An Experiment with Time

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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 the nature of time. First published in March 1927, it was very widely read, and his ideas were promoted by several other authors, in particular 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]

Relation to other metaphysical systems[edit]

Dunne's theory of time has parallels in many other scientific and metaphysical theories. The Aboriginal people of Australia, for example, believe that the Dreamtime exists simultaneously in the present, past and future, and that this is the objective truth of time, linear time being a creation of human consciousness and therefore subjective. Kabbalah, Taoism and indeed most mystical traditions have always posited that waking consciousness allows awareness of reality and time in only a limited way and that it is in the sleeping state that the mind can go free into the multi-dimensional reality of time and space (examples: "Dreams are the wandering of the spirit through all nine heavens and nine earths," The Secret of the Golden Flower, trans. Richard Wilhelm). Similarly, all mystery traditions speak of the immortal and temporal selves which exist simultaneously both within time and space and without.[citation needed]

Dunne wrote a book just before his death which revealed 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.[3] The partially-revised manuscript was completed by his family and published after his death under the title Intrusions?.

Scientific reception[edit]

In 1928, Sir Arthur Eddington wrote a letter to Dunne, a portion of which was reprinted in the 1929 and later editions of An Experiment With Time, in which he said:

Some psychical researchers such as George N. M. Tyrrell and C. D. Broad have suggested that there are problems with Dunne's theory of time. As Tyrrell explained:

In a review for the New Scientist John Gribbin described An Experiment with Time as a "definitive classic".[6] 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.[7]

In his book Is There Life After Death? (2006), British writer Anthony Peake wrote that some of Dunne's ideas are valid and attempts to update the ideas of Dunne in the light of the latest theories of quantum physics, neurology and consciousness studies.[8]

In popular culture[edit]

J. B. Priestley used Dunne's theory directly in his play Time and the Conways, professing in his introduction that he believed the theory to be true. Other writers contemporaneous to Dunne who expressed enthusiasm for his ideas included Aldous Huxley, who was also interested in the expansion of human consciousness to experience time, and Adolfo Bioy Casares, who mentioned this book in the introduction to his novel The Dream of Heroes (1954).

Charles Chilton used Dunne's analogy of time as a book to explain time travel in his radio play Journey Into Space.[citation needed] Philippa Pearce's childhood fantasy Tom's Midnight Garden also makes use of Dunne's ideas.[9] The book is instrumental in Dr Philip Raven's production of his future history as 'edited' by H G Wells in his 1933 work The Shape of Things to Come.

In the 1970 children's TV series, Timeslip, a time bubble allows two children to travel between past, present and future. Much of the show's time travel concepts were based on An Experiment with Time.[10]

An Experiment with Time is referenced in the book Sidetripping by William S. Burroughs and Charles Gatewood.

It is also mentioned in the book Last Men In London by Olaf Stapledon (1932) and in Bid Time Return, a 1975 novel by Richard Matheson.

It is also mentioned in the story "Murder in the Gunroom" by H. Beam Piper, and in "Elsewhen" by Robert A. Heinlein.

It is also mentioned in the short story "Extempore" by Damon Knight (1956), originally published as "The Beach where time began". See The Best of Damon Knight (1978).

The ideas of Dunne also form the basis for "The Dark Tower" a short story by C. S. Lewis, and the unpublished novel, "The Notion Club Papers" by J. R. R. Tolkien. Both Tolkien and Lewis were members of the Inklings.

In the 2002 French movie Irréversible, one of the characters is seen reading the book by Dunne. The movie also investigates the aspects of the book through the style of filming, in that the story is told backwards, with each beginning sequence beginning either minutes or hours prior to the one which preceded it in the narrative. Also, the tagline is Le temps détruit tout meaning "Time destroys everything" – it is the first phrase spoken and the last phrase written.

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. ^ Ruth Brandon Scientists and the supernormal New Scientist 16 June 1983 p. 786
  4. ^
  5. ^ G.N.M. Tyrrell; Science and psychical phenomena 1938, p. 135.
  6. ^ John Gribbin Book Review of An Experiment with Time New Scientist 27 Aug 1981, p. 548
  7. ^ Paul Davies About Time: Einstein's Unfinished Revolution
  8. ^ Anthony Peake Is There Life After Death? The Extraordinary Science Of What Happens When We Die 2006
  9. ^ "Authors : Pearce, Philippa : SFE : Science Fiction Encyclopedia". Retrieved 2016-01-15. 
  10. ^ Thompson, Andy. (2004). Introduction to Timeslip, p. 2. [Timeslip DVD Special Feature]. London: Carlton Visual Entertainment. 37115 06243.

External links[edit]