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Foreseeing Disaster: Premonitions of Pearl Harbor

December 7, 2016

Many people have talked about moments when something didn't feel right - moments when they found themselves saying, "I have a bad feeling about this." Often these moments have ended up amounting to very little, but in certain instances, might they have actually represented subtle intuitions of dreadful events to come? Consider, for example, the following case narrative, which comes from the extensive collection of spontaneous psychic experiences gathered by Louisa Rhine at the Parapsychology Laboratory of Duke University from the 1940s to the 1960s. It seems to relate a moment like this, which was said to have taken place in relation to a major historical event that happened 75 years ago today:


    "It was December 7, 1941, a sleepy Sunday afternoon in an Alabama city. In one home a man was dozing in his comfortable chair near the radio, his wife nearby reading a book. Suddenly jumping up,

    'My God!' he exclaimed to his wife. 'Did you hear that? The President announced that the Japanese are bombing Pearl Harbor!'
    She laughed aloud. 'Why, you are crazy. You were dreaming. You were asleep!'
    'I was not asleep. I never heard anything clearer in my life!'
    She continued to laugh. If there had been such an announcement she would have heard it. And he was asleep. While they were still arguing about it:
    'Flash! The President announced that the Japanese are bombing Pearl Harbor.'" [1, p. 39]


If one assumes that the experience in this narrative took place exactly as it was recounted (and wasn't simply imagined after the fact), then how could this man have possibly gotten word about the infamous Pearl Harbor attack, before it came over the radio? It might seem like a lucky guess, given that World War II had already been going on for about two years, and so one might surmise that by using logical inference, he could have simply reasoned that an announcement about a bombing would be made (knowing that bombings were likely going on somewhere in the world at the time). But would it have been likely that he could have correctly guessed the precise location where the attack was taking place? And was the timing little more than sheer coincidence?


It seems reasonable that lucky guesses and mere coincidence are more likely to factor in when one is dealing with only a single experience, but apparently this wasn't the only time that someone seemed to have an uneasy premonition about Pearl Harbor. The following account, which comes from another case in Louisa Rhine's collection, tells of a more detailed experience that again came through a dream:


    "It happened when I was in high school. I wasn't feeling well, and I came home early. It was about 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon. I lay down on a couch in the living room and took a nap. This is what I dreamed. I was standing on a hill in the pre-dawn darkness shivering in the wind. I was looking at a large building below and ahead of me. An American flag was flying over it, and I knew it was a barracks. I knew there were men inside asleep. I even knew how many men there were: 400 and something. For some reason I had a terrible premonition, and I shook more with fear than with cold. I didn't know what was going to happen, but I knew something awful was, and I wanted to cry out a warning, but I couldn't. Then I heard a groaning sound - at first far off, and then closer. I looked up, and there were squadrons of planes overhead. In a few seconds I knew why I had been afraid because when they were directly over the building, they started dropping bombs - hundreds of them, it seemed. The noise was deafening, and the flames leapt up at the dark sky. I could feel the ground shake under me, but most frightening of all, I could see inside that building. I could see the men caught in their beds, caught and ripped and burnt and killed, and yet horrible as that was, that was not what caused the great feeling of panic that swept over me. The thing that was racing through my mind at that moment was a single thought, 'But why? We are not at war?' With that phrase playing in my brain over and over again, I awoke gasping with fear.
     I had never had a dream so vivid. I went into the kitchen where mother was preparing dinner and told her about it. I wasn't in the habit of telling my dreams to people because they were always obviously silly things not worth telling, but for some reason this was different, and that night I told Dad, too.
     Well, you can probably guess what comes next. That was on Thursday. On Sunday morning, I was listening to the radio when suddenly they interrupted with a special news bulletin: The Japanese had struck Pearl Harbor before dawn, the men caught in their barracks, 400 and something, etc., and we were at war. As is the case of those first bulletins, they are rather short and incomplete, and they tell you to keep listening for further reports that will come later. In this bulletin they did not yet have an account of all the damage done, but they said that as far as they knew at the moment, the greatest loss of life had occurred when one of the barracks suffered a direct hit. They told how the men were caught there before they were even fully awake, and he [the reporter] gave the number as four hundred and something, which was the same number I had dreamed. The description followed everything exactly as I had seen it. The only thing I had not known was the identity of the enemy.
    Well, there it is. I will never understand it, and it is not just the how that puzzles me either, but also the why. Why me, of all people? I had no close relative or friend in the war that followed. Actually, the war didn't touch me at all. At that time, at the age of sixteen, nothing was further from my mind. And the how, of course, is equally puzzling. If my dream had come at the moment the thing was happening, I would think it had been some sort of telepathy, that my mind had been in contact with the mind of one who was witnessing it at that very moment. But three days earlier!" [2, pp. 207 - 208]

Again assuming that this experience took place as recounted (and wasn't embellished after the fact), then how could the woman who had this dream have known so many corresponding details of the attack, three days before it happened? Aside from the time gap separating her dream from the actual event, this woman lived in California, and the approximate distance from there to Hawaii is nearly 2,500 miles, so she couldn't possibly have seen or heard the event from where she was, even if she had known about it in real-time. One must also remember that this was a time before live TV and the Internet were widely available, so news details would often spread at a much slower pace than they do now, and (as the woman points out) live images were not available as quickly. While not totally ruling it out, such considerations would at least argue against knowledge obtained through ordinary sensory cues.

