An Experiment with
Time is a book by the British soldier, aeronautical
engineer and philosopher
J. W. Dunne
J. W. Dunne (1875–1949) on the subjects of
precognitive dreams and a theory of time which he later called
Serialism. First published in March 1927, it was widely read and his
ideas were explored by many other authors, especially by J. B.
Priestley. He published three sequels; The Serial Universe, The New
Immortality, and Nothing Dies.
2.2 Dreams and the experiment
2.3 The theory of Serialism
3.1 Academic reception
3.2 Popular reception
5 Literary influence
6 See also
8 Further reading
9 External links
Contents to the Sixth Edition are given:
II. The Puzzle
III. The Experiment
IV. Temporal Endurance and Temporal Flow
V. Serial Time
VI. Replies to Critics
Appendix to the third edition:
I. A Note by Sir Arthur Eddington, F.R.S.
II. The Age Factor
III. The New Experiment
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.
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. 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
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.
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.
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
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. Nether 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.
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. At the end of the chain he
proposed a "superlative general observer, the fount of all ...
Philosophers who criticised An Experiment with
Time included Hyman
Levy in Nature, J. A. Gunn,
C. D. Broad
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
Physicist and parapsychologist
G. N. M. Tyrrell
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
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".
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.
Dunne's theory became well known and was widely discussed. Not to have
read him became a "mark of singularity" in society.
Critical essays on Serialism, both positive and negative, appeared in
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
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
Time as he judged that it would have affected the
scientific reception of his theory.
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".
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.
The ideas of Dunne also strongly influenced the unfinished novels The
Notion Club Papers by
J. R. R. Tolkien
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
Other important contemporary writers who used his ideas included John
Buchan (The Gap in the Curtain), James Hilton (Random Harvest), his
H. G. Wells
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).
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. 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.
C. H. Hinton
P. D. Ouspensky
^ a b c Priestley, J.B. Man and Time, Aldus 1964 (reprinted Bloomsbury
^ Dunne, J. W. An Experiment with Time. London: Faber, 1939, (fourth
edition), 1927 (first edition).
^ Hyman Levy; "
Time and Perception", Nature, 119, No. 3006, 11 June
1927, pp847-848. doi:10.1038/119847a0: review of An Experiment with
^ Sir Arthur Eddington; The Nature of the Physical World, Dent, 1935
(delivered as a lecture in 1927).
^ Dunne, J.W. An Experiment with Time, First Edition, A.C. Black,
1927, Page 207.
^ Hyman Levy; "
Time and Perception" (review of An Experiment with
Time), Nature, 119, No. 3006, 11 June 1927, pp847-848.
^ J. A. Gunn; The Problem of Time, Unwin, 1929.
^ C. D. Broad; "Mr. Dunne's Theory of
Time in 'An Experiment with
Time'", Philosophy, Vol. 10, No. 38, April, 1935, pp. 168-185.
^ M. F. Cleugh; Time: And its Importance in Modern Thought, Methuen,
^ Tyrrell, G. N. M.; Science and Psychical Phenomena. New York:
Harper, 1938, p. 135.
^ John Gribbin; Book Review of An Experiment with
Time New Scientist
27 Aug 1981, p. 548
^ Paul Davies; About Time: Einstein's Unfinished Revolution, Viking,
^ a b Flieger, V. A Question of Time; JRR Tolkien's Road to Faerie,
Kent State University Press, 1997.
^ Ruth Brandon Scientists and the supernormal
New Scientist 16 June
1983 p. 786
^ a b c Stewart, V.; "
J. W. Dunne
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.
^ Anon,; "Obituary: Mr. J. W. Dunne, Philosopher and Airman", The
Times, August 27, 1949, Page 7.
^ Dermot Gilvary; Dangerous Edges of Graham Greene: Journeys with
Saints and Sinners, Continuum, 2011, p.101.
^ 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,
^ "Authors : Pearce, Philippa : SFE : Science Fiction
Encyclopedia". www.sf-encyclopedia.com. Retrieved 2016-01-15.
Vladimir Nabokov (ed. Gennady Barabtarlo); Insomniac
Dreams:Experiments with Time, Princeton University Press, 2018 (sic).
Ernest Nagel. (1927). An Experiment with Time. The Journal of
Philosophy 24 (25): 690-692.
Samuel Soal. (1927). An Experiment with Time. Journal of the Society
for Psychical Research 24: 119-123.
JW Dunne: dreaming the future research blog.
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