scientific evidence of actual precognition is harder to come by. Nevertheless, the possibility that information about future outcomes of events transpiring in the physical world could be communicated through some telepathic means from others, or from the spiritual world, or even from God, continues to intrigue people.
Closely related to the idea of precognition is that of "retrocognition." Where precognition is the ability to see forward in time, retrocognition is the ability to see backwards in time. The term was coined by Frederic Myers to describe the ability to observe the past of an object, place, or occurrence through paranormal means. Psychometry and past life regression can both be considered types of retrocognition.
Premonitions, another closely related phenomenon, are often included under the term "precognition." Premonitions differ slightly from precognition in that premonitions are usually more of an instinctual, emotional feeling. They may include a general sense of foreboding, or an impression of emotion, whereas precognition is more apt to provide actual knowledge of future events. For example, having a dream or vision of a train wreck would be categorized as precognition, but a generalized strong feeling not to get on the train would be a premonition.
Prophecy is also closely related, and considered by many to be a form of precognition. Prophecy is knowledge of future events that is considered to be divinely inspired. Like other forms of precognition, prophets often received information about the future through visions. Prophets usually believed that these visions were given to them by God to serve a higher purpose.
Attempts to foresee the future are common throughout history. Most ancient cultures, including the Greeks, Romans, ancient Babylon, and prehistoric Chinese, have used scrying or other prophetic methods to see into the future. Stories of visions, second sight, and prophecy are a feature of many cultures, including the Celts of the Scottish Highlands, the Sami in Scandinavia, the Native Americans, the Zulus of Africa, and the Maori of New Zealand. One of the earliest recorded accounts of precognitive vision can be found in the Odyssey, where Theoclymenus sees a shroud of darkness about the bodies of a group of doomed suitors, and drops of blood on the walls of the hall of Odysseus, signifying the death and destruction that was to come to them. Similar examples of symbolic visions occur in the literature of most cultures, including the Icelandic sagas and the Old Testament.
Anecdotal accounts of precognitions are just as prevalent in modern times as they were in ancient, such as people "knowing" who is on the other end of a ringing telephone before it is answered, or having a dream of unusual clarity with elements of content that later occur. While such accounts provide no scientific proof of precognition, the prevalence of such accounts has prompted a great deal of research into precognition and other psychic abilities. A large number of recorded precognitions deal with impending death or disaster; whether this is an actual feature of most precognitions is open to debate; the significant emotional impact of such events could make them more likely to be sensed beforehand, or may simply make them more likely to be remembered afterward. For example, a dream of a future disaster would be more likely to be remembered, shared with others, and recorded than a dream that a coworker brought in donuts for everyone.
J. W. Dunne, an accomplished British aeronautical engineer, was the first to undertake a systematic study of precognition. Dunne first became interested in precognition when he was unsettled by the fact that many of his dreams appeared to be precognitive. In 1927, he published the book An Experiment With Time, which contained his findings on dream precognition and retrocognition, as well as theories on the nature of time itself. Dunne's own precognitive dreams included mainly trivial incidents in his own life, with occasional instances of major news events. One of the findings Dunne found most intriguing was the fact that his dreams seemed to be fairly equally divided between past and future events, which led him to formulate his theories on the nature of time.
Joseph Banks Rhine, born in 1895, is widely considered to be the father of modern parapsychology, coining the term "extrasensory perception." Along with his wife, Louisa Rhine, he began the next significant systematic research of precognition during the 1930s. Rhine tested subjects for precognitive abilities at the Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke University using Zener cards. Participants were often asked to guess the order of cards before the deck was even shuffled. In one set of experiments, Rhine recorded 489 correct guesses (or "hits") out of 2400 total guesses. This result is equivalent to odds of 1,000,000 to one against chance, although critics argue that cheating by subjects and sloppiness of experimenters skewed Rhine's results.
By 1983, approximately a dozen parapsychological research centers were established throughout the United States and Europe, producing a number of studies of the phenomenon of precognition, with varying results. Most parapsychologists admit that there are several issues with testing for psychic phenomena like precognition. The success of a subject was often found to vary with experimental conditions, the publication of experimental results, or the investigator controlling the test. It is difficult, if not impossible, to obtain any degree of scientific consistency with such issues. There is also what is often referred to as the "file drawer problem;" the indisputable fact that a great deal of studies with negative results are confined to the file drawers of their researchers and are never published. Despite numerous problems inherent in the testing of psychic phenomena, the fact remains that a number of experiments have indeed produced results that cannot be attributed to chance. However, the significance of such results remains debatable, as do the procedures used to procure such results.
There is seemingly no end to the amount of anecdotal evidence for precognition, retrocognition, and premonitions. While anecdotes of retrocognition are less common (including less socially embraced concepts like past life regression, for example, particularly in the West), most people have at least one story of precognitive abilities or a premonition.
Some claim that premonitions (sometimes called "presentiment"), while subtler and more emotional than precognitive visions or knowledge, are potentially able to cause people to subconsciously alter their plans, thus avoiding tragedy. Evidence such as passenger counts on trains is cited—on days where a train wrecked, it sometimes had significantly fewer passengers than non-accident days. It has been argued that precognition and premonitions, both conscious and unconscious, are responsible for the lower passenger rate on some doomed vessels—the Titanic carried only fifty eight percent of her passenger load on her doomed maiden voyage, and some passengers had even canceled their tickets. There are also many stories of people who survived the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City due to not having arrived in their office on time that day, as well as numerous accounts of premonitions of the event.
After a Welsh coal mining accident in 1966 killed 116 children and 28 adults, surveys taken after the tragedy showed a great number of people who claimed to have had premonitions, dreams, or visions of the tragedy before it happened. Shortly afterwards, in 1967, British psychiatrist Barker established the British Premonitions Bureau, in the hope that the collection of any and all precognitive experiences might aid in preventing future tragedies. A year later, a similar organization, the Central Premonitions Registry, was formed in New York. Both collected large numbers of premonitions from the general populace. The collection of premonitions to avoid disaster proved to be impractical, however, and both institutions were gradually shut down.
Precognition is a topic that often fascinates audiences. Numerous examples of precognitive characters exist in literature, film, theater, television, and comic books/graphic novels. From Shakespeare's Macbeth to Steven King's The Dead Zone, and Philip K. Dick's Minority Report, precognition has been popular with writers.
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