An Experiment with Time

An Experiment with Time is a book by the British soldier, aeronautical engineer and philosopher J. W. Dunne about precognitive dreams and a theory of time which he later called "Serialism". First published in March 1927, the book was widely read and influenced the imaginative literature of the day. Dunne published four sequels: The Serial Universe, The New Immortality, Nothing Dies and Intrusions?

An Experiment with Time
An Experiment with Time book cover
AuthorJ. W. Dunne
CountryUnited Kingdom
Subjectprecognitive dreams, time and consciousness
PublisherA. & C. Black
Faber & Faber
Publication date
Media typePrint
LC ClassMLCM 2004/02936 (B)


Contents to the Sixth Edition are given:
  • I. Definitions
  • II. The Puzzle
  • III. The Experiment
  • IV. Temporal Endurance and Temporal Flow
  • V. Serial Time
  • VI. Replies to Critics

Appendix to the third edition:




An Experiment with Time divides into two main topics.

The first half of the book describes a number of precognitive dreams, most of which Dunne himself had experienced. His key conclusion was that such precognitive visions foresee future personal experiences by the dreamer and not more general events.

The second half develops a theory to try and explain them. Dunne's starting point is the observation that the moment of "now" is not described by science. Contemporary science described physical time as a fourth dimension and Dunne's argument led to an endless sequence of higher dimensions of time to measure our passage through the dimension below. Accompanying each level was a higher level of consciousness. At the end of the chain was a supreme ultimate observer.

According to Dunne, our wakeful attention prevents us from seeing beyond the present moment, whilst when dreaming that attention fades and we gain the ability to recall more of our timeline. This allows fragments of our future to appear in pre-cognitive dreams, mixed in with fragments or memories of our past. Other consequences include the phenomenon known as deja vu and the existence of life after death.[1]

Dreams and the experiment

Following a discussion of brain function in which Dunne expounds mind-brain parallelism and highlights the problem of subjective experience, he gives anecdotal accounts of precognitive dreams which, for the most part, he himself had experienced.

The first he records occurred in 1898, in which he dreamed of his watch stopping at an exact time before waking up and finding that it had in fact done so.[2] Later dreams appeared to foretell several major disasters; a volcanic eruption in Martinique, a factory fire in Paris, and the derailing of the Flying Scotsman express train from the embankment approaching the Forth Railway Bridge in Scotland.

Dunne tells how he sought to make sense of these dreams, coming slowly to the conclusion that they foresaw events from his own future, such as reading a newspaper account of a disaster rather than foreseeing the disaster itself. In order to try and prove this to his satisfaction, he developed the experiment which gives the book its title. He wrote down details of his dreams on waking and then later went back and compared them to subsequent events. He also persuaded some friends to try the same experiment, as well as experimenting on himself with waking reveries approaching a hypnagogic state.

Based on the results, he claimed that they demonstrated that such precognitive fragments were common in dreams, even that they were mixed up in equal occurrence with past memories, and therefore they were difficult to identify until after the event they foresaw. He believed that the dreaming mind was not drawn to the present, as it was during wakefulness, and was able to perceive events in the past and future with equal facility.[1]

The theory of Serialism

Having presented Dunne's evidence for precognition, the book moves on to a possible theory in explanation which he called Serialism.[3]

The theory harks back to an experience with his nurse when he was nine years old. Already thinking about the problem, the boy asked her if Time was the moments like yesterday, today and tomorrow, or was it the travelling between them that we experience as the present moment? Any answer was beyond her, but the observation formed the basis of Serialism.

Within the fixed spacetime landscape described by the recently-published theory of general relativity, an observer travels along a timeline running in the direction of physical time, t1. Quantum mechanics was also a newly-emerging science, though in a less-developed state. Neither relativity nor quantum mechanics offered any explanation of the observer's place in spacetime, but both required it in order to develop the physical theory around it. The philosophical problems raised by this lack of rigorous foundation were already beginning to be recognised.[4]

The theory resolves the issue by proposing a higher dimension of Time, t2, in which our consciousness experiences its travelling along the timeline in t1. The physical brain itself inhabits only t1, requiring a second level of mind to inhabit t2 and it is at this level that the observer experiences consciousness.

