Author Eric Wargo on dreams, premonitions, and the long self
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“When you start paying attention, you start identifying precognitive dreams constantly. This isn't some extraordinary rare phenomenon. The brain can reach into its future all the time. We just don't notice it.” — Eric Wargo
Three years and a lifetime ago, I was having lunch with the author John Higgs in London. I asked John, a man of weird and wonderful taste, if there was anything particularly wild he’d recently read. “I’d reckon this crazy book called Time Loops,” John told me. Days later I was devouring the book in increasing amazement, grateful for John’s recommendation.
Today, Eric Wargo, the author of that book and a brand-new one, joins us on the Ideaspace for one of the most mind-bending conversations I’ve ever had. Over the course of two incredible hours, Eric completely changed how I think about dreams, time, consciousness, and even the fundamental construct of my life. I’m certain that when you hear what he has to say, the same will happen to you.
Rather than try to summarize Eric’s eye-popping ideas, I’ll leave them to him to explain. Listen to the full conversation on the web, Apple, or Spotify. An edited transcript exploring dreams, premonitions, and the long self is below.
YANCEY: I want to start by asking you about a paper by a Cornell psychologist named Daryl Bem called “Feeling the Future.” What’s this paper about?
ERIC: Daryl Bem is a very eminent personality psychologist at Cornell who after a long and distinguished career, turned his attention to parapsychology. Over the span of the better part of a decade, he conducted a series of large experiments with undergraduates at Cornell where he would put students through tasks that were very typical, standard psychology paradigms, but he would reverse the stimulus and response in the tasks. For instance there was a word recall task where typically you have students study a word list, then you'd have some kind of study phase where you reinforce some of those words later, then you test the kids. In this case, he reversed those last two sequences. He had them study the word list, tested them, then subsequently reinforced certain of those words. Lo and behold, the words that were subsequently reinforced, they recalled better on the test prior to that.
YANCEY: People did better on words they were shown after the test?
ERIC: Right. In his most famous finding, students were asked to pick which of two curtains on a computer screen had a picture behind it. In fact, there was no picture behind either of them when they made their choice — it was randomly chosen after. As they made their button press, it randomly chose which curtain was the one with a picture. The students were more accurate than chance at guessing which curtain would reveal a picture when the picture was erotic versus when it was just a boring scene.
YANCEY: So they were shown two gray blocks. You have to say which one of these has a picture behind it. The computer would randomly put an image behind one of those blocks. And if the image happened to be erotic, people were more likely to guess correctly?
ERIC: Exactly. Theoretically they should only be right 50% of the time. But when pictures were erotic, they did better than that. He had a big enough sample pool and the task was repeated enough times that it was statistically significant. He did a number of studies that were temporally impossible in terms of our common sense understandings of causation, and he got significant findings. Nine studies, he got significant findings on eight of the nine, and there was a big sample.
Bem wrote this up and submitted it and it went through peer review and was accepted. But it was hugely controversial, as you can imagine. When it came out a decade ago in 2011, it was a major bombshell. The editors of the journal wrote a special preface acknowledging that they found this very perplexing and troubling, but they felt that they had to publish the finding. I came across this study because I at the time was an editor for another psychology organization. People in my organization were mad about this paper. They really, really got upset. Were even going to write a letter saying findings of this kind should never be published because it's preposterous. For me it was a real education in the hostility toward ideas that go against our assumptions. That's not what science is supposed to be, but unfortunately science, like anything else, is a human institution. There are all kinds of forces that constrain what people feel like they can study and what they can believe.
YANCEY: How did the authors try to explain what they observed?
ERIC: They didn't try to explain it. Daryl Bem offered hypotheses and alluded to a long history in parapsychology of trying to make sense of impossible findings that have been gathered for over a century. Basically 90 years of history of studying ESP and gathering statistically significant results for not only precognition, but other phenomena like clairvoyance (what is now called remote viewing) and telepathy. He didn't make any grand theoretical claims about what's going on, but it was a strong statement of, “Hey, there's something going on here. People need to study this more.”
One of the important things about “Feeling the Future” was that all of these studies, all these paradigms, were very simple. He made his experimental setup very simple and he made the statistical analyses very simple so that it would be very easy for other labs to try and replicate his findings. That's a really important part of science. Initially the skeptics came out and said, “This can't be replicated and it's not been replicated. Look, I tried to do this study, I didn’t get any results, blah, blah, blah.” In fact, quite a lot of other labs – I think 83 other studies from other labs, and then he did some subsequent replications as well — supported this finding. Bem published a meta-analysis subsequently of these studies, and had trouble getting that published anywhere. No one would touch it. But the bottom line is it did replicate.
