Precognition is a form of extrasensory perception, often occurring in a dream, that provides a specific image of or clear information about an event that will occur in the future. (Precognition is distinct from premonitions, which involve hunches or vague feelings that something is about to happen.) Approximately 85 per cent of precognitive information is related to death or disaster. One of the most famous examples of this involves U.S. president Abraham Lincoln. In 1865 he had a dream that was so unsettling he shared it with friends; in his dream, Lincoln had seen a corpse in a coffin, around which were stationed several soldiers, and when, in the dream, Lincoln asked one of them the identity of the corpse, he was told it was the president of the United States. One week after having this dream, Lincoln was assassinated.

Despite such seemingly accurate insights, scientists disagree on whether people can actually “see” an event before it occurs. While some scientists argue that the future depends completely on what happens in the present, others believe that the future exists even as the present is taking place. In other words, time is like a series of frames in a motion picture; the entire movie already exists, but under the right conditions, individual frames can be viewed out of order.

Changing the Future

Parapsychologists are interested by the fact that even though the film metaphor suggests that the future is fixed, in fact some evidence suggests that change is possible. For example, in the 1930s parapsychologist Louisa Rhine studied 191 precognitive experiences involving subsequent attempts to change the future and found that in 131, or 69 per cent, of the cases, the person was successful in preventing a foreseen event. This seemed particularly true if the precognitive dream was rich enough in detail to allow for specific steps to be taken. In one example of such a case, a streetcar conductor dreamed of a fatal crash involving his streetcar and a truck. In his dream he clearly saw the precise route of the streetcar as well as a vivid image of the truck and its occupants. At work the next day, he recognized a series of events as having been part of his dream and realized the crash was about to occur. He abruptly stopped his streetcar, just in time to miss hitting a truck that exactly matched the one he had seen in his dream.

However, there are many cases in which a precognitive dreamer does not “see” enough details to act on his or her dream. For example, one woman dreamed of a fiery plane crash at the shore of a nearby lake. Although she told friends about her dream, she did not contact any authorities because she did not know the airline or the time the event would occur. A few days later she saw a plane flying overhead and realized that it was the one she had seen in her dream. She told her husband to alert the fire department so that their personnel would be on hand to douse the flames, but by then it was too late. The crash had already occurred.

Paradoxically, studies appear to also indicate that dreams with an unusually large amount of detail are unlikely to predict the future at all. According to a study of twelve hundred reports of extremely vivid dreams that occurred between 1967 and 1973 and seemed to concern events in the future, fewer than a dozen predicted events with any degree of accuracy. What some studies have shown, however, is that precognitive dreams may contain messages that are highly symbolic. For example, a woman might dream that her sister has just adopted a puppy and the next morning receive news that her sister is pregnant.

Searching for Proof

In studying precognition, researchers have tried to create tests that will prove without doubt whether it exists. Their greatest challenge has been to ensure that precognition, not telepathy or psychokinesis, is occurring during the tests. The tests involve the subject predicting what card someone will draw from a deck. However, since in most test situations human beings provide the deck and select which cards will be drawn, there is no way to guarantee that the selection of a particular card is not being influenced by a mental link between the subject and the tester. There is also the theoretical possibility that psychokinetic ability might be able to influence the shuffle of the cards.

Consequently, Helmut Schmidt, a physicist working for a psychic research centre called the Mind Science Foundation in San Antonio, Texas, invented a machine that produced a random event that no researcher could influence or predict. It flashes lights in a pattern determined by the decay of a radioactive isotope called strontium 90; the decay is completely unpredictable, which means that the pattern of the lights is completely unpredictable as well. Researchers have been using the Schmidt machine for several years, and it has helped them conduct a large number of tests under universal, tightly controlled conditions. However, as with tests for telepathy and clairvoyance, sceptics argue that any correct guesses regarding the pattern of the lights are due to luck.

Sceptics’ Views

Skeptics apply the same argument to even the most impressive stories regarding the use of precognition in everyday life. Among these is the case of Englishman John Godley, who later became known as Lord Kilbracken. In 1946, while an undergraduate at Oxford University in England, Godley dreamed that he was looking at a written account of the results of some horse races. The next day he learned that two of the horses he had “read” about in his dream were indeed running a race that day. He mentioned this to some friends, who encouraged him to bet on the horses, and he won his bets. Over the course of the next year, Godley had several more racing dreams that showed him not only the names of the winners but often the statistics regarding their odds of winning as well. Each time he told his friends about his dreams and placed bets in accordance with those dreams, and in all but two instances he— and the friends who placed similar bets— won money. Sceptics say that Godley was either incredibly lucky or, because he was an experienced gambler who knew a lot about horse racing, his subconscious mind was able to pick winning horses and convey this information to his conscious mind through dreams.

Sceptics also see support for their position in records kept by the Society for Psychical Research, which indicate that many of the predictions of professional psychics are wrong. For example, in 1997 professional psychics publicly announced dozens of false predictions, including one stating that the movie Gone with the Wind would be made into a musical. Moreover, sceptics say, events the professionals fail to see suggests that precognition is a fantasy. For example, professional psychics failed to predict the death of Princess Diana of England, a significant and emotionally charged event that sceptics believe would have been predicted by psychics if precognition were possible.


  • Clairvoyance
  • Premonitions
  • Random-Event Generators
  • Telepathy
  • Zener cards


The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Paranormal Phenomena – written by Patricia D. Netzley © 2006 Gale, a part of Cengage Learning