But Dunne found that his logic led to a similar difficulty with t2 in that the passage between successive events in t2 was not included in the model. This led to an even higher t3 in which a third-level observer could experience not just the mass of events in t2 but the passage of those experiences in t2, and so on in the infinite regress of time dimensions and observers which gives the theory its name.

Dunne suggested that when we die, it is only our physical selves in t1 who die and that our higher selves are outside of mundane time. Our conscious selves therefore have no mechanism to die in the same kind of way and are effectively immortal.[1] At the end of the chain he proposed a "superlative general observer, the fount of all ... consciousness".[5]


Academic reception

Philosophers who criticised An Experiment with Time included Hyman Levy in Nature, J. A. Gunn, C. D. Broad and M. F. Cleugh. Opinions differed over the existence of dream precognition, while his infinite regress was universally judged to be logically flawed and incorrect.[6][7][8][9]

Physicist and parapsychologist G. N. M. Tyrrell explained:

Mr. J. W. Dunne, in his book, An Experiment with Time, introduces a multidimensional scheme in an attempt to explain precognition and he has further developed this scheme in later publications. But, as Professor Broad has shown, these unlimited dimensions are unnecessary, ... and the true problem of time—the problem of becoming, or the passage of events from future through present to past, is not explained by them but is still left on the author's hands at the end.[10]

Later editions continued to receive academic attention. In 1981 a new impression of the 1934 (third) edition was published with an introduction by the writer and broadcaster Brian Inglis. A review of it in the New Scientist described it as a "definitive classic".[11]

Mainstream scientific opinion remains that, while Dunne was an entertaining writer, there is no scientific evidence for more than one time dimension and his arguments do not convince.[12]

Popular reception

Dunne's theory became well known and was widely discussed. Not to have read him became a "mark of singularity" in society.[13]

Critical essays on Serialism, both positive and negative, appeared in popular works: H. G. Wells included "New Light on mental Life" in his collection of articles Way The World is Going, J. B. Priestley gave an accessible account in his study Man and Time and Jorge Luis Borges wrote a short essay "Time and J. W. Dunne", which was later included in his anthology Other Inquisitions.


Besides issuing new editions of An Experiment with Time, Dunne also published several sequels exploring different aspects of Serialism.

The Serial Universe (1934) examined its relation to current physics in relativity and quantum mechanics.

The New Immortality (1938) and Nothing Dies (1940) explored the metaphysical aspect of Serialism, especially in relation to immortality.

Intrusions? (1955) contained autobiographical accounts of the angelic visions and voices which had accompanied many of his precognitive dreams. It was incomplete at the time of his death in 1949, being completed with the help of his family and finally published some years later. It also revealed that he believed himself to be a spiritual medium. He had deliberately chosen to leave this material out of An Experiment with Time as he judged that it would have affected the scientific reception of his theory.[14]

Literary influence

The popularity of Dunne's theory was also reflected in the many authors who have since referenced him and his ideas in numerous literary works of fiction. He "undoubtedly helped to form something of the imaginative climate of those [interwar] years".[15][16]

One of the first and most significant writers was J. B. Priestley, who based three of his "Time plays" around them: Time and the Conways, Dangerous Corner and An Inspector Calls.[15]

The ideas of Dunne also strongly influenced the unfinished novels The Notion Club Papers by J. R. R. Tolkien and The Dark Tower by C. S. Lewis. Both writers were members of the Inklings literary circle, and Tolkien also used Dunne's ideas about parallel time dimensions in developing the relationship between time in Middle Earth and "Lórien time".[13]

Other important contemporary writers who used his ideas included John Buchan (The Gap in the Curtain), James Hilton (Random Harvest), his old friend H. G. Wells (The Queer Story of Brownlow’s Newspaper and The Shape of Things to Come), Graham Greene (The Bear Fell Free) and Rumer Godden (A Fugue in Time).[15][17][18]

