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Half-past four

Dreamed 1898 by J. W. Dunne

In 1898, when I was staying at an hotel in Sussex, I dreamed, one night, that I was having an argument with one of the waiters as to what was the current time. I asserted that it was half-past four in the afternoon: he maintained that it was half-past four in the middle of the night. With the apparent illogicality peculiar to all dreams, I concluded that my watch must have stopped; and, on extracting that instrument from my waistcoat pocket, I saw, looking down on it, that this was precisely the case. It had stopped--with the hands at half-past four. With that I awoke.

The dream had been a peculiar one (in ways which have nothing to do with this book), and the net result of it all was that I lit a match to see whether the watch had really stopped. To my surprise it was not, as it usually is, by my bedside. I got out of bed, hunted round, and found it lying on the chest of drawers. Sure enough, it had stopped, and the hands stood at half-past four.

The solution seemed perfectly obvious. The watch must have stopped during the previous afternoon. I must have noticed this, forgotten it, and remembered it in my dream. Satisfied on that point, I rewound the instrument, but, not knowing the real time, I left the hands as they were.

On coming downstairs next morning, I made straight for the nearest clock, with the object of setting the watch right. For if, as I supposed, it had stopped during the previous afternoon, and had merely been rewound at some unknown hour of the night, it was likely to be out by several hours.1

To my absolute amazement I found that the hands had lost only some two or three minutes - about the amount of time which had elapsed between my waking from the dream and rewinding the watch.

This suggested, of course, that the watch had stopped at the actual moment of the dream.2 The latter was probably brought about by my missing the accustomed ticking. But how did I come to see in that dream, that the hands stood, as they actually did, at half-past four?

If anyone else had told me such a tale I should probably have replied that he had dreamed the whole episode, from beginning to end, including the getting up and re-winding. But that was an answer I could not give to myself. I knew that I had been awake when I had risen and looked at the watch lying on the chest of drawers. Yet, what was the alternative? "Clairvoyance"---seeing across space through darkness and closed eyelids? Even supposing that there existed unknown rays which could effect that sort of penetration, and then produce vision--which I did not believe--the watch had been lying at a level above that of my eyes. What sort of rays could these be which bent round corners?...


1: In other words, it was extremely unlikely that I should have dreamed of half-past four at precisely half-past four. A correspondent, Mr. C. G. Newland, points out that I should make this more clear since the question was essentially one of probability.

2: The improbability of my having dreamed of half-past four at half-past four must be multiplied by [I think Dunne simply means "compared to" here] the improbability of my having been bothered by a stopped watch on the previous afternoon without retaining the faintest recollection of such a fact.

--J.W. Dunne


Dunne ignores one more possibility which I find just as interesting. What about the body's internal clock? Our dreams may be able to do what our conscious can't--glance at our circadian cycle as we glance at a wristwatch. But sensory deprivation experiments (living in caves for a few months) have shown that the average body-clock tends to drift (run late, actually; that's why jetlag from westward travel's a bit easier to recover from than eastward). Is an inner alarm clock really accurate enough to wake you at exactly 4:30 AM? Maybe the answer is that bodies differ--and Dunne's inner clock was unusually accurate.

On the other hand, some of Dunne's other dreams have predictions very hard to explain without resorting to ESP theories (example: A Factory Fire.) So maybe he was looking round corners with his eyes closed...

--Chris Wayan

LISTS AND LINKS: time - clocks and time-perception - dreams of math and logic - subliminal cues or psychic dream? More J. W. Dunne -

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