Retrocognition is a displacement in time in which one apparently sees into the past, to either experience or review events of which one has no prior knowledge, or to obtain accurate information which is not in one’s own memory. Retrocognition seems to occur spontaneously in everyday life, in dreams, and in parapsychology laboratory experiments. Psychics use it in readings for clients. It is sometimes called “postcognition.”

When retrocognition happens spontaneously, it can take the form of a vision. One enters a building or looks out a window, and instead of seeing the present surroundings, sees how the site looked in the past, perhaps peopled with individuals who seem either real or ghostly. Sometimes such experiences are fleeting and are passed off as imagination, while other times they seem very real and frightening.

Retrocognition occurs in cases of Hauntings and Apparitions, in which events from the past are seen and/or heard. It is as though events from the past keep replaying on some cosmic sound and video track, perceived on rare occasions by persons who somehow psychically tune in to them. Perhaps, as psychologist Gardner Murphy suggested, at certain times people gain access to the Akashic Records, said to be the repository of all thought, sound and action from all time. Murphy also suggested that most apparitions and ghosts are cases of retrocognition, in which an individual becomes momentarily displaced in time. The individual is not actually transported back in time, but remains in the present while hallucinating the scenes from the past.

Perhaps the most famous case of retrocognition occurred shortly after the turn of the 20th century in Versailles, when two Englishwomen thought they saw apparitions from the 1770s just prior to the French Revolution (see Versailles Ghosts).

A striking case investigated by Murphy occurred in the 1960s to Coleen Buterbaugh. As she entered an office suite in the music building at Nebraska Wesleyan University, she was arrested by a strange and strong odor. Suddenly she saw a tall woman with old-fashioned clothes and hairdo, who was reaching up to the shelves of an old music cabinet. Buterbaugh also sensed a masculine presence sitting at a desk to the side. She looked out a window and saw the campus as it had appeared nearly 50 years earlier. Buterbaugh realized that the vision was not in the present and that she had somehow slipped back in time. Later, it was determined that the apparition of the woman matched a Miss Mills, who had worked at the university as a music teacher from 1912 until her sudden death in 1936 in a room across the hall from the office suite.

Another well-known retrocognition case concerns the Battle of Nechanesmere, which took place on May 20, 685 in Scotland and later was considered one of the major events of the Dark Ages in Britain. The Picts, led by King Brude mac Beli, routed the invading Northumbrians, led by King Ecgfrith. Ecgfrith, his entire royal bodyguard and most of his army were killed; those who survived fled.

Almost 1,265 years later, on January 2, 1950, the aftermath of the battle was witnessed by a woman in her fifties, E. F. Smith, who came upon the scene as though it were continuing on in time without beginning or end. Smith had been visiting friends one evening; on the return drive home, snowfall caused her car to slide into a ditch. She was not injured. With her dog, she began walking to the village of Letham, near Nechanesmere, some eight miles away.

About a half-mile from the village, Smith spotted a mass of torches moving through the night. As she continued on, she saw figures, dressed in what later was identified as seventh-century garb, holding the torches and moving through the fields, turning over bodies. Smith heard no sounds and felt no fear; her only concern was her barking dog, which she feared would awaken the villagers of Letham. Investigators surmised that she may have witnessed a haunting of phantom Picts, still searching the battlefield for their dead.

Not all retrocognitive experiences involve visions. One that consisted only of sound occurred in 1951 at Dieppe, France, when two Englishwomen believed they heard phantom sounds of the famous air raid that had taken place there during World War II (see Dieppe Raid Case). In both the Nechanesmere and Dieppe cases, telepathy, clairvoyance and hallucinations were ruled out as possible causes.

Retrocognition has not been tested much in the laboratory because of the difficulty of ruling out the possibility of clairvoyance of existing historical records, and telepathy. Nonetheless, it is used in applied psi fields such as psychic criminology (solving crimes and finding missing persons) and psychic archaeology (see Frederick Bligh Bond).



  • Jahn, Robert G., and Brenda J. Dunne. Margins of Reality: The Role of Consciousness in the Physical World. San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1987.
  • MacKenzie, Andrew. Hauntings and Apparitions. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1982.
  • Murphy, Gardner. “Direct Contacts with Past and Future: Retrocognition and Precognition.” Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research (SPR)61 (1967): 3–23.
  • Wolman, Benjamin B., ed. Handbook of Parapsychology. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1977.


The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits– Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – September 1, 2007

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