Following Dunne's death in 1949, the popularity of his themes continued. Philippa Pearce's 1958 childhood fantasy Tom's Midnight Garden won the British literary Carnegie Medal.[19] The writer Vladimir Nabokov undertook his own dream experiment in 1964, following Dunne's instructions, and it strongly influenced his subsequent novels, especially Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle.[20][21]

See also


  1. ^ a b c Priestley, J.B. Man and Time, Aldus 1964 (reprinted Bloomsbury 1989).
  2. ^ Dunne, J. W. An Experiment with Time. London: Faber, 1939, (fourth edition), 1927 (first edition).
  3. ^ Hyman Levy; "Time and Perception", Nature, 119, No. 3006, 11 June 1927, pp847-848. doi:10.1038/119847a0: review of An Experiment with Time.
  4. ^ Sir Arthur Eddington; The Nature of the Physical World, Dent, 1935 (delivered as a lecture in 1927).
  5. ^ Dunne, J.W. An Experiment with Time, First Edition, A.C. Black, 1927, Page 207.
  6. ^ Hyman Levy; "Time and Perception" (review of An Experiment with Time), Nature, 119, No. 3006, 11 June 1927, pp847-848.
  7. ^ J. A. Gunn; The Problem of Time, Unwin, 1929.
  8. ^ C. D. Broad; "Mr. Dunne's Theory of Time in 'An Experiment with Time'", Philosophy, Vol. 10, No. 38, April, 1935, pp. 168-185.
  9. ^ M. F. Cleugh; Time: And its Importance in Modern Thought, Methuen, 1937.
  10. ^ Tyrrell, G. N. M.; Science and Psychical Phenomena. New York: Harper, 1938, p. 135.
  11. ^ John Gribbin; Book Review of An Experiment with Time New Scientist 27 Aug 1981, p. 548
  12. ^ Paul Davies; About Time: Einstein's Unfinished Revolution, Viking, 1995.[1]
  13. ^ a b Flieger, V.; A Question of Time: JRR Tolkien's Road to Faerie, Kent State University Press, 1997.
  14. ^ Ruth Brandon Scientists and the supernormal New Scientist 16 June 1983 p. 786
  15. ^ a b c Stewart, V.; "J. W. Dunne and literary culture in the 1930s and 1940s", Literature and History, Volume 17, Number 2, Autumn 2008, pp. 62-81, Manchester University Press.
  16. ^ Anon,; "Obituary: Mr. J. W. Dunne, Philosopher and Airman", The Times, August 27, 1949, Page 7.
  17. ^ Dermot Gilvary; Dangerous Edges of Graham Greene: Journeys with Saints and Sinners, Continuum, 2011, p.101.
  18. ^ Victoria Stewart; "An Experiment with Narrative? Rumer Godden's A Fugue in Time", in (ed. Lucy Le-Guilcher and Phyllis B. Lassner) Rumer Godden: International and Intermodern Storyteller, Routledge, 2010, pp. 81-93.
  19. ^ "Pearce, Philippa", Science Fiction Encyclopedia (accessed 15 January 2016)
  20. ^ Vladimir Nabokov (ed. Gennady Barabtarlo); Insomniac Dreams:Experiments with Time, Princeton University Press, 2018 (sic).
  21. ^ Lanchester, John; "Nabokov’s Dreams", London Review of Books, Vol. 40, Nr. 9, 10 May 2018, p. 18.

Further reading

External links


Bilocation, or sometimes multilocation, is an alleged psychic or miraculous ability wherein an individual or object is located (or appears to be located) in two distinct places at the same time.The concept has been used in a wide range of historical and philosophical systems, ranging from early Greek philosophy to modern religious stories, occultism and magic.


Endurantism or endurance theory is a philosophical theory of persistence and identity. According to the endurantist view, material objects are persisting three-dimensional individuals wholly present at every moment of their existence, which goes with an A-theory of time. This conception of an individual as always present is opposed to perdurantism or four dimensionalism, which maintains that an object is a series of temporal parts or stages, requiring a B-theory of time. The use of "endure" and "perdure" to distinguish two ways in which an object can be thought to persist can be traced to David Lewis.


