Feed on

By Mike Mowbray


“Does human-kind have an inherent ‘sixth-sense’ in recognizing immanent danger or evil?“ According to Conroy (2007: 15), “Our ancestors of the past thousand years thought so,” and “[b]oth the Bible and the Talmud still have words that address(ed) the concept of a ‘sixth sense’ or the ability to know of a dangerous thing before it happened” (ibid.) Drawing on examples of premonition in Holocaust narratives from both literary and lay sources, Conroy (2007) suggests that premonition is a persistent motif in such narratives, where the significance of seemingly common elements of experience described under this rubric takes on expanded import. Such narratives, she notes, “speak often of the ability to sense mortal peril” (ibid: 15).

Among the examples Conroy presents is the account of one survivor, related in personal correspondence, that begins with an avowed uncertainty as to the status or nature of premonition: “I do not know what the difference is between gut feeling, successful decision or premonition,” the man writes. A member of the Jewish section of the Belgian Underground Resistance Network in that country under Nazi occupation in 1941, he nonetheless tells of its decisive impact on the course of his own life:


One late afternoon two friends and I returned to our place which was at the other side of the railroad tracks. Like usual we had two ways to cross over, underground tunnel or overpass bridge. That particular day my friends decided to go through the tunnel because it was shorter. Somehow I felt a strong feeling of resistance to follow their suggestion. I tried convincing them to follow me, but they laughed at me and my superstition. When I reached the top of the bridge I saw a black Opel, the cars used by the Nazi Gestapo, taking in my two friends. After the war, after many researches I found their name was on a memorial plaque in the Belgian concentration camp in Breedonk. One, 17, was hanged, the other, 16, was shot. (cited in Conroy 2007: 14-15)


Conroy sometimes appears – along with the survivor just cited – to confound premonition with a range of related concepts such as prescience or foreknowledge (knowledge of events before they happen) and presentiment (a mental impression or feeling of a future event) or the feeling of foreboding (a presentiment of evil or of danger). Judging by examples (and Conroy’s own stated concerns), this latter is a primary component, combined in varying cases with different levels of apparent foreknowledge (ranging from a simple feeling of unease to “a strong feeling of resistance” to a particular place or course of action, and potentially including more-or-less detailed impressions of what imminent calamity lies in wait). Indeed, this fits fairly easily with the OED definition of ‘premonition’ as “The action of premonishing or forewarning,“ derivative of the (archaic) verb ‘premonish,’ “to forewarn; to advise, caution, notify or admonish beforehand” – ultimately from the latin præmonere, “to forewarn, foreshow.” Early English usage often evokes a divine “premonition” of scourge or punishment to be meted out (e.g “He is yet so mercyfull that he premonysheth & forewarneth of hys scourge to come, by hys prophets”; ”God premonishes before he punishes”), a sense which appears transmuted in contemporary deployments shorn (more often than not) of the implications of divine agency or justice.

Among the best known examples of premonition in Holocaust narrative, Elie Wiesel’s Night (1960/2006) describes the case of a Madame Schachter who during a journey by train, packed into a dark boxcar with other Jews from the village of Sighet, began to scream unremittingly, warning her fellow passengers of a vision of flames that only she could see. Speaking feverishly of “huge flames,” and ”a furnace,” she was subdued, beaten and restrained by her fellow passengers, thought to have lost her mind. Breaking free, and despite the violence earlier directed against her, she again shouted her warning as the train came to rest at Auschwitz (cited in Conroy 2007: 18):


We had forgotten the existence of Madame Schachter. Suddenly, we heard terrible screams.

“Jews, look! Look through the window! Flames! Look!”

And as the train stopped, we saw this time that flames were gushing out of a tall chimney into the black sky.


While some have raised questions about the fidelity of Wiesel’s account, critical characterizations of which oscillate between the poles of novel and autobiographical testimony, the author (and his publisher) maintain that its content is factual.1 Regardless, it is a chillingly graphic example of an experience (in this case a powerful sense of foreboding accompanied by more concrete impressions: “huge flames”, “a furnace”) seeming to lend particular weight to the notion of premonition, to furnish a common trope with particular gravity. Conroy adduces many more examples. In many of these, “the mental ‘nudge’ caused the person to give a warning or to do something different in order to live” (26), though in others warnings are ignored or individuals powerless to convey or act upon them.

