Larry Dossey book Power of Premonitions

Although a substantial part of my career as a psychologist has been devoted to parapsychological matters for more than 50 years, one part of the field has always been especially troublesome to me, the idea that people sometimes get information about the future, premonitions, precognitions, when there is no reasonable possibility of them getting it, given what we know about the nature of the physical world.

I am thoroughly acculturated, like practically everyone, to believe that the past is gone, the future is not yet here, only the present moment is real, so time marches on. Sure, we can predict probable things – the sun will rise tomorrow – or things we know the causal mechanism of – the car will stop running soon if I don’t put more gasoline in the tank. But then you can’t help but hear stories on the order of “I dreamed this really improbable set of events that resulted in my being run down by a green car on such-and-such a street, although I don’t usually go there, and sure enough this green car suddenly dashed around the corner and would have killed me if I hadn’t been forewarned by the dream and so alert enough to jump back.”

The devoted materialist has no trouble with such stories, banishing them with words like “coincidence.” In Dossey’s new book he mentions the medical version of this: a story that indicates something you don’t believe in is an “anecdote,” one that confirms your beliefs in a “careful case history.”

In my recent The End of Materialism book, out just a month before this new Dossey book that I want to praise, I am forced to include precognition with what I call the Big Five psi phenomena, the ones that have been so thoroughly and rigorously tested that I see no reasonable doubt that they exist (telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, psychokinesis and psychic healing). Yet while I include precognition there because there is so much evidence for it in rigorous lab studies, in point of fact I find the idea of knowing the future so incomprehensible that I don’t really think about it. When I discovered massive precognition effects had sneaked into my own laboratory data, e.g., I found I wasn’t even psychologically “defended” against the idea, premonitions were just too far out to worry about.

Now Larry Dossey, well-known physician, author and alternative medicine expert, has devoted a whole book to all aspects of premonitions, and I’m going to have to think about it. Indeed I’ve told Dossey that his book captured me. I have very little time for reading, I’m sent dozens of books people want me to read and that, given my interests, I would like to read, but never get time for. “The Power of Premonitions: How Knowing the Future Can Shape Our Lives” (New York: Dutton, 2009) is so readable and fascinating, though, that I read the first 190 pages continuously and have taken it on my camping vacation with me to finish. It’s too good! Spontaneous cases from real life, lab experiments, connections with the latest understanding of brain functioning, and, especially important, why it would be useful to develop our premonitory abilities, are all covered. I can’t recommend it highly enough!


  1. It’s kind of funny that you came out with this post when you did. I had a rather involved conversation today with someone who doesn’t blink an eye if you say you believe in survival of consciousness or ghosts, but when the topic of precognition came up he used the word “coincidence” almost immediately.

    Personally, I understand the bias. If precognition is real, then how do we know if such a thing as free will really exists? Is the future fixed? But I’ve had such experiences – I think many people have – and there are laboratory studies that would seem to support the idea that precognition is in fact real. Still, it does bring up a lot of problematic things…

  2. @Sandy:
    My practical attitude to the question of whether free will exists is that if it doesn’t, then it doesn’t matter what our attitudes and beliefs about it are. Whatever you think is just a mindless result of causes beyond us. On the other hand, this is a psychologically disempowering attitude, so I prefer to believe I have some free will, I can affect some things.
    Or perhaps I was destined to believe this….
    It’s not worth losing any sleep over….

  3. When I had my NDE, time was very odd. It seemed like it was very extensive and very instantaneous all at the same time. It really wasn’t a nice measured straight line. (I apologize for not being able to explain it any better than that. When it comes to describing NDEs, words suck.)

    Maybe the future and past are just parts of “now” that we don’t typically see very well. So what we do/did in the past and future affects now, and what we do now affects everything else. That way we could have free will and precognition. If the future is just a hard to see piece of “now”, maybe sometimes we manage to see it.

  4. What a can of worms all this is. Well, I’ll tell you the most scientific experiment I’ve done so far — that is, in terms of isolating the presumed aspects and parameters of the experiment. I’m telling it here in the wee hopes that someone else try it. Please. I hate being the only one.

    There is both in ancient lore (the bible too) and physics the idea that all time exists simultaneously. I believe the famous physics analogy is that “time is like a mountain range, and we experience it as one on a bicycle pedaling across it.”

    So. I once started buying lottery tickets with that in mind — somewhere existing “ahead” of me were the winning numbers. How far can I stretch my imagination (read “vision”) to see ahead to what those winning numbers are, in their standing “future” position? (And after all, if psychics are so good, how come they can’t win a big lottery?)