Although they cannot be taken as evidential on their own, it is interesting to note that these precognitive cases contain characteristics which are consistent with those found for spontaneous precognitive experiences in general. For instance, the fact that both of these cases involve dreaming is consistent with findings which suggest that precognitive experiences most often manifest in the form of dreams (approximately 68% of the time). [3]

The fact that the witnesses in these cases had dreamed about a fateful event affecting other people (rather than themselves) is consistent with other case findings (Table 1) which suggest that precognitive experiences tend to be about the futures of other people, rather than one's own self.

Table 1. Persons Perceived in Precognitive Experiences (% Cases)

And the fact that the witnesses had dreamed about an event with disastrous consequences is consistent with findings from various case collections which suggest that precognitive experiences largely relate to events which are emotionally stirring or traumatic, such as deaths, crisis situations, and illnesses. The same goes for people who seemed to have dreams or intuitions relating to 9/11, which occurred 60 years later. [9 - 10] On the other hand, precognitive experiences seem to be less often about events which are pleasant or of a trivial nature (Table 2).

Table 2. Event Themes in Precognitive Experiences (% Cases)

So could the witnesses in these cases really have been dreaming about the future? It's difficult to judge purely on the basis of anecdote alone, but it's also important to recognize that there is a range of experimental evidence which suggests that precognition may indeed be a genuine human ability [11 - 14; for a general review, see 15], so the possibility is there. Naturally, this would lead to questions like: "Well, if it's real, then how does it work?" That is something which parapsychologists are still trying to figure out, slowly but surely. We can only see what time has yet bring to fruition, in the way of better understanding.


May we honor the memory of the men who lost their lives in the Pearl Harbor attack, as well as the many others who gave theirs in service during World War II and the various other conflicts that have taken place in history. It is to them that this post is solemnly and gratefully dedicated.


[1] Rhine, L. E. (1981). The Invisible Picture: A Study of Psychic Experiences. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc.

[2] Rhine, L. E. (1964). Factors influencing the range of information in ESP experiences. Journal of Parapsychology, 28, 176 - 213.

[3] Rhine, L. E. (1954). Frequency of types of experience in spontaneous precognition. Journal of Parapsychology, 18, 93 - 123.

[4] Saltmarsh, H. F. (1934). Report on cases of apparent precognition. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 42, 49 - 103.

[5] Saltmarsh, H. F. (1938). Foreknowledge. London: G. Bell & Sons, Ltd.

[6] Rhine, L. E. (1965). Comparison of subject matter of intuitive and realistic ESP experiences. Journal of Parapsychology, 29, 96 - 108.

[7] Stevenson, I. (1970). Precognition of disasters. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 64, 187 - 210.

[8] Hearne, K. M. T. (1984). A survey of reported premonitions and of those who have them. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 52, 261 - 270.

[9] Feather, S. R., & Schmicker, M. (2005). The Gift: ESP, the Extraordinary Experiences of Ordinary People. New York: St. Martin's Press. (See Chapters 2 & 8)

[10]. Carpenter, J. (2002). Guest editorial: Why parapsychology now? Journal of Parapsychology, 66, 339 - 342.

[11] Honorton, C., & Ferrari, D. C. (1989). "Future telling": A meta-analysis of forced-choice precognition experiments, 1935 – 1987. Journal of Parapsychology, 53, 281 - 308.

[12] Bem, D. J. (2011). Feeling the future: Experimental evidence for anomalous retroactive influences on cognition and affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 407 - 425.

[13] Bem, D., Tressoldi, P., Rabeyron, T., & Duggan, M. (2016). Feeling the future: A meta-analysis of 90 experiments on the anomalous cognition of random future events [version 2]. F1000Research, 4, 1188. (doi: 10.12688/f1000research.7177.2)

[14] Mossbridge, J., Tressoldi, P., & Utts, J. (2012). Predictive physiological anticipation preceding seemingly unpredictable stimuli: A meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 390. (doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00390)

[15] Radin, D. I. (2011). Predicting the unpredictable: 75 years of experimental evidence. In D. P. Sheehan (Ed.) Quantum Retrocausation: Theory and Experiment (pp. 204 - 217). AIP Conference Proceedings 1408. Melville, NY: American Institute of Physics, Inc.

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