Similar instances that some might venture attributing to a possible ‘sixth sense’ are in no short supply. Many are connected with events that stand out in contemporary Western social imaginaries as among the tragedies our age. Fiona Steinkamp, a researcher with the University of Edinburgh’s Koestler parapsychology unit, recounts coming across an American psychologist’s written account of a woman at the site of the Titanic’s ill-fated first sailing “who asked her family why people were going on the boat because she could see it surrounded by ice” (cited in Hendry 1998). On a more individual scale of significance (albeit larger-than-life, as always when the subject is a Hollywood legend cut down in his prime), the story is often told of the actor Alec Guinness’ strange insistence that James Dean was going to die in his 1955 Porsche roadster – a belief he conveyed to the actor less than a week before exactly such a thing came to pass (Hendry 1998; Reid 2005: 270).

More recently, reports that resonate with these earlier incidences of premonition concerning infamous and deadly events emerged around the September 11th, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. An article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (Goodnow 2003), for example, makes reference to


an eerily prescient dream that occurred five days before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as reported by Mike Cherni, a forensic scientist who worked 300 yards from the World Trade Center. In the dream, Cherni said, he was on an airplane and grew alarmed as the plane took an unusual flight path, very low over Manhattan’s buildings.

“It was clear that we were flying directly south over the southern tip of the island,” says Cherni’s account. “Then there was a tremendous impact and I woke up. This dream disturbed me for days afterward, enough that I described the dream to my wife.”


Cherni was apparently not alone, as others reported dreaming the night before September 11th of crowds fleeing down the stairwells of a burning World Trade Center, or of buildings collapsing or planes crashing or people running in panic (ibid).

In a more mundane context, premonition of death is not infrequently described by medical practitioners and health workers – alternatively comprising their own or ailing patients’ premonitions. One Arnold Cowan, for example, set off an extended exchange in the pages of the British Medical Journal in 1958 with a letter recounting the experience of a male cancer patient who had summarily informed him on a regular visit that there was no need to return past the coming Thursday, as he (the patient giving the instructions) was to die at 2:30 that afternoon – a suggestion that the good doctor “told him to exclude […] from his mind”. The man shared the same information with his family. As Cowan recounts:


On the predicted day, all the members of his family were with him in his bedroom except his wife. As 2.30 was approaching he urgently called for his wife to come in, saying, “Hurry, hurry, before it is too late.” She came running into the room, and on the stroke of 2.30, according to the two daughters, “He sighed, raised both hands behind his head, smiled, and passed away.”


Cowan’s open call on the question of colleagues who “may have had a similar experience” prompted a number of responses. From those who had indeed come across similar cases in their own experience – whether in their own families (Allen 1958), with patients at home or in hospital, or as far afield as a Jordanian refugee camp (Cameron 1958)2 –to those who turned a doggedly skeptical eye to the whole discussion, a range of reactions can be observed. In one case, a doctor recalled the case of a 4-year old girl, seemingly healthy, repeatedly telling her mother that “she was going to leave her, but not to worry because she was going to a very beautiful place” at most a fortnight before rapidly and unexpectedly succumbing to acute meningitis (Jones 1958). One letter writer (Pine 1958) even adduced the case of Nostradamus, noting that that most famous prognosticator had predicted the date of his own death in 1566 some days in advance. Others took up the skeptic’s line in the face of these kinds of examples. One A. Lewis (1958), for example, wrote the following:


I hope we shall not be losing our sense of perspective on premonition of death. This symptom is more apt to occur when there is some genuine cause for it, whether it be known or unknown to the doctor, and hence is not lightly disregarded. Furthermore it is readily remembered when it proves an accurate forecast. Before we attach any greater importance to it than we do already we should remember that, unless a valid comparison is made with cases in which this premonition has proved false (by no means an easy thing to do), we should do well not to allow ourselves to wander on to the borders of spiritualism.