YANCEY: So he doesn't try to explain it.
YANCEY: How do you explain it?
ERIC: This is what I've been thinking about for the last ten years, and I've written two books about now. A lot of lines of evidence from a lot of different fields are converging on a possible explanation, and it's going to have to do with the brain. This isn't a spiritual phenomenon, although I believe that spirituality can very much involve the brain and its tricks.
Let's start with physics. In physics it’s become much more accepted by a growing number of quantum physicists that at the smallest scales in nature, causes go both directions. The fact that we only perceive cause going one direction is an effect of entropy and things happening on a larger scale. But on the tiniest scales of particle interactions, there's really no way of telling. Temporal directionality is a lot less meaningful there.
Number two, what's even more interesting is in the last few years there's been a growth of research in quantum computing. That's where you try to scale up these tiny quantum effects into something that we can use to create a quantum computer. What they're finding in quantum computers is that you can reverse the temporal direction of a computation. It effectively means you could produce an output before an input.
YANCEY: Say that again?
ERIC: You could theoretically produce an output before an input in a quantum computer, because you can reverse the direction, the temporal order, of a computation. Now, I'm not an expert in this field, so the details are lost on me as well. But this supports the notion that there are ways to scale up this causal directional indeterminacy that goes on at the very smallest scales in nature.
Let's take it to another field. Quantum biology is an emerging field over the last two decades. Just a little over a decade ago it was discovered that plants are essentially quantum computers, because photosynthesis uses some of these same quantum principles. There has been a search for three decades now for quantum processes going on in the brain, because if there's anything in nature that ought to be a quantum computer, it would be the brain, right? There's growing evidence for this possibility that at least certain structures within neurons, called microtubules, might have quantum computing processing properties. If that proves to be the case that may be your explanation for how this works. Because one thing microtubules do in neurons is they reshape the tips of neurons as they form connections to each other. They’re involved in processes of memory and learning, because that's what memory learning is: the formation of new connections. The reinforcement of those connections as they're used, or the withdrawing of connections that aren't used, is the basis of memory and learning.
Now if those molecules that are controlling that process are getting information about their own futures, they're able to prespond to information ahead in time, even if we're talking a few seconds. That’s a potential mechanism where our learning processes, our connectivity in our brain as a function of memory, is influenced by experiences ahead in time. Not just in the past, the usual way we think of memory. When you study precognition and how it manifests in real life and in laboratory life, it looks an awful lot like memory, just memory going in the wrong direction. The similarities to memory are obvious if you pay attention to the research findings, and to the vast anecdotal data of dreams. It looks like memory for things future.
Dream research has converged in the last several years on the idea that dreaming is essentially the process of new memories being formed. There was a researcher named Sue Llewellyn at the University of Manchester who published a really wonderful and important paper eight years ago that put together neuroscience research on dreams and dreaming and memory with the ancient art of memory, if you've ever heard of that. This was the method that, in pre-literate societies or non-literate societies, people used to remember information. We're always using these mnemonic techniques without realizing it. But she noted — and anyone who really works with dreams and the art of memory, it'll be obvious to them — that dreams are just like memory images. They are absurd, strange scenes. They take place in a spatial setting. They encode information about waking life events. If you have an eye to that, dreams become very illuminated. It actually corresponds really closely to what Freud argued back at the turn of the last century. He didn't understand the function of dreaming as having to do with memory — he believed that it was about the expression of repressed ideas in the unconscious — but he was totally right about how dreams symbolize. It works perfectly according to art of memory principles.
Combine all the quantum mechanics, the quantum computing, the quantum biology, and the research on dreams and learning and memory, and a picture starts to cohere.
YANCEY: A word you use to talk about this picture is retrocausation. What is retrocausation?
ERIC: It’s just what it sounds like: causation going in temporal retrograde, or in temporal reverse order. An event in the future causing one in the present. Or, conversely, the event in the present causing an event in the past.
YANCEY: You've written two fascinating books on this and you have a blog where you write about dreams. This idea that dreams are premonitions: did you always believe this?
ERIC: Not at all. I've been interested in dreams all my life. I was steeped in Freud and a lot of psychoanalytic writers in graduate school, and that got me to pay close attention to my dreams and to start keeping a dream journal, which I did pretty assiduously starting in the mid-1990s. My parents were psychologists, and psychologists are very hostile to anything related to psychic phenomena. But it was partly Daryl Bem’s article that got me to rethink my assumptions.