Eternity in common parlance is an infinitely long period of time. In classical philosophy, however, eternity is defined as what exists outside time while sempiternity is the concept that corresponds to the colloquial definition of eternity.

Eternity is an important concept in many religions, where the god or gods are said to endure eternally. Some, such as Aristotle, would say the same about the natural cosmos in regard to both past and future eternal duration, and like the eternal Platonic forms, immutability was considered essential.


Etiology (; alternatively aetiology or ætiology) is the study of causation, or origination. The word is derived from the Greek αἰτιολογία, aitiología, "giving a reason for" (αἰτία, aitía, "cause"; and -λογία, -logía). More completely, etiology is the study of the causes, origins, or reasons behind the way that things are, or the way they function, or it can refer to the causes themselves. The word is commonly used in medicine, (where it is a branch of medicine studying causes of disease) and in philosophy, but also in physics, psychology, government, geography, spatial analysis, theology, and biology, in reference to the causes or origins of various phenomena.

In the past, when many physical phenomena were not well understood or when histories were not recorded, myths often arose to provide etiologies. Thus, an etiological myth, or origin myth, is a myth that has arisen, been told over time or written to explain the origins of various social or natural phenomena. For example, Virgil's Aeneid is a national myth written to explain and glorify the origins of the Roman Empire. In theology, many religions have creation myths explaining the origins of the world or its relationship to believers.

Event (philosophy)

In philosophy, events are objects in time or instantiations of properties in objects.

Growing block universe

According to the growing block universe theory of time (or the growing block view), the past and present exist and the future does not exist. The present is an objective property, to be compared with a moving spotlight. By the passage of time more of the world comes into being; therefore, the block universe is said to be growing. The growth of the block is supposed to happen in the present, a very thin slice of spacetime, where more of spacetime is continually coming into being.

The growing block view is an alternative to both eternalism (according to which past, present, and future all exist) and presentism (according to which only the present exists). It is held to be closer to common-sense intuitions than the alternatives. C. D. Broad was a proponent of the theory (1923). Some modern defenders are Michael Tooley (in 1997) and Peter Forrest (in 2004).

Institut Métapsychique International

The Institut Métapsychique International (IMI) is a French parapsychological organization that studies paranormal phenomena. It was created in 1919 by Jean Meyer, Gustav Geley and Professor Rocco Santoliquido.Notable past presidents have included Charles Richet (1930-1935) and René Warcollier (1950-1962). Eugéne Osty served as a director (1925-1938).

J. B. Priestley's Time Plays

The British author J. B. Priestley wrote a number of dramas during the 1930s and 40s, which have come to be known as his Time Plays. They are so called because each constructs its plot around a particular concept of time. In the plays, various theories of time become a central theatrical device of the play, the characters' lives being affected by how they react to the unusual temporal landscape they encounter.The Time Plays comprise:

Dangerous Corner (1932), in which exposure of a group of characters' dark secrets is wiped out when the play returns to the beginning at the fall of the curtain;

Time and the Conways (1937), which explores J. W. Dunne's theory of simultaneous time expounded in the book An Experiment with Time;

I Have Been Here Before, which is inspired by P. D. Ouspensky's theory of eternal recurrence from A New Model of the Universe;

Johnson Over Jordan, in which a man encounters a series of trials in the afterlife;

Music at Night, given a dreamlike setting outside of passing time (as in dreams).

The Long Mirror, in which a woman artist has a curiously intimate relationship with a musician she has never met but has shared his life for five years in the spirit finally meet at a Welsh hotel;

An Inspector Calls (USSR 1945, UK 1946), the most famous of them, in which a family undergoes a police investigation into a suicide which they later discover has not happened yet. A film dramatisation was produced by the BBC and broadcast on 13 September 2015.Of all the theories of time employed in the plays, Priestley professed to take only one seriously: that of J. W. Dunne as expounded in his book An Experiment with Time. However, his acceptance of the theory is qualified. Dunne's theory involved an infinite regress of time dimensions and levels of the self and Priestley rejected more than the first few time dimensions, which were sufficient to explain both the passage of time and precognition.

