An Experiment with Time

There have been a number of recent movies that have examined the nature of time. Interstellar and Arrival both have theories of time at the heart of their plots.


Time travel in science fiction is nothing new, “Memoirs of the Twentieth Century” was written by the Irish writer Samuel Madden in 1733. Possibly the most famous time travel story, “The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells, was written in 1895.

Arrival is, however, different from classic time travelers tale. The movie, based on a Ted Chiang story, approaches the concept from the idea of how time is experienced.

stories of your life

This approach is influenced by the modern scientific view of time. Einstein presented time as a dimension. We have height, width, length and time. Time for Einstein is a direction in space. It is not fixed, it varies depending on other factors. The most famous thought experiment involved someone travelling in space at near the speed of light. For them, time will slow down compared to someone on Earth.

With such a flexible notion of time the very idea of “now” becomes complicated. If time is passing at different rates depending on your speed of travel, when is now?

Since there exists in this fourdimensional structure no longer any sections, which represent nowobjectively, the concepts of happening and becoming are indeed not completely suspended, but yet complicatedEinstein

In this theoretical structure, the past, present and future all exist simultaneously.

For those of us who believe in physics, the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusionEinstein

Whilst time travel is a great jumping off point for speculative fiction, the real point of interest for many writers is now how time is experienced. Why do we only experience it travelling in one direction if it all exists simultaneously?

It was this question that the British writer J.W. Dunne attempted to answer in his 1927 book, “An Experiment with Time”.

experiment with time

Dunne believed that past, present and future all co-existed but that we only experienced it as “now”. He believed that in certain circumstances we can “remember” the future in the same way that we remember the past.

Dunne’s experiment involved keeping a dream journal. As soon as he woke up, he recorded his dreams before the memory of them faded.

Most dreams are influenced by recent experience. If you have read a book or watched a movie before going to sleep, your dream may contain elements of that book or movie. It won’t be a coherent repeat of the story but you can often recognise what memories the dreams are influenced by.

Dunne believed that “recent” experience extended to both the recent past and near future. In an unconscious state our minds are less constrained by the the experience of one-way time. Once written down in a journal and reviewed at the end of the day, you will, according to Dunne, recognise events after you woke as having influenced your previous night’s dreams.

According to Dunne, he recorded a number of high profile events before they happened using this method. He did not claim to be clairvoyant or claim to be predicting events at a distance. He believed that reading about those events in the near future in newspapers was what prompted his dreams.

The book was well received at the time and influenced a number of writers including J.B. Priestley whose play Time and the Conways” specifically illustrates the theme laid out by Dunne.


Whilst An Experiment with Time goes on to extend its’ argument to incorporate a theory of multiple levels of consciousness that many found unconvincing, the experiment itself is relatively easy to re-create and test.

It may not convince you, but the worst that will happen is that you get better at remembering your dreams.

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