One thing that helped was I had dreams that uncannily foreshadowed something that was about to happen in my life. I had a dream on the morning of 9/11. It wasn't of planes crashing into buildings, but it had a pair of identical square buildings with corrugated facades, just like the towers. In the dream they were mosques and they were in a setting that I specifically associated with suicide. I had that dream a couple hours before the attacks. A couple other dreams similarly, uncannily foreshadowed something that happened the next day.
I had previously swept them under the rug. This is something that happens with everyone who experiences something so-called paranormal that doesn't fit within our cultural models of causation and possibility. You will initially be really excited, then doubt creeps in. Because it doesn't fit it's better to shove it aside. But when you start actually paying attention, you start identifying precognitive dreams constantly. That is a real paradigm shift. Because you realize everything we've been told about the mind, about psychology — there's this other thing going on. This isn't some sort of extraordinary rare phenomenon. If the brain can reach into its future for something like 9/11, it’s going to be doing this all the time. We just don't notice it.
YANCEY: Your books have so many amazing examples of premonitions, including Freud, Philip K. Dick, and Vladimir Nabakov. I’d love to hear you tell the story of Carl Jung and the scarab beetle.
ERIC: Jung was working with these early quantum mechanical concepts and wrote a couple papers about what he called “synchronicity.” That's become the standard term to cover pretty much any coincidence that we can't explain causally. His specimen case of synchronicity is with this highly rationalistic young woman in his office whose therapy was not making headway. One day she brings to his clinic a dream that she had the night before where someone presented her with this piece of valuable golden jewelry in the shape of an Egyptian scarab beetle. As she's telling him this dream, Jung hears a tap on the window behind him. He turns around, and it's the European equivalent of the scarab beetle. He opened the window and cupped the beetle in his hand and handed it to her and said, “Here's your scarab.” It was this very magical moment for this patient.
YANCEY: Right at the moment she tells him the dream about somebody handing her a beetle, he hands her a beetle.
ERIC: Yes. From Carl Jung’s point of view, he was not paying attention to the fact that she had dreamed about it, he was paying attention to the fact that she was telling him her dream at that moment, and lo and behold, here's this beetle. But what we can now see, with this model of retrocausation and precognition and precognitive dreams, is that he was enacting that scene from her dream the night before. She happened to be telling him about the dream as he enacted it. He was an expert on the symbolism of scarab beetles and he proceeded to explain it to her, and to her it undoubtedly made her dream feel very special. You can pick apart what little we know about her dream and see how the value of that moment in her life transformed that wriggling insect into a piece of valuable golden jewelry. It makes perfect sense.
YANCEY: My mind is crumbling. There’s this loop. Without the dream the moment wouldn't have meant anything. But because of the dream it was meaningful. Without knowing it, Jung closed a loop.
ERIC: You're putting your finger on the crux of the issue, this time looping. This is what throws people, and this is what threw Jung. It would have seemed to him like a paradox that somehow he was fulfilling. He was helping fulfill this prophecy. But in fact that's the way prophecies always work. People think, “If I helped bring this about, then it can't be really precognition.” That's exactly how precognition works, and how we can be freely-willed creatures in a universe that includes precognition. There are two kinds of causation. On the one hand you have the material world, which operates according to the gist of the material mechanistic principles of the Enlightenment. But you also have something like the brain, which is very special and has different principles operating within it. Brains can carry information from the individual's future. That's how I think it's working.
YANCEY: I’m going to quote two things you wrote in your books. You wrote:
“We should think of ourselves as four-dimensional beings. Our behavior is shaped not only by our past, but also by what is yet to come.”
You also wrote:
“We live in a block universe where the future, including the distant future, already exists down to the smallest detail. Your own future experiences already exist, albeit associatively and symbolically, in your tesseract brain right now. Dreams not only show us these experiences, they often already include some symbolic representation of our belated amazement at discovering their future reference.”
Explain to us four-dimensional beings and the block universe.
ERIC: Let's say you have a glass brick you can see inside of, and the long dimension of the brick is time. Imagine there’s a little red thread snaking, wiggling through that brick for a certain length of time. It’s a static line. That could be your life. Time scrolls from one end of that brick to the other. We're just seeing a cross section at any given moment. Right now I'm seeing a cross section of the four-dimensional worm that is Yancey Strickler. What I'm experiencing right now, my body is just a cross section of a four-dimensional worm called Eric Wargo. We’re just perceiving an instant in time.
YANCEY: Makes me picture Donnie Darko and those lines extending from people.
ERIC: Right. What the theory of retrocausation in physics suggests is that information doesn't just travel in one direction along the line of a particle. Every time a particle interacts with something it may change its momentum, its position, and so on. In fact, maybe some of that information travels backwards. That's what some interesting experiments have shown or suggested strongly, just like in the Daryl Bem experiment, but for particles. A particle is influenced by the next thing it's going to hit. It’s influencing itself in the past. That's what some experiments are suggesting.
