Time and the Conways playwright J. B. Priestley was famous for his fascination with theories of time and consciousness. Conways came to be known as one of Priestley’s six “Time Plays,” which also included Johnson Over Jordan, Dangerous Corner, and the international hit An Inspector Calls. In each “Time Play,” Priestley explored a different philosophy of time, most notable among them John William Dunne’s theory of Serialism, threads of which make an appearance in Time and the Conways itself. Serialism postulates that each person’s consciousness exists in multiple dimensions of time simultaneously and, often during sleep, one can access the future and past, thereby unwittingly predicting events to come.
John William Dunne (1875–1949) was a British aeronautical engineer, philosopher, and soldier. His explorations of Serialism began one night in 1898, when he had a dream that his watch had stopped at half past four in the morning. Dunne awoke from this dream in the middle of the night to find that the time was, in fact, just minutes after 4:30 A.M., and that his watch, which was sitting on a dresser on the opposite side of the room, had quite literally stopped minutes earlier while he was asleep, at exactly half past four. In the months and years following, Dunne experienced further moments of “clairvoyance” in his dreams. One night in 1902, for example, Dunne dreamt that he was trying to save an island of people from a volcanic disaster; later that week, Dunne learned of the eruption of Martinique’s Mount Pele, which buried the city of Saint Pierre. Dunne’s dreams went on to seemingly foretell a factory fire in Paris, a train derailment in Scotland, and even an incident in which he and his brother, while on a fishing trip, had to outrun an erratic horse that had escaped its enclosure.
After years of observing these kinds of occurrences in himself and, anecdotally, in friends, Dunne decided to run tests to determine whether others shared this kind of foresight and whether “clairvoyance” was a property of only some dreams or of all dreams. In efforts to maximize the number of dreams that any given experimenter would remember, Dunne developed a precise method for recording dream activity in the moments immediately after waking. The process worked. With his dreams written down in notebooks, Dunne started matching daytime experiences not only to clairvoyant dreams that he remembered having, but also to dreams that he had forgotten but had made note of in the first seconds of his day. As the other subjects in his experiment encountered many similar “psychic” incidents, Dunne became convinced that precognition during sleep was actually a normal human experience that was often just forgotten or dismissed as wild coincidence. It appeared that most, if not all, dreams provided windows to the future. Dunne then set out to determine what about our relationship to time made this kind of precognition possible.
The theory of time that Dunne developed out of these experiments rests on an understanding of the dimensions of space. Dimension zero, of course, is just a point; it has no length, width, or height. Each subsequent dimension “extends” at a right angle from all lower dimensions. The first dimension is a line with only length; the second dimension extends at a right angle from the first to form a plane. The third dimension, most familiar to us, extends at a right angle from the second to form a space with length, width, and height. The fourth dimension, then, in Dunne’s hypothesis, extends at a right angle from the third. A fourth dimension is not something that we can exactly visualize, but Dunne, alongside many other theorists of the time, proposed that the fourth dimension is, in fact, time. In the same way that a 1-D line is a cross-section of a 2-D square and a 2-D square is a cross-section of a 3-D cube, a cube at any given instant in time, Dunne suggested, is only a cross-section of that cube’s entire existence, from beginning to end, in time. A four-dimensional representation of a person, therefore, would be an entity that would encompass that person’s entire life all at once (see figure 1). A cross-section of that object would be a three-dimensional person at any instant in time, living as we do -- instant to instant, with only a memory of the past and guesses about the future.
But this raises some questions: why does it seem that we move through time in only one direction? What is pushing us through time? And how fast are we moving? As a solution to these questions, Dunne theorized that there must be a fifth dimension, extending at a right angle from the fourth. A cross-section of this dimension would be a fourth-dimensional object -- which, as Dunne already defined, represents the entire existence of that object in time. Just as a three-dimensional person can take a mental picture and observe a two-dimensional slice of their world, so can a four-dimensional person observe a three-dimensional cross-section of their world--i.e., one three-dimensional instant. Therefore, a fifth-dimensional person can observe their fourth-dimensional self (that is, their entire existence in time) as a single snapshot. (See Figure 2 for an analogy.) Dunne went on to suggest that this “series” of time dimensions extends infinitely, and each person’s consciousness exists in this infinite series of dimensions at once -- hence the term “Serialism.”
Even though, as Dunne postulated, each person has access to all of these dimensions at any time, he determined that a person’s consciousness habitually follows their third-dimensional perspective instant-to-instant through time while the third-dimensional self is awake. When the third-dimensional self is asleep, though, attention wanders, and the person’s consciousness in the fifth dimension (or higher) focuses on different moments in the fourth dimension -- in other words, different moments in the entirety of a person’s lifetime. Dreams, then, according to Dunne, are our consciousnesses observing our lives from higher dimensions and exploring our past and future experiences. With this, Dunne had devised an explanation for his and his subjects’ nighttime “clairvoyance.”
Dunne’s theory was not ultimately embraced by the larger scientific community. In the time since Dunne proposed Serialism, Einstein’s theory of relativity has shown to be a much more accurate descriptor of the nature and behavior of spacetime. But Dunne’s theories surely sparked the imaginations of his contemporaries and served as an important step in the path toward a deeper understanding of our universe.
Time and the Conways begins performances at the American Airlines Theatre on September 14, 2017. For tickets and information, please visit our website.
2017-2018 Season, Time and the Conways