From the Reading Room – Foreknowledge.

I was looking through the books in our storage cabinet in the reading room a few weeks ago and I spotted a blue book entitled Foreknowledge by Herbert Saltmarsh.  A quick skim revealed its subject was precognition and a short while late the reader who requested the book arrived to consult it.  Katy Price is a lecturer at Queen Mary – University of London and I asked her why she has chosen this book and how it related to her wider interests.

What happens when you wake up one morning with memories of a dream … and find that dream coming true a few hours, days, or weeks later? It’s a strange yet common experience, and one that is difficult to accommodate in modern western frameworks. There have been many attempts to collect and analyse precognitive dreams over the past hundred years, and I’m writing a book about the various collectors, the dreamers, and their relationships with mainstream science, religion and the arts.

The collections at Senate House are brilliant for this topic, not least because of the Harry Price Library of Magical Literature. Harry Price (no relation) was a controversial investigator whose attempts to set up a National Laboratory of Psychical Research at University College London during the 1920s and 30s were continually thwarted.

The book I’m reading today, Foreknowledge (1938) by Herbert Saltmarsh, represents the attempt by members of the Society for Psychical Research to organise reports of prevision on a scientific basis. Saltmarsh sets out the conditions for an ideal case, which must meet certain criteria. For example, there must be a witness to confirm that your dream was divulged before the corresponding event in waking life, and there must be plenty of detail to ensure that the match between dream and waking experience is not just a coincidence. But most of us don’t get our dreams signed off by legal professionals each morning, or remember all the details, or even write them down, so the evidence for our ability to see the future while sleeping can be hard to capture. Saltmarsh confesses that an ideal case has yet to be found.

The wind that howls round Senate House library adds suitable atmosphere to the study of psychical research here. Whenever I enter the psychology section on the sixth floor I feel as if a scene from Ghostbusters may unfold at any moment. Hopefully my research ethics are of a slightly higher standard than those of Dr Peter Venkman, played by Bill Murray, whose ESP experiment using Zener cards forms the movie’s opening sequence. ​

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