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27 April 2022

Are premonitions more than coincidence?

The Premonitions Bureau by Sam Knight is a propulsive but flawed examination of the rationality of chance.

By Sophie McBain

In the aftermath of the 1966 Aberfan disaster, John Barker, an eccentric and somewhat troubled Cambridge-educated psychiatrist, became intrigued by the people who had apparently foreseen the catastrophic coal spill. Ten-year-old Eryl Mai, who was among 116 children killed when her school was subsumed by the avalanche of coal waste, had the day before told her mother of a dream in which her school had disappeared under something black. In north London, Kathleen Middleton, a piano and dance teacher who claimed to have experienced premonitions since childhood, said she had woken that morning with a terrible choking sensation and a feeling that the walls were caving in. Barker wondered if there might be a way to test and harness people’s apparent capacity for precognition: could premonitions one day serve as an early warning system? With the aid of Peter Fairley, a charismatic and ambitious science reporter at the Evening Standard, he established the premonitions bureau in 1967, which collated hundreds of submissions from readers who warned of impending disasters (or offered racing tips).

The Premonitions Bureau is the New Yorker writer Sam Knight’s first book and builds on a 2019 feature for the magazine. It’s a propulsive, atmospheric story, featuring a cast of strange characters, a series of unnerving coincidences and several apparently foretold disasters, reconstructed in almost morbid detail. (Amazon Studios has already bought the film rights.) It also touches on rich and fascinating themes. “Premonitions are impossible, and they come true all the time,” Knight writes.

The rational explanation is that they are coincidences, but our brains often resist this interpretation, he argues, suggesting this might be because of how we are wired. Modern neuroscience supports the idea that perception is based on prediction: our brains are constantly making and updating predictions about what we expect to see or experience. We’re also driven to seek meaning, to identify patterns, to impose some narrative sense on to the confusing mess of our lives. The ability to see patterns that elude others can be a mark of genius (it is how new theories are uncovered, or new music written) or a sign of madness, and was once described as a hallmark of schizophrenia.

[See also: Is reality a hallucination? The neuroscientist Anil Seth thinks so]

One of the most poignant and universal strands in Knight’s book is how often we ascribe meaning to the wrong things, how frequently we pay attention to the wrong signals. While Barker investigated strangers’ psychic powers, an inquest into the Aberfan disaster revealed how many people had noticed that the waste tip appeared unstable, and how this risk was ignored or minimised. While he was preoccupied with clairvoyants’ prophecies about political assassinations and plane crashes, a fire ripped through Barker’s psychiatric hospital. The hospital’s emergency protocols failed, and 24 female patients were killed. None of the bureau’s seers predicted this.

The Premonitions Bureau is also partly about the psychological power of expectation. While working on the bureau, Barker was also publicising his book Scared to Death, which explored so-called voodoo deaths – deaths that appeared to have been caused solely by a person’s own impression that they were going to die. Wild rats have given up and died following the trauma caused by having their whiskers trimmed; medical literature is replete with patients who have died unexpectedly in routine, low-risk operations, having told doctors beforehand that they were sure they wouldn’t survive surgery. Knight discusses this “nocebo effect”, when expectations about negative side-effects become self-fulfilling. In 2006, a man swallowed 29 inert capsules in an attempted overdose, thinking they were anti-depressants. His blood pressure collapsed and he was rushed to hospital, where his symptoms abated as soon as he learned what he’d taken.

The Premonitions Bureau is a very short, pacey book. Knight’s exploration of the philosophy and science of prediction is wide-ranging, but I wanted more depth. His summaries are eloquent and at times too neat. He writes, for instance, that once an unlikely occurrence is incorporated into the story of a life or death, it becomes almost impossible to see the alternative possibilities that once existed. “Storytelling itself is also an act of narrowing, of eliminating branching futures, until there is only one way things were ever going to go,” he observes. And yet the stories we tell ourselves and others are often about the road not taken – the flunked exam, the misunderstanding cleared up too late. Perhaps another illusion we live by is that our counterfactual thinking is accurate and meaningful, as though our lives were structured a bit like a choose-your-own adventure book – our alternative futures concrete and clearly laid out, just no longer accessible.

Barker struck me as a man simultaneously prepared to surrender to his preordained fate – he responds with fear and resignation to predictions of his own early death – and obsessed with what-ifs. What if Eryl Mai’s mother had been so spooked by the dream that she’d kept her daughter home that fateful day in Wales? At times, premonitions rob us of agency by implying that the future is predetermined, but they can also make us feel more powerful, more in control.

Maybe that, too, is why we often give meaning to the wrong things. When I caught Covid this March I found it hard to shake the conviction that I’d tempted fate by bragging about how I’d escaped the virus for so long – as though my words alone could direct its spread.

Knight describes Barker’s attitude towards his seers’ premonitions as “doubtful, yet insinuating”, which sometimes fits his own tone too. He prefers to let readers draw their own conclusions about the premonitions bureau and other experiments, but this constrains his analysis. In a rare personal disclosure, Knight writes of how when his wife was pregnant, the couple declined tests to confirm their baby’s sex because, having seen three magpies, they were sure they were having a girl. (And they were right! Perhaps because the magpie test is 50 per cent accurate.)

[See also: My grandmother, the quiet radical]

This is a relatively kooky example; some accurate predictions are less mystical than others. The apparently prophetic dreams gathered by Charlotte Beradt in 1930s Germany – she records, for instance, a factory worker who, three days after Hitler was elected chancellor, dreamed that he had great difficulty raising his arm in salute before Joseph Goebbels – might point to our emotional sensitivity to political change. Perhaps we sense the danger posed by rising authoritarianism before we can fully articulate it.

We’re learning more about the physiological mechanisms that can explain some “voodoo deaths”: a sense of impending doom can be an early symptom of a blood clot or heart attack; the apparently mysterious spate of deaths that happen after disasters, once the danger has abated, may be the result of takotsubo cardiomyopathy, a heart condition that follows acute emotional distress, which was discovered by Japanese researchers in the 1990s.

The more I read, the more doubtful I felt about Knight’s confident early assertion that “the rational explanation” for premonitions is that they are coincidences – what makes his subject so interesting, and so complex, is that occasionally they are not. We simply don’t yet understand the causal mechanisms; we’re reading the wrong signs. “What is the difference between an impossible hypothesis of the world and an insight no one else has managed to see yet?” Knight asks – but declines to answer.

Then again, there are advantages to Knight’s approach: the space he gives readers to interrogate their own illogic and superstitions; the strange things they see as meaningful. I found myself suddenly thinking about an event that haunted me for weeks in my early twenties, when at the end of my road a passer-by was killed after a sign from the betting shop fell on his head. I couldn’t stop thinking about the senselessness of the accident, how unjust it was that someone could die in such a stupid and meaningless way. But as Knight observes, superstitions and premonitions are also a psychological defence against the horror – and reality – of randomness.

We find it hard to accept that some things are pure chance. Sometimes the difference between life and death is the train you catch or miss, the plane seat you choose, where you were standing when a William Hill sign fell from above. It shouldn’t be, but it is.

The Premonitions Bureau: A True Story
Sam Knight
Faber & Faber, 256pp, £14.99

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This article appears in the 27 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Sturgeon's Nuclear Dilemma