J. W. Dunne

John William Dunne FRAeS (2 December 1875 – 24 August 1949) was a British soldier, aeronautical engineer and philosopher. As a young man he fought in the Second Boer War, before becoming a pioneering aeroplane designer in the early years of the 20th century. Dunne worked on automatically stable aircraft, many of which were of tailless swept wing design, to achieve the first certified stable aircraft. He later developed a new approach to dry fly fishing before turning to philosophy, where he achieved some pre-eminence and literary influence through his theory on the nature of time and consciousness, called "serialism".

Journal of Parapsychology

The Journal of Parapsychology is a biannual peer-reviewed academic journal covering research on psi phenomena, including telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, and psychokinesis, as well as human consciousness in general and anomalous experiences.

It was established in April 1937 by Joseph Banks Rhine (Duke University). It is published by the Rhine Research Center and the current editor-in-chief is Etzel Cardeña (Lund University). The journal is abstracted and indexed in PsychINFO. It publishes research reports, theoretical discussions, book reviews, and correspondence, as well as the abstracts of papers presented at the Parapsychological Association's annual meeting.

Mind over matter

Mind over matter is a phrase that has been used in several contexts, such as mind-centric spiritual doctrines, parapsychology, and philosophy.

Multiple time dimensions

The possibility that there might be more than one dimension of time has occasionally been discussed in physics and philosophy.

Outline of parapsychology

Parapsychology is a field of research that studies a number of ostensible paranormal phenomena, including telepathy, precognition, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, near-death experiences, reincarnation, and apparitional experiences.

Oxford Phasmatological Society

The Oxford Phasmatological Society was an organisation from Oxford that investigated paranormal phenomena. It lasted from 1879-1885. It is considered the oldest psychical society in existence.It was founded by Charles Oman, Henry Nicholas Ridley and F. C. S. Schiller. Similar to the later formed Society for Psychical Research it collected and investigated reports of ghosts, hauntings and psychic phenomena.Meetings were held in the rooms of Schiller at Balliol College. Arthur Headlam was a President of the society.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc

Post hoc ergo propter hoc (Latin: "after this, therefore because of this") is an informal fallacy that states "Since event Y followed event X, event Y must have been caused by event X." It is often shortened simply to post hoc fallacy.

A logical fallacy of the questionable cause variety, it is subtly different from the fallacy cum hoc ergo propter hoc ("with this, therefore because of this"), in which two events occur simultaneously or the chronological ordering is insignificant or unknown.

Post hoc is a particularly tempting error because correlation appears to suggest causality. The fallacy lies in a conclusion based solely on the order of events, rather than taking into account other factors potentially responsible for the result that might rule out the connection.

A simple example is "the rooster crows immediately before sunrise; therefore the rooster causes the sun to rise."


Precognition (from the Latin prae-, "before" and cognitio, "acquiring knowledge"), also called prescience, future vision, future sight is a claimed psychic ability to see events in the future.

As with other forms of extrasensory perception, there is no accepted scientific evidence that precognition is a real phenomenon and it is widely considered to be pseudoscience. Precognition also appears to violate the principle of causality, that an effect cannot occur before its cause.

Precognition has been widely believed in throughout history. Despite the lack of scientific evidence, many people still believe it to be real; it is still widely reported and remains a topic of research and discussion within the parapsychology community.


Psionics is the study of paranormal phenomena in relation to the application of electronics. The term comes from psi (“psyche”) and the -onics from electronics (machine). It is closely related to the field of radionics. There is no scientific evidence that psionic abilities exist.

Psychometry (paranormal)

Psychometry (from Greek: ψυχή, psukhē, "spirit, soul" and μέτρον, metron, "measure"), also known as token-object reading, or psychoscopy, is a form of extrasensory perception characterized by the claimed ability to make relevant associations from an object of unknown history by making physical contact with that object. Supporters assert that an object may have an energy field that transfers knowledge regarding that object's history.There is no scientific evidence that psychometry exists and the concept has been widely criticized.


Pyrokinesis is the purported psychic ability allowing a person to create and control fire with the mind. There is no conclusive evidence that pyrokinesis is a real phenomenon. Alleged cases are hoaxes, the result of trickery.

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