A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

Critical Thinker's Dictionary

From Abracadabra to Zombies | View All

retrocognition or postcognition

Retrocognition or postcognition is an alleged psychic perception of something that has happened in the past. There is no clear way to distinguish a psychic perception of the past from a present telepathic perception of someone thinking about that past event. There is no clear way to distinguish a retrocognition or a telepathic cognition of someone thinking about a past event from a clairvoyant perception of records of a past event. None of these can be distinguished from a precognition of someone in the future reading about a past event (Tart 2009: p.179).

My sister related an apparent case of retrocognition to me. She was watching television when a report came on about a woman (Susan Smith of Union, South Carolina) who claimed that her two young children had been kidnapped by a black man who carjacked her in some small town in the south. She claimed the black man drove out near a lake and let her out of the car and drove off with the two children. My sister said she immediately sensed that the children were dead and that they were in the lake. About a week later, the world was told that the woman herself had driven her car to the lake with the children alive and strapped into the back seat. She had put the car in drive and watched as the car sank into the lake with her sons, drowning them.

It is a sad commentary on our times, but false reports of crimes are not uncommon and mothers killing their children, though much rarer than false crime reports, do occur. Mothers killing their own children, in fact, are probably more common than black carjackers kidnapping little white boys. In any case, the suspicious feelings that my sister had concerning the mother/murderer were probably shared by many people who saw the broadcast. It is evident that the police in the small southern town were skeptical too, not because they are clairvoyant but because they know a little bit about human nature and human behavior. If one were suspicious of the mother's story, the fact that she said she was driven to a lake leaves little to the imagination to fill in the blanks.

I'll admit that I've had similar feelings myself. About a year ago an alleged rape victim was interviewed on television. I had a feeling she was lying while I watched the broadcast. It turned out that she had been lying. Other people I talked to had seen the news broadcast, too, and also weren't convinced that her story was true. Were we psychic? I don't think so. We all make judgments about people's stories. Sometimes we're right and sometimes we're not. We tend to forget the times we're not. If we didn't, we wouldn't be so surprised when the occasional feeling or hunch we have turns out to be right.

The idea of postcognition provides a convenient explanation for apparent errors in remote viewing experiments. If the viewer reports seeing things at the target destination that aren't there, one can always claim that what the viewer "sees" may not be there now, but it was there in the past! This post hoc rationalization is at least as plausible as the notion that "past things or events leave psychic traces that can be picked up in the present" (Tart: p. 184).

See related entries on analytical and associative overlay, confirmation bias, ESP, parapsychology, and psychokinesis.


reader comments  (see also comments on psi)

further reading

The Hundredth Monkey and Other Paradigms of the Paranormal, edited by Kendrick Frazier (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1991).

Frazier, Kendrick  and James Randi, "Predictions After The Fact: Lessons Of The Tamara Rand Hoax," in Science Confronts The Paranormal, ed., Kendrick Frazier (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1986), first published in the Skeptical Inquirer 6, no.1 (Fall 1981): 4-7.

Gardner, Martin. How Not To Test a Psychic: Ten Years of Remarkable Experiments With Renowned Clairvoyant Pavel Stepanek (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1989).

Randi, James. Flim-Flam! (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books,1982), especially chapter 13, "Put Up or Shut Up," where he gives accounts of tests done on several psychics who have tried to collect the $10,000 Randi used to offer to anyone who can demonstrate any psychic power. So far, no one has collected, even though the offer is now $1,000,000!

Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World - Science as a Candle in the Dark (New York: Random House, 1995).

Stein, Gordon. "Spiritualism," in The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal edited by Gordon Stein (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1996).

Steiner, Robert A. "Fortunetelling," in The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal edited by Gordon Stein (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1996) pp. 281-290.

Tart, Charles T. 2009. The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together. New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Last updated 23-Dec-2013

© Copyright 1994-2013 Robert T. Carroll * This page was designed by Cristian Popa.