    Twice a week I’d walk to a convenience store, about ten minutes, concentrating on this imagined “spot” ahead of me, where those winning numbers lay in my particular mountain range of time. I’d buy a ticket of 6 guesses of numbers, each guess with a one in fifty chance of being correct — the odds of the “Powerball” number, a $3 prize of itself, were higher, as I recall.

    I’d imagine seeing those numbers laid out in front of my vision, and they’d often keep changing. Sometimes my guesses felt certain for one number or the other. Other times there was a somewhat arbitrary feeling about them.

    In several years of doing this, Wednesdays and Saturdays, I never failed to have at least one correct number out of the six. A bit less often, I’d have picked two numbers correctly, and less still, three or four. My goal was to at least break even on my one-dollar investment, and this I did — now and then winning 3 or 7 bucks.

    Was this a fair return on all that concentrating? I don’t know how to calculate a price-per-minute on one’s thoughts. I’d prefer it always remain a mystery for certain people.

    I took my results to several different academic mathematicians — based on the fact of having guessed one of six numbers correctly, each with a one-in-fifty chance of correct guessing, three hundred times in a row, and at a later point, seven hundred times in a row. What are the odds I could do that?

    The response from two of them was that the odds of being that successful were off the meter — astronomical! From two others — one a mathematician, the other a casino expert I happened to meet — the response was that these odds were meaningless, as each time meant simply a one in fifty chance.

    I still don’t get it. If one has a one-in-fifty chance of guessing a number, doesn’t it mean that the correct guesses, if plentiful at the start, would dwindle, so that over a period of time the odds would show that one in-fifty-result?

    There was another phenomenon, which I’m not sure would be calculable (I don’t know math well enough): Let’s say that in about one of every half dozen tickets, I’d come remarkably close to the winning numbers — close, but no cigar: For example I’d guess 1, 5, 13, 22, 44, Powerball 3, and the winning ticket was 2, 4, 14, 23, 45, Powerball sometimes correct, sometimes considerably off. I’d guessed on what would appear on an algebraic graph a very close curve.

    Again, this was through taking the assumption that time exists simultaneously; it doesn’t move, but consciousness moves through it.

    As to the age-old concern over free will: we don’t imagine that balls rolling in a hopper or electronically generated random number selection are entities of free will. Are those tumbling balls “obeying a higher power?” Is the computer? Was my wish to win a lottery Satanic, and so, was God protecting me from it? If they are “obeying” some imagined law of statistical probability, you scientists are certainly taking the fun out of living.

    The error of concern over free will is relatively modern, a result of rigid notions about the Christian End of the World. This is from the assumption that when “God deems all things from Alpha to Omega,” he has created a mass of people automatically doomed to hell, no matter how much church they attend. This notion has created a nonsensical argument in other ways and I don’t think those in the scientific fields concerned with it yet recognize its origins, although it is a rigid assumption generated from fundamentalist Christian dogma. “Every sparrow that falleth” has been scripted to do so by the heavenly bureaucracy.

    Can we imagine a more tiresome divinity? If we must have a God (“a thing which the prudent are hot neither to confirm nor deny”), what an unsurprising existence He must have, no matter how huge. It sounds closer to eternal hell than heaven. No wonder worlds must end.

    We have a primitive example of “probability” when an individual decides whether to do “good” or “evil.” I will eat this forbidden fruit, or I will not. Why do I not tear off its branches, or prune it to make it grow, gather the falling fruit and let it rot or feed it to animals, or any of a multitude of things one might do about a tree with a snake in it?

    And why should suggesting a multitude of probable choices seem ridiculous? Because, “willingly” or “helplessly,” we transfix ourselves on the story to which I’m alluding. We think it’s the only choice of consequence. Why?

    So free will is a relative probable thing within given parameters. We do not make choices beyond what we believe is naturally probable.

    Those parameters have yet to be fairly explored. As to “ESP tests,” they were set arbitrarily, and enormous amounts of supportive information remain ignored owing to the laboratory conditions and empirical assumptions. But these have been the only parameters those transfixed on the myth of empiricism have yet accepted.

  5. Over the years, I have experienced a number of precognitive dreams. But, oddly enough, they’ve always been about insignificant/unimportant things. However, they do serve the purpose of arousing my interest in matters such as synchronicity.

    Also, Goethe said the future casts its shadow before it. I find this to be very true. Somehow, I tend to know (sense) in advance what the near future is going to bring into my life. But I have to relax and let the information/intuition come to me as and when it chooses – if youget my drift. COnscious effort in such matters produces only confusion.

    And, while I’m on the subject of the paranormal, I almost always have dream visits from friends and relatives shortley after they die. Sometimes I hear from them only once, but some have visited my dreams several times – and given me important personal advice/information too.

    Intuitively, I believe there is much paranormal phenomena affecting our lives, but my rational mind is in conflict with this belief.

    Kindest regards,

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