Been There Before? What Science Tells Us About Retrocognition

(Editor’s note: This article from Earl Meagan is from the Winter 2016 issue of Brain World magazine.)

Kirk Allen was a gifted physicist working at the Los Alamos National Laboratory at the end of World War II, where he was involved with the infamous Manhattan Project that brought about the end of the war, and ushered in a new age of paranoia once the world had witnessed what nuclear weapons were capable of. You may be surprised to learn that despite his many accomplishments, and an esteemed reputation among his colleagues, Allen was actually quite bored with his life, something he shared privately with his psychoanalyst, Robert Lindner. Allen was in fact living another life as an interstellar traveler, leaping across remote and distant worlds, several of which he conquered. It was a life he could tap into at will, even if the “adventures” didn’t always please his supervisors at work.

While this might just sound like the story of another typical daydreamer, Allen had evidently spent so much time in distant solar systems that he acquired over 12,000 pages of elaborate maps and stories which he shared with Lindner. He even wrote a paper on the mechanics of hyperspace travel. Before long, Lindner also found himself swept away in these cosmic adventures, which he described in his book, “The Fifty-Minute Hour.” Although Allen eventually broke down and confessed that he wasn’t traveling to Mars on his lunch hour, questions remain. How much did Allen elaborate, and how was he able to know so many intricate details of places he’d never been to, and never seen?

You might say that Allen is one of several (but one of the stranger) cases of retrocognition, a word coined by the self-proclaimed psychic Frederic W. H. Myers to describe knowledge of a past event that cannot be acquired by traditional means (e.g., reading about it, watching a movie, etc.). Many of those who alleged having experienced this report visions that are a bit closer to home, but taking place in a past that they don’t know much about. Perhaps the most famous episode was a vision had by Anne Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain back in 1901. The two British schoolteachers went on holiday in Versailles, where they took a wrong turn and entered the private chateau of Marie Antoinette.

They stumbled across a woman in white, sketching leisurely, and realized they had come into the presence of that famous French queen, who had died in 1793, shortly after being dethroned in the revolution. They published a book about their strange encounter, which was quickly met with ridicule. Perhaps they didn’t travel back to the French Revolution after all, but how could two people experience the same vision? Both Jourdain and Moberly reported the same feelings of dreariness and oppression when they stumbled upon the site. Several months later, they returned to Versailles, and several landmarks were missing — namely a kiosk and a bridge that they remembered crossing. They thought that perhaps (and this has been purported as the real explanation for what happened) they had accidentally stumbled upon a garden party, but no events had been scheduled for that afternoon at the Trianon Palace. Jourdain would continue to report many bizarre supernatural encounters before her death in 1937, including meeting a crowned man at the Louvre that she believed to be the Roman emperor Constantine.

One may wonder how many of Jourdain’s experiences were actually true. However, bouts of experiencing unfamiliar times and places tend to be some of the rarest paranormal experiences — much less common than seeing the ghosts of lost relatives or extraterrestrial beings. So are there people who can somehow absorb knowledge of the past, or from other worlds better than everyone else? Or perhaps there’s only a slim minority of a group of people who are aware that they’re taking in information from several times and places at once?

Several years ago, I regularly had dreams of visiting the great Hagia Sophia in modern-day Turkey, and staring up at the beautifully illuminated walls that stray birds would sometimes fly over, who curiously seemed to observe the museum’s ban on singing. I first had the dreams in 1999, but wouldn’t learn of the existence of this great medieval monument — or its mosaics — until months later. While I have yet to find a satisfactory explanation for why they recurred for over a decade, I’m still not ready to chalk it up to retrocognition — perhaps because there’s nothing of the physical really involved, nor anything to suggest a time slip. The Hagia Sophia was at first a cathedral, then a mosque in the days of the Ottoman Empire, before it became a secular museum in the 1930s.

Perhaps the most intriguing case is a little-known study recorded by Scottish psychologist Andrew MacKenzie. As with the Jourdain case, the story consists of multiple witnesses — three Royal Navy cadets on what was meant to be a standard training exercise in 1957. They were supposed to report back to base with what they had seen on a five-mile trek — but what they found was more unsettling than anything imaginable. Although it was autumn, the trees seemed to become green again, and the weather unseasonably warm, as they approached the rural English village of Kersey — which was not only quiet, but appeared deserted, with no cars on the street, nor were there any telephone wires, and the cottages had thatched roofs and timber frames. Peering into the windows of one of the shops, they saw the skinned carcasses of three oxen, moldy and rotting. As with the Trianon incident, a general feeling of hostility came over the cadets, and they quickly fled.

They wouldn’t speak of the occurrence again for another three decades. Did they really travel back to a bygone century? The building they peered through had actually been a butcher shop since at least the 18th century. Of course, skeptic or not, you might wonder why they traveled back to this particular time and place — why did the seasons change, and why the vague feelings of discomfort? Perhaps all of these episodes of retrocognition are the result of derealization — a condition in which the real seems unreal.

Instances of derealization, in which the individual takes herself away from her surroundings, are actually fairly common — estimated to occur in 31 to 66 percent of the general population. Your sense of place is often colored by specific memories you have of it, or expectations of how it should be. You may have grown up with carpeting in the living room — but take it up or replace it, and you may soon forget what the room looked like during your childhood, or how the furniture was arranged. Look at the house after you’ve moved and you may realize that many memories you have of the house are wrong, and find rooms that you don’t remember at all — perhaps the result of memories being compressed together as a type of shorthand for the brain, as we can only remember so much with accuracy.

For someone suffering from longer bouts of derealization — sometimes a symptom of more serious disorders like schizophrenia, but sometimes simply the result of anxiety or constant worrying — much of the world is like looking into that once-familiar house. Occipital-temporal dysfunction in the brain is a common cause. The former deals with the brain’s visual processing, while the latter interprets sensory information delivered to the brain. Sleep deprivation, and even caffeine, can lead to episodes of derealization — and only about 5 percent of people will experience lifelong episodes.

When Jourdain met Marie Antoinette, as she claimed, she probably had some expectations of what the queen would be like, and this formed a mental image in her brain. In the Kersey incident, the cadets suspected they were in the Middle Ages — perhaps shortly after the outbreak of the Black Death epidemic, when villagers boarded up their homes for fear of catching the disease. However, glass in rural England would have been rare in the 14th century, let alone a butcher shop. Few peasants could afford to slaughter their animals. Again, the cadets were not so much seeing history unravel as they were seeing what they expected it to have looked like.

So, if these episodes can be chalked up to derealization, why are they experienced by more than one person? In nearly every instance, years go by before anyone talks about their experience. It’s almost certain that they have time to iron out the details — landmarks, the season, feelings, people met along the way — and, perhaps, the idea of seeing the French Revolution as it happens makes for a better story than simply getting lost while on vacation. I don’t mean to say that such accounts are deliberately made up — but as stories, they are ones we’d all prefer to believe.

(Editor’s note: This article from Earl Meagan is from the Winter 2016 issue of Brain World magazine.)

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