I have under my care an old lady of 86 who for the past eight years has at intervals of three to four months decided that her end was nigh and asked that her offspring be brought to her that she might bid them farewell. Since they visit her daily I have always felt constrained to treat her seriously every time it happens. One of these days she may be right – but so far she has merely been a cause of alarm to her relatives and anxiety to me.


Practically the same range of general positions regarding premonition of death are reflected in a 2009 summation of exchanges on the physician-only online discussion board, MedScape. While many medical practitioners contributing to the discussion report patients dying following such premonitions (13 out of 100+ contributors, with 9 citing multiple incidences), and a number of surgeons insist that they would cancel a procedure in cases where patients informed them of experiencing such a premonition, others chalk up belief in the relevance of such phenomena (and, indeed, the significant number of those speaking up in favour of such beliefs) to simple confirmation bias – a “tendency to remember,” and to report, “information that confirms preconceptions or hypotheses” (Terry 2009: n.p.).

Accounts of premonition are not invariably associated with the realization of the sense of foreboding; indeed, premonition itself is sometimes (as we have seen) attributed a role in evading a possibly grisly or otherwise adverse fate – at least for the individual experiencing a premonition or those they might be able to ‘save’.3 The journal Western Folklore, for example, ran the following contemporaneous piece from the Los Angeles Times in its ‘Folklore in the News’ section in 1960:


Death Premonition. – Life or death. It was life for sixteen-year-old Charlotte Crisp yesterday because of a premonition of her mother, Fern, of 16428 Woodruff Avenue, Bellflower [California], Sunday. When Charlotte was boarding the bus and took a seat up front on the left side, her mother – for reasons that she said she could not fathom yesterday – told her daughter to take a seat on the right, several rows back from the front. The bus was bound from Los Angeles to New Orleans. When the bus collided with a cattle truck eight miles east of Tucson Sunday the seat that Charlotte had chosen first was smashed and the occupant was believed killed. Charlotte escaped with painful but not serious injuries. “I don’t know why I asked Charlotte to change seats,” said Mrs. Crisp yesterday. “Just a premonition, I guess.”


Premonitions of deadly events and accidents – whether imminently realized, evaded, or only seemingly evaded (recalling some ultimate notion of fate) – routinely appear embedded in the premises of pop-culture narratives. The Final Destination series of films (Final Destination 5 is slated for release in the summer of 2011), for example, plays on the trope of evasion – but with a macabre fatalist twist. In the first film (2000), a character named Alex Browning – a la Madame Schacter – has a powerful premonition accompanied by a vivid mental picture of the imminent cataclysm: the plane he and a group of friends are boarding for a school trip to France is to explode. Distraught, Alex tries to warn his friends and fellow passengers; while his warning is not taken seriously, the scene which ensues gets him and another student kicked off the plane, followed off by five others with various stakes connecting them to these two (the other student’s girlfriend, Alex’s best friend, etc.). Within full view of the disembarked group milling in the airport lounge, the plane explodes shortly after takeoff. This, however, is merely setup, establishing a premise for the main action: throughout the remainder of the film, those who escaped by dint of Alex’s premonition are killed off one by one in seemingly implausible accidents. Fate, or death, will not be cheated.


In light of the fact that dramatic anecdotal accounts of the type thus far discussed are prone to skeptical grumblings centered on the problem of confirmation bias, some recent parapsychological efforts to give ‘scientific’ grounding to the notion of a possible ‘sixth sense’ connected to premonition and related phenomena diverge drastically from the kinds of dramatic cases isolated by Conroy from holocaust narratives or sensationally fictionalized by the writers of Final Destination. Instead, following a long tradition in some strains of parapsychological research, some investigators hone in on subtle physiological cues to try to make their case. Dean Radin (2000; see also Radin 2004) describes what he calls “presentiments” as a kind of “an unconscious form of ‘psi’ perception,” characterized by a bodily reaction that he claims can be measured (and thus the phenomena experimentally tested) by recording variables such as skin tension and blood flow in the hands. “Presentiment” suggests, he says (like the closely related notion of premonition), “a response to a future emotional event” (49) Radin’s experiments in this vein entail monitored subjects pressing a button which calls up a randomly-selected image from a computer database. The images in the pool from which selections are drawn are alternately “calm, like a placid lake” or “emotional, like a big spider” (ibid: 48). Radin claims that results tend to show a spike in physical responses associated with emotional stress that predict – that is, that consistently precede, in advance of an image being presented – more “emotional” images. Furthermore, he reports that his results have been independently replicated by researchers at the University of Amsterdam and the University of Edinburgh.


