An Experiment with Time

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For Serialism in music, see Serialism.
An Experiment with Time
An Experiment with Time book cover.jpg
Author J. W. Dunne
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Publisher A. & C. Black
Faber & Faber
Publication date
Pages 208pp
ISBN 1-57174-234-4
OCLC 46396413
LC Class MLCM 2004/02936 (B)

An Experiment with Time is a book by the British aeronautical engineer J. W. Dunne (1875–1949) on the subjects of precognitive dreams and a theory of time which he called Serialism. First published in March 1927, it was widely read and his ideas were explored by several other authors, especially by J. B. Priestley. He published three sequels; The Serial Universe, The New Immortality, and Nothing Dies.


  • I. Definitions
  • II. The Puzzle
  • III. The Experiment
  • IV. Temporal Endurance and Temporal Flow
  • V. Serial Time
  • VI. Replies to Critics (later editions only)

Appendix to the third edition:




The first part of the book describes many precognitive dreams, most of which Dunne himself had experienced.

The second part of the book sets out a theory to try and explain them. This is, simply put, that all moments in time are present together. Anyone could see their own birth, life and death in the same instant, were it not for the human consciousness, which focuses attention on a "now" which travels through time at a fixed rate.

This means there are different kinds of "time": one kind is just one direction in the four-dimensional landscape of spacetime, as fixed as a map, while another kind of time is needed to explain the moment of "now" which travels across the map in the direction of map-time and which we experience.

Dunne believes that these multiple kinds of time lead to a complete rethink of the way that we understand both time and consciousness.

According to Dunne, whilst wakeful attention prevents us from seeing outside of the part of time we are "meant" to look at, whilst we are dreaming we have the ability to recall all of our timeline without the restriction of focused attention. This allows fragments of our future to appear in pre-cognitive dreams. Other consequences include the phenomenon known as Deja vu and the existence of life after death.[1]

Dreams and the experiment[edit]

The main part of the book begins with anecdotal accounts of precognitive dreams which Dunne had experienced. These included 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 in Scotland.

Dunne tells how he sought to make sense of these dreams, coming to the conclusion that they were events from his own future, such as reading a newspaper account of a disaster, which were intruding into his dreams. In order to try and prove this to his satisfaction, he then 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.[1]

The theory of Serialism[edit]

Having presented Dunne's evidence for precognition, the book moves on to a possible theory in explanation which he called Serialism.[2]

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? Any answer was beyond her, but the observation formed the basis of Serialism. The theory resolves the issue by proposing a higher dimension of Time (say, t2), in which our consciousness experiences its travelling along its timeline along t1 within the fixed spacetime landscape described by general relativity. But Dunne found that his logic led to a similar difficulty with t2, leading to an even higher t3, and so on in the infinite regress which gives the theory its name.

Accompanying these levels of time are levels of the observer's conscious self. Dunne suggested that when we die, it is only our immediate selves in t1 which die and that our higher selves are outside of mundane time and therefore effectively immortal.[1]


Academic reception[edit]

Researchers such as the physicist G. N. M. Tyrrell and philosopher C. D. Broad have suggested that there are problems with Dunne's theory of time. As 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 end.[3]

In a review for the New Scientist, John Gribbin described An Experiment with Time as a "definitive classic".[4] Physicist Paul Davies in his book About Time: Einstein's Unfinished Revolution (2006) wrote that Dunne was an entertaining writer but there is no scientific evidence for more than one time and that Dunne's argument seems ad hoc.[5]

Popular reception[edit]

Critical essays on Serialism, both positive and negative, also appeared in more popular works. Wells included "New Light on mental Life" in his collection of articles Way The World is Going. 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.

Metaphysical context[edit]

Dunne wrote a book called Intrusions? just before his death, which revealed that dreamlike visions and that voices had sometimes accompanied his precognitive dreams, and that he believed himself to be a spiritual medium. He had deliberately chosen to leave this out of An Experiment with Time as he judged that it would have affected the scientific reception of his theory.[6] The partially-revised manuscript was completed by his family and published after his death under the title Intrusions?.

Literary influence[edit]

Dunne's theory became well known and many authors have referenced him and his ideas in numerous literary works. He "undoubtedly helped to form something of the imaginative climate of those [interwar] years".[7][8]

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.[7]

The ideas of Dunne also form the basis for the uncompleted novels The Notion Club Papers by 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 time".[9]

Other important contemporary writers who used his ideas included John Buchan (The Gap in the Curtain), James Hilton (Random Harvest), his old friend 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).[7][10][11]

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.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Priestley, J.B. Man and Time, Aldus 1964 (reprinted Bloomsbury 1989).
  2. ^ Dunne, J.W. An Experiment with Time, First Edition, A.C. Black, 1927, Page 163.
  3. ^ Tyrrell, G. N. M. (1938). Science and Psychical Phenomena. New York: Harper. p. 135.
  4. ^ John Gribbin Book Review of An Experiment with Time New Scientist 27 Aug 1981, p. 548
  5. ^ Paul Davies About Time: Einstein's Unfinished Revolution
  6. ^ Ruth Brandon Scientists and the supernormal New Scientist 16 June 1983 p. 786
  7. ^ a b c Stewart, V.; "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.
  8. ^ Anon,; "Obituary: Mr. J. W. Dunne, Philosopher and Airman", The Times, August 27, 1949, Page 7.
  9. ^ Flieger, V. A Question of Time; JRR Tolien's Road to Faerie, Kent State University Press, 1997.
  10. ^ Dermot Gilvary; Dangerous Edges of Graham Greene: Journeys with Saints and Sinners, Continuum, 2011, p.101.
  11. ^ 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, pp. 81-93.
  12. ^ "Authors : Pearce, Philippa : SFE : Science Fiction Encyclopedia". Retrieved 2016-01-15. 

External links[edit]