An Experiment with Time, by J.W. Dunne (Callen)
November 15, 2004
An Experiment with Time by J.W. Dunne
London: Faber and Faber, Ltd., 1927, 3rd Ed. 1958
Inspired by vivid dreams he was having that seemed to precipitate waking events such as volcanoes and fishing adventures, J.W. Dunne decided to conduct an experiment where he (and eventually others) logged their dreams for a period of time and tracked the content of these dreams. Subjects would then reread their logs within a week or so and note whether the events that occurred in their dreams were in the past, had happened in the short time since the dream, or had never happened. Often, subjects would find a mixing of past, present, and future events in a single scene. The connection of waking events to dream-state events was the heart of Dunne’s experiment with time.
Dunne considered himself an ‘abnormal’ subject, but found that his dreams equally consisted of past and future events. Dunne believed that the time humans understand and live in during waking consciousness is Time 1, which follows a linear path, and the state of dreams existed in a separate consciousness, Time 2. This dream-state of consciousness was composed of a mixture of past, present, and future events. Based on this ability to foresee future events, Dunne believed this was a proof to support a theory that humans were able to obtain an immortal state. Dunne argued that, though it was always possible for some to see future events in dreams, the aging process limits the ability to see these events. Dunne relates that at birth, humans have few past events and their possibility to see events in Time 2 is limited to future events. Conversely, when humans approach death, they had few future events remaining and their experiences were mostly composed of past events. Thus, the frequency of past and future events one could experience in Time 2 depended upon the age of the dreamer. However, Dunne found that this varies from subject to subject.
One of Dunne’s key terms is the notion of association, where one links events in their mind to other events or images because of possible similarities or connections in the mind of the subject. Also, Dunne believed that humans were capable of a fourth-dimension, a time/space state that does not correlate to a directional or observable scale. This dimension held that “neither past nor the future was observable” and that “all observable phenomena lay in a field situated at a unique ‘instant’ in the time length,” or, as we know it, the present (109). Dunne believed that, “the Time dimension, for any given observer, is simply the dimension in which his own world-line happens to extend through the four-dimensional continuum” (123). Finally, imperative to Dunne’s thesis is the notion of a series, which “is a collection of individually distinguishable items arranged, or considered as arranged, in a sequence determined by some sort of ascertainable law” (132). Time 2 connects events from different series’ and rearranges them in a revised order that does not correlate with any ‘ascertainable law’ that we, as humans, have created in Time 1.
Dunne was an engineer, he designed ships and, therefore, is not connected to any school of thought. As stated above, he considered himself abnormal and wished to understand this abnormality by ‘scientifically’ examining dreams and different time-states. Dunne’s methods and beliefs might be considered experimental.
I read this text because time and the connection of time with the presentation of narrative is currently a big topic in film narratives and many directors are experimenting with time-states and the development of plot in film. In one example, in Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible, the main character Alex reads Dunne’s text during the film and has dreams that precipitate horrific events that happen to her in the film. In addition, this film is played in reverse order with 12 different time-states starting at the end of the day and moving on to events that occurred earlier. In this film, Noe plays with the ability of Time 2 to predict events in the future, the connection of audiences to the action on-screen in light of showing effects and then causes, and offers some experimentation with dramatic form so standard in film (introduction, problem, development, climax, solution). J.W. Dunne’s text and other ideas about time-states and association is creating opportunity to develop radical narrative techniques. This is very exciting for any creator or admirer of narrative form.