An Experiment with Time
by J.W. Dunne
J.W. Dunne (1875-1949) was a British aviation pioneer. As an engineer
trained in the classical pragmatism of the end of the 19th century, he held a number of
early British aeronautical patents. He was a successful, respected engineer with a
There was only one problem: He occasionally would have prescient dreams
about major disasters. A few days later he would open the paper, and there would be a
report about the disaster he had dreamed.
As a good pragmatist, he set out to use the scientific method he had been
trained in to try to figure out what was going on. His first subject of study was himself.
(Later, he involved a few family members and acquaintances.) He began keeping a dream
diary. After overcoming the common difficulties encountered when trying to remember
dreams, he learned to maintain a highly detailed summary of each night's dream
Next step: He began to examine the recorded dreams for
evidence of future events, not just disasters or other major occurrences, but of any
magnitude. And he went a step further. He at the same time compiled a list of past events
in the same dreams.
After several months, he made a startling discovery (which was confirmed
as time passed and the observation and analysis of his dreams stretched into years). He
found that his dreams contained approximately the same number of past and future events.
From this, he began to think about time, and our experience of time.
Next conclusion: He came to believe, based on this
research, that in sleep we escape the linear, one-directional time which we think of as
reality while awake. He compared time to a piano keyboard. When we're awake, we're sitting
at the keyboard striking on not at a time, in sequence, from left to right. We cannot
normally strike keys to the left ("the past") of the one in front of us, nor
keys to the right ("the future"). But when we sleep, we are freed from the
He concluded that in dreams we are in effect banging around on the
keyboard, hence the willy-nilly combination of elements and time events. One implication
here, of course, is that we are primitive and untutored creatures when we enter the world
of dreams, and perhaps a next cultural advance may consist of learning a new mode of
existence in that world.
All this is recounted in his first book, An Experiment with Time
(1927). (Several other books followed as he continued his work.) The book is, incredibly,
At least one 20th century thinker/doer saw the possible importance of
Dunne's work. Buckminster Fuller kept a copy of An Experiment with Time in his core library.
You can read a few excerpts from the book here.
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