We can now demonstrate in the laboratory what at some level we’ve known all along: many people literally get a gut feeling before something bad happens. Our viscera warn us of danger even if our conscious mind doesn’t always get the message. (ibid: 48-9)


According to Radin (following the work of others such as Charles Tart of the University of California at Davis in the 1960s), questioning individuals about their conscious experience of “psi” phenomena is insufficient to the task of investigating the basis of such common experiences as those reported and referenced under the rubric of ‘premonition’ or the ‘intuitive hunch.’ The ubiquity of this kind of experience and the nature of the procedures and data used to measure response, Radin suggests, lead even otherwise skeptical scientific colleagues to temper their aversion to all things parapsychological. Though his results are hotly contested (and by his own account remain tentative pending further trials), Radin (ibid: 51) suggests that his experiments “combined with the outcomes of many other types of tests by dozens of investigators of psi phenomena, have caused even skeptical scientists to ponder what was previously unthinkable – the possibility of a genuine sixth sense.”

Yet Radin’s position downplays the extent of the problems such an ostensive ‘sixth sense’ (or whatever one wants to call it) would raise for ‘normal science.’ Quite the inverse to Radin’s claims that the ubiquity of intuitive hunches, gut feeling or premonition makes the notion that there’s something genuinely significant and unexplained going on more palatable to potential skeptics, Daryl Bem (2011: 54) points out that “we have no familiar everyday phenomena in which information travels backwards in time. This makes it difficult even to imagine possible mechanisms” that could explain these type of phenomena. The problem, as Bem sees it (and as he describes in language typical of the parapsychological approach), is to account for “the conscious cognitive awareness or affective apprehension of a future event that could not otherwise be anticipated through any known inferential process.” “Precognition and premonition,” he writes (ibid: 2), “are themselves special cases of a more general phenomenon: the anomalous retroactive influence of some future event on the individual’s current responses, whether those responses are conscious or nonconscious, cognitive or affective.” Indeed, as Peter King (2003: 51) points out, experiments of the type carried out by Radin and others simply beg for a theory – potentially one that would carry wide-ranging implications beyond so-called ‘parapsychology.’ “The problems that the believer in ‘precognition’ [or premonition], for example, must deal with,” writes King (ibid), “are mostly unrelated to psychology; they concern such issues as backwards causation, the nature of time, discovering and theorising about the laws that govern the phenomena, and so on.”

So a common experience – albeit one which rises to special prominence in uncommon circumstances – may well raise big questions. Further to this (in the particular case of discussing ‘premonition’ as such) is a problem of confounding terms, of differentiating ‘premonition’ (so often associated with a feeling of foreboding, a ‘presentiment’ of evil or of danger) from ‘precognition’ or ‘foreknowledge’ of events (see King 2003: 47-8). Whether or not the ‘sixth sense’ language evoked by scholars as diverse as Conroy and Radin is the most appropriate way of conceptualizing the mechanism at play – or whether there is in fact anything heretofore inexplicable to be accounted for – premonition stands up as a perplexingly persistent trope, recurrently resurfacing in many people’s experience and once again opening up questions that abound at the fluid frontiers of culturally-defined models of the human sensorium.





1. Wiesel, his wife (the translator of the new English edition of Night), and representatives of the publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, have recently insisted on this point (Wyatt 2006). Debates arising from apparent differences between the original Yiddish version, its French translation, and subsequent English ones, as well as from certain factual foibles (e.g. Wiesel’s own age upon entering Auschwitz in 1944 is misstated in early versions) and from the author’s artful narrative prose (which stands up to novelistic standards by any account) raise questions about memory and truth that bear some discussion in their own right. For discussion, see Franklin 2001, Seidman 1996 and Weissman 2004.