We're world lines and our brain is a brain line, which means the atoms in the brain are connected to themselves across time. If some of that information is traveling backwards along that brain line, then you have an explanation for what we're talking about. The block universe is the cosmology that enables this to be the case. It says that there is a future and that future is definite. Thus it can cause things in the past in a way that does not produce paradox. You simply have causal loops in the universe. I suspect the universe is made of causal loops. If you drill down enough in any physical system, it's going to be causal loops.
YANCEY: One place my mind goes is the question of free will. Is there free will? Or maybe our moment of free will isn’t when we think our moment of free will is?
ERIC: There are a lot of different answers to this. The answer that I play with in the new book is that we’re exerting our will into the past when we make choices. Our thoughts and intentions right now influenced us a second ago, or five seconds ago, or a minute ago, or a day ago, or a year ago. We are influencing our past in a way that circles around and influences what's to come.
But there's another answer that I'm starting to like better. That's simply that we are freely-willed beings, we exert free will just the same way we think we do. We have experiences that produce outcomes that reflux into our past in the form of our dreams, and we are influenced by those past experiences. What it means is that if you rerun the universe from the starting point and replay the whole thing, it would always turn out the same. That's what it might mean to not have free will in this larger philosophical sense that we can't change history from what it was. But I'm also going to act in a way that feels very freely-willed and is going to produce an outcome five seconds from now or a year from now. If we replay the universe, I would make those same decisions again.
What bugs people about this seeming challenge to free will is that we can't change the future. But we also can't know the future. If we don't know what the future is, what are we trying to change?
YANCEY: Amazing. You write: “Our conscious will may really be what we experience as our hindsight reflection.” So the conscious will that’s guiding us, the inner voice that speaks to us, that’s maybe our future self?
ERIC: I think that's the case. It’s our long self. The long self is us as those long worms in the four-dimensional block universe. We are, in fact, a whole life, a whole biography from birth to death, with amazing experiences over the course of that existence. When you have this conception of the long self, with these subterranean or inner connecting threads in the form of precognitive dreams and precognitive experiences, you realize that the past is not dead and gone, the past is right there and I'm interacting with my past in a way that I can't directly consciously see, but I can get evidence of in my dreams. Likewise, the future is still there, my future experiences are already here in my head, and at night I can get a little movie that’s showing me them.
It's mind blowing to have this long self realization, which is where precognitive dream work leads. This self-enhanced sense of oneself as a biography. Psychology encourages us to think of ourselves as having certain principles that govern our behavior. But I think we should think in terms of ourselves as having a biography, because what we're really seeing in the unconscious and precognition are experiences at different points in our lives interacting with ourselves right now and influencing us. The Freudian model describes an iceberg. The tip of the iceberg is conscious thought and everything below the iceberg is the unconscious. Tip that iceberg on its side and make the time axis go along it: what we're thinking consciously in the present is the conscious. The unconscious is that whole part of our life yet to live that's nevertheless influencing us.
YANCEY: So our subconscious is the future being expressed through the language of the present?
ERIC: That's my hypothesis. I can't prove that, but it makes sense. We are a biography, we are a story, a very detailed, rich story. It's a messy story. It’s very novelistic. The long self is drilling down into the confusing, complex mess of our lives and realizing there's an order, a really interesting novelistic story. We need to pay attention to the details of our lives, because that's what gives us a sense of our life's richness. Especially when you realize that those details, that embarrassing mistake I made back at age 23 or whatever, maybe that wasn't just some random thing or some stupid thing, may have been a necessary thing for me to come around to this point where I can look back on it now and realize, “I had to do that so I can become the person I am now.” We are constantly foreshadowing. That’s long self thinking. That’s Bento thinking.
YANCEY: Towards the end of the new book you quote a T.S. Eliot poem:
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time”
What is this exploration?
ERIC: It’s an exploration of the self. People come into this topic expecting, “I want this new superpower. I want to win the lottery.” That's probably not going to happen. But it is going to make your life ten times more interesting, and it's going to make other people's lives more interesting because of the ways that it connects you to others. The way other people fulfill your time loops, like Carl Jung handing his patient the scarab. These kinds of events happen all the time. It's wonderful to think of our lives not just as long selves, but as DNA intertwining with each other. It’s that Bentoist worldview: there is a Future Me and there is a Future Us, and precognition is part of weaving that.
I’m hosting a workshop this Tuesday (May 18) at 1pm EST titled Intro to the Bento Method that will contain useful tools and new experiments for decision-making and connecting with your future self. Join me:
Peace and love my friends,