Been There Before? What Science Tells Us About Retrocognition


“Kirk Allen” (not his real name) 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 (for example, 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.

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