In addition to the episode already related, the term ‘premonition’ itself makes an appearance in the mouth of Wiesel’s mother at the arrival of the Nazis in Sighet (in advance of the Jews being rounded up for the trains): “’I’ve got a premonition of evil,’ said my mother” (cited in Conroy 2007: 20). The figure of Moshe the Beadle, in the same book, makes a more explicit warning to the villagers of Sighet as he describes being the only survivor of a massacre in the forest (a warning based in concrete experience where Madame Schacter’s was rooted in premonition accompanied by visions of what awaited the Jews at the end of their journey) – only to be dismissed as mad (ibid: 23-4).


2. A. Cameron (1958) recounts the following from a stint working in a refugee camp in Jordan ca. 1949:


Amongst my many patients was a youth of 16, whom I knew well, who was suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis. We were able to confirm radiologically that the condition was not far advanced and clinically his condition did not give cause for undue anxiety, though facilities for treatment were unfortunately very limited. There were two noteworthy features about this boy-firstly, he was simple-minded and was regarded in fact as something of a joke by his friends and relations; secondly, he was a very devout Moslem. His father, a sheikh, had formerly been a man of some wealth, but the son had always eschewed material possessions and all he had earned had been given away to the poor.

Some weeks later, when he seemed physically no worse, rising very early in the morning he walked from end to end of the huge camp (in which dwelt some 17,000 people) bidding farewell to all he met and blessing them. He then walked about five miles (8 km.) to Jericho, where he had relatives, and repeated his action. Returning to his tent at the camp, where his father sat cross-legged upon the ground, he kissed him and invoked the blessing of Allah upon him; he then lay down with his head in his father’s lap and died instantly. Later the boy came to be revered as something of a saint or welee.


Furthermore, we might locate a bit of a colonial theme in some of the letters that graced the pages of the BMJ in 1958, presenting premonition of death in a particular web of associations that might be read as implying a greater incidence among the exotic ‘other,’ the ‘native,’ as opposed to the subjects of colonizing nations (not to mention, in the case of the second letter adduced below, possible evidence of an unseemly humor directed at perceived ‘native’ intransigence):


SIR,- I well remember, when I was resident medical officer at the Royal Albert Dock Hospital, the uncanny experience of seeing some of the seriously ill Lascars stripping off their night attire and saying, ” Me die, Sahib.” Sure enough that night they died, in spite of all we tried to do to save the poor creatures.-I am, etc.,

Thornton Heath, Surrey. DOUGLAS BENTON.


SIR,- While travelling to West Africa in 1941 to serve in a military hospital I was told by an “Old Coaster” that I must expect to see cases of Africans who, having said they were going to die, did so soon afterwards, without any good cause for death being found clinically or at post-mortem examination. Though a good cause of death was found in all instances, a few of my patients told me, soon before the event, that their death was imminent, and I came to associate such an announcement by a patient with a very bad prognosis. I recall one case, however, in which it appeared that psychotherapy, a little crude perhaps, saved the day. The patient was a West African soldier, brought in from the “bush” with pneumococcal pneumonia. He was desperately ill and evidently near death. Very soon after his admission he said to the ward sister, “Sister, I go die”; to which the sister, a Q.A. with strict ideas of discipline, replied, ” If you go die, I put you on a charge and you go before commanding officer.” The patient’s recovery was as rapid as it was unexpected.-I am, etc.,

St. Wulstan’s Hospital, D. L. H. GODDARD.


3. In another – somewhat atypical – variation, Walker, Serdahely and Bechtel (1991) describe three cases of individuals claiming “premonitions of what could have been,” in each case recounting a ‘near-death experience’ which incorporated a vision of family members visibly upset, presumably grieving the subject of the experience. From being “able to view the possible emotional aftereffects of his or her death on parents and loved ones” (193), the subjects describe themselves as having drawn strength to overcome their medical distress from these lucid visions.



Works cited


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Terry, Nancy R. 2009. “Physicians are Talking Abour: A Death Foretold.” Medscape   Psychiatry & Mental Health, online (posted 11/04/2009).             <http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/711634>


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