Latest news on psi events and research. Volume 4, Issue 1, 2013
The summer I was sixteen my parents moved our family from a quiet suburb into the city of Seattle, and took me and my younger brother, Tom, to view prospective houses. Tom and I didn’t care that much what the new house would look like, as long as we had the bedroom farthest away from our parents, and we agreed to alternate who got first pick of bedroom in each house our parents toured.
I didn’t think much of the Wallingford house at first. It was Tom’s turn to pick and this old house seemed tired and wilted. But when I glanced out the living room window and caught sight of a vacant old school building across the street, something clicked in my brain. The school looked familiar, like it belonged to memory.
I relaxed and let my memory spread out until I remembered watching that same school from the window of a bedroom upstairs, a small bedroom right next door to my parents. I realized I was remembering that window, and this house, as if I had already lived here, and I knew in a single moment that my parents would buy this house and I was going to be stuck next door to them for years, again. I might as well start adjusting to it now, I thought sourly, and I wondered why I never got really cool premonitions about fun things.
But my parents weren’t impressed and Tom looked bored. My mother sighed at the fifty-year-old kitchen before we all trooped down to the basement. There Tom and I both gasped in awe.
Nestled two entire floors below the master bedroom lay the crown jewel of all teen bedroom hide-outs. It had its own bathroom and an outside entrance. Sure, I could touch the ceiling without stretching and its tiny window barely cleared the ground outside, but it was private. Tom grinned at me and mouthed the word “mine” from behind our father’s back, and my heart sank.
As my family returned to the kitchen I stayed below, pacing and trying to sort through my options. On the one hand I knew I was holding a premonition, which meant what? I would have to accept the room upstairs because that was what my premonition showed me, and who was I to argue with the future? On the other hand, my parents could be right that premonitions were nonsense, which meant my future was open and I still had a chance for a good bedroom in the next house we saw. But on the other hand again, if my memory was a premonition, why couldn’t I change this one tiny aspect of which room was mine? What was a premonition for, if not to use that information to my advantage? I decided right then I could do what I wanted, and what I wanted was this bedroom.
I took Tom aside and made him what must have looked like the deal of a lifetime. In exchange for me getting first choice in this rundown house (with the admittedly perfect bedroom), I would give him first choice in every other house we looked at, including every house we had already seen, with no exceptions. We heard our mother exclaim again this house was not at all what she expected, and Tom laughed. “You are going to be so sorry,” he said, and we shook hands.
We toured another ten or fifteen houses over the next month, and in each one Tom gleefully pointed out the coolest bedroom he was going to take. I smiled and agreed with him, yep, he could have whatever bedroom he wanted, a deal was a deal. But the other houses weren’t in the right neighborhood or didn’t have enough bedrooms or were sold by the time we reached them. I was pretty sure if I told my parents about my premonition they would turn down the house just to teach me premonitions weren’t real, so I stayed quiet. And my house—my house—hung on the market for six more long weeks before our parents circled back to it again. This time my parents nodded as the real estate agent explained how easy it would be to remodel the kitchen, refinish the floors.
Tom and I stayed in the living room this second tour. I sat on the couch and watched him pace and scowl every time we heard laughter floating down. “They’ll never buy this house,” he insisted. “Just look at these colors. And the kitchen is all wrong.” Our parents made an offer on my house the next day, over Tom’s futile protests, and I settled into my private cave, and began wondering what had just happened.
I had just bet a really good bedroom that my parents didn’t have as much choice in life as they thought they did. I watched them compare houses for six long weeks as if they had a choice, without ever guessing a choice had already been made, somehow, by someone. I wondered all through those six weeks why no one else decided to buy that particular house, and why my parents couldn’t find something better. A part of me wanted to see them break free, find a different house just to prove they could, but still I didn’t say anything.
At sixteen I already knew free will was supposed to be a human birthright. I had trusted a premonition enough to win the best room in our new house and my victory was sweet, but it raised questions that I didn’t know how to answer. Everyone knows time rushes forward, not backward. If the future is already fixed, then what becomes of our free will? If the future is not fixed, then what is a premonition?
I was bumping up against the same questions that have pushed at scientists and science fiction writers alike for the past century. Researchers can’t find a good theory to explain how we can keep both our free will and our premonitions, and everyone is wary of upending one of our most basic commonsense beliefs.
At the same time I wondered how I was able to change my bedroom. If this house was somehow destined to be ours, why was I not destined to live upstairs next to my parents? Had I changed the future? If I had, why did I still remember my premonition of living upstairs when now that was never going to happen?
I came to understand my premonition was not about a fixed future, but about a potential one that existed in my imagination. My premonition didn’t set any future in stone. I didn’t believe my premonition caused my parents to buy that particular house. If I had not had the premonition my parents still would have bought it. Without the premonition, however, I never would have considered that house a serious match for them, Tom would have kept his turn for the best room, and I would have spent the next several years trapped, as only a teenager can be trapped, in the room upstairs.
I trusted my premonition enough to act on its information, but I didn’t believe it showed me where I should be living, as if the premonition knew what I needed better than I did. It showed me the room where I very well might be living. It helped me recognize one highly likely future, and I could use the information in whatever way I saw fit.
Every year a researcher makes some new pronouncement about how free will is an illusion that masks how we are determined by our biology, or culture, or the neural pathways in our brains, or by whatever the latest discovery shows. Linguists point out even the words we use helps shape how we perceive the world.
And every day we hold onto the certainty of our direct, personal experience of choice. We live within the limits of biology and culture, but we know we still have choices about who we are, how we will act, and who we will become. We make small choices every day and occasionally we make grand, life-changing decisions. We take comfort that we don’t have to know what is going to happen in the future. It is enough to be in the present, do the best we can, and let the future take care of itself.
Premonitions don’t take away those choices away, and they don’t lock us into a set future. They give new information—often limited information—about potentials and probabilities we otherwise might have missed. We can learn to live with that information just as we live with our imagined futures and planned futures and wished for futures, allowing them to guide or warn us as we see fit.
Jeanne Van Bronkhorst began having occasional premonitions when she was five years old. She is the author of Premonitions in Daily Life: Working With Spontaneous Information When Rational Understanding Fails You (Llewellyn Publications 2013). She was a medical social worker in end-of-life care for twenty years, and now consults and writes in Toronto, Ontario.