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Andrew MacKenzie


Encounters with the past

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Andrew MacKenzie presents a number of cases of apparent retrocognition; that is, hallucinatory perception of past places and buildings, sometimes with the associated people. Whatever one may think of the antecedent probability or possibility of such things, this is a serious study. As Alan Gauld points out in his Introduction, MacKenzie's treatment of his subject is far from sensationalist. He analyses the reports critically and considers all possible "normal" explanations; some of the reports, in fact, he concludes can be attributed to misperception or mis-remembering. Not all, however.

Some of the cases, such as the well-known "Versailles adventure", are fairly old, but others are more recent and some of these MacKenzie was able to investigate personally. This is true of the first case in the book, which concerns the experience of three youths from a Royal Navy shore training establishment in Suffolk. While on an exercise the boys visited the village of Kersey and apparently saw it as it was several hundred years in the past. While the experience was taking place they appeared to be in an altered state of consciousness; the air was very still and the village was completely silent and deserted. The experience was both frightening and depressing.

In 1988 MacKenzie was able to trace two of the percipients, who were now both living in Australia and provided detailed accounts of what happened. The third percipient was also traced but could remember nothing at all about the matter. The member of the group with the clearest recollection, a Mr Laing, eventually came to Britain and revisited the scene with MacKenzie.

The "Versailles adventure", in which two English ladies at the turn of the twentieth century apparently saw Versailles as it was in the time of Marie Antoinette, is discussed in some detail. Many critics have dismissed this episode as based on misperception, but MacKenzie makes it clear that there is more to the story than is sometimes realized. In particular, other people apparently had similar experiences at Versailles quite independently at about the same time.

The other cases discussed in the book mostly concern the apparent perception of buildings that were not there. In some instances there had been a building at some time in the past, but in others it could be established that no such building had ever existed. In at least some of the reports mis-remembering the location of houses seen at night or in a fatigued condition seems to be an adequate explanation.

What is one to make of all this bizarre material? Critics will no doubt say that "normal" explanations are available for all of it and that it does not merit serious consideration. I think, however, that this is too dismissive; there seems no good reason to doubt that some people have reported strange experiences, which MacKenzie refers to throughout, uncompromisingly, as hallucinations. This is confirmed by the altered state of consciousness, including the absence of sound, often reported by the percipients. But do these experiences have any relevance to reality?

I am not myself convinced that anyone actually witnessed the past in an objective sense. But what is particularly interesting about these hallucinations is that in at least some of the cases there was more than one percipient. Both saw more or less the same scene, although there were sometimes differences, such as figures perceived by one person but not by another. Joint hallucinations of this kind are rare and difficult to explain on any normal theory of brain function.

MacKenzie does believe that at least some of the cases he discusses provide evidence of retrocognition. He permits himself a little speculation about the possible basis for such a thing, drawing on ideas current in modern physics about the nature of time. Julian Barbour's theory that time does not exist would certainly have been relevant here but his book was published after this one.

As in all investigations of this kind, one is left at the end with more questions than answers. But anyone with a liking for the more outlandish byways of psychology will find the book interesting.

27 December 2005

%T Adventures in time
%S Encounters with the past
%A MacKenzie, Andrew
%I The Athlone Press
%C London and Atlantic Highlands, NJ
%D 1997
%G ISBN 0-485-82001-3
%P xii + 143 pp
%K parapsychology
%O illustrated
%O Introduction by Alan Gauld

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