Delving Into the Physics of Feelings

Sunni's picture

Books are marvelous wonders. They can take one places one never even knew one wanted to explore, subtly or boldly challenge one’s thinking, or offer fresh perspectives on any number of subjects or ideas. The Power of Premonitions unexpectedly did all these things, and more, for me. And I thought I knew what I was in for when I accepted an offer of a review copy ...

I feel obliged to reveal straightaway that my motives weren’t entirely charitable in accepting that offer. The author of the email mentioned that Larry Dossey is also the author of Healing Words, which I remembered from the media surrounding it when it was first published—the book purportedly presented to a lay audience the scientific evidence supporting the healing power of prayer. At that time I was a thorough-going, anti-religion atheist; and I think a spark of that element in my way of being hoped to find a chink from which to splinter such ideas. After all, everyone “knows” that science and religion cannot mix, right?

Perhaps they cannot: but science and spirituality can; and Dr. Dossey appears to be one of the leaders in exploring the overlap. He is an adept writer on the subject, to be sure. Dossey was steeped in the science of healing in his training and practice as a medical doctor—but, unlike most other physicians, he began exploring the unusual phenomena he heard about and experienced while caring for patients, rather than turning away from them. He maintained his scientist’s taste for rigor throughout his inquiries; and this, coupled with my more reasonable attitude toward matters of spirituality, quickly dissolved that desire to destroy. Replacing it was a wish to understand—being a scientist of sorts myself once upon a time, I hoped Dossey would explain the hows and whys of premonitions.

That’s a tall order, I know; and I must say that on balance, The Power of Premonitions did not disappoint. Dossey organized the book into five sections, including two that specifically address those questions. As expected, he offers many anecdotes, including both successful and failed premonitions—by the latter I mean warnings that had been received and understood, but were not acted upon. Dossey also furnishes much more scientific research than I expected, summarizing extensively in the text of the book and citing specific references in the end notes. They include not just research studies, but physical tests such as functional MRI studies. I was surprised at the number of esteemed universities and research centers that have teams devoted to such controversial, “paranormal” phenomena, many of which have publicly accessible web sites.

Having written a book directed at a lay audience, Dossey does not provide critical details of the experiments he discusses, which was frustrating to this experimental psychologist; it left me hungry for the nitty gritty, which is what makes or breaks an experiment. He states that the research is generally rigorous and controlled, but there are many ways to control potential nuisance variables, to operationally define independent and dependent variables, or to filter “outliers” in original research as well as meta analyses. Many devils lurk in such details. Dossey frequently reports significance levels for these studies—and many of them are astonishing—yet there’s no mention of how sample size influences that probability, nor of the important concept of statistical power and its relationship to sample size. Those who like me are inclined to such questions can use the citations to explore these depths; for those whose eyes are already glazing over I will state that without having plumbed them, I am generally satisfied with the rigor and results as described in The Power of Premonitions.

Some readers might object to my apparent ease of embrace, pointing to my use and endorsement of Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) and energy psychology in general as evidence of a favorable bias. Remember my earlier comments about my hardcore atheism—I retain much skepticism regarding organized religion, and have expanded it to a lot of so-called New Age ideas; and I still want to see rigorous research before I’m likely to be persuaded of the efficacy of some new technique or substance. But I also understand that with regard to some of the stuff under consideration here, our current technologies, tools, and methodologies may be completely inadequate at revealing what’s going on—much like the state of human understanding prior to the telescope and microscope. To me, it is a height of hubris to believe that our current capabilities represent the apex of science—particularly when so many elements of human functioning remain poorly understood, let alone meaningfully explored. This is especially relevant to psychology; and I consider the subject of premonitions to be part of that field.

What can the mind do? What are the limits of its capabilities, its reach? We don’t know—and we may never know, but in The Power of Premonitions, Larry Dossey offers an intriguing exploration into an oft-dismissed realm, also touching on others. He addresses the role technology may play in diluting or even destroying some of these abilities that in his words allow us “to be a little ahead of ourselves in space and time” (p. 95).

For those who really like mind–bendy ideas, Dossey concludes by considering premonitions and affecting the past in the context of quantum physics. Highly intriguing experiments are described, culminating in a thoroughly fascinating discussion of the relationship between brain and consciousness. The Appendix offers many ideas and quotations that sound straight out of “mystical” China or India, but actually come from highly esteemed physicists including Einstein, Bohm, Schrödinger, and Bohr.

Those who are familiar with my book review habits know that it is my preference to present my reflections on a book and let them influence the reader as they will; viz., I do not often say, “Buy this book”. In this instance, I wholeheartedly make that recommendation. Anyone who reads my ramblings has the capability to understand The Power of Premonitions; anyone who finds interest in the subjects explored here will likely find at least one thing to provoke thought or re-examination of currently held ideas. And of course, speaking from my own rational self-interest, I would immensely enjoy conversations on many of the ideas Dr. Dossey presents in The Power of Premonitions.

The Power of Premonitions is available in hardcover, paperback (forthcoming), and MP3 audio formats, among others.
Also by Larry Dossey: Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine; Recovering the Soul: A Scientific and Spiritual Search; Reinventing Medicine: Beyond Mind-Body to a New Era of Healing; Space, Time, and Medicine; Healing Beyond the Body: Medicine and the Infinite Reach of the Mind; and The Extraordinary Healing Power of Ordinary Things: Fourteen Natural Steps to Health and Happiness.


You keep introducing me to wonderful new things to read! :)

I generally have no interest at all in "New Age" type stuff, and avoid most things that seem even remotely connected, so I might never have considered this book if I'd even seen it.

I'm actually much more interested, and in tune with the blending of spirit, energy and the physical in healing, of course, so a book on premonitions wouldn't ordinarily have caught my eye anyway, but I'll certainly explore at least some of these other titles.

Thanks, love. You are a fountain of treasure. :)


I'm actually much more interested, and in tune with the blending of spirit, energy and the physical in healing, of course, so a book on premonitions wouldn't ordinarily have caught my eye anyway ...

You touch on something that was a major stumbling block for me in writing this review—and which I ended up addressing not at all in it, somehow! These things seem connected somehow. Intuition can be described as “a feeling without an identifiable reason”; premonition could be cast as intuition writ larger or more generally. At the dojo, sensei has talked a fair bit about being able to anticipate one’s opponent: isn’t that largely based on keen perceiving and intuition? And it all comes down to energy.

I’m very pleased to have been of service to you, even if in a rather tangential way.


Sounds like a very interesting book, Sunni. I note and smile when reading your own journey from "anti-religion atheist" to someone appreciating that science and spirituality can (I would say have to) overlap (especially after reading 'The Intention Experiment', 'The Field' and watching the 'Down The Rabbit Hole dvd series).

Ack, more for my list!

I think you’re right, Shaun—they do of necessity overlap. And thank you for adding to my never-shrinking list of things to explore!


This does indeed sound interesting. Gracias, senorita!

The mind which has been most intriguing me of late is Nassim Taleb. I just wish he had better enunciation so I didn't have to listen to him four times to understand his points.

- NonE

De nada.

What subjects does Taleb address? Do you have any links to TED talks or the like you can share?

Nassim Taleb

He's the author of "Fooled by Randomness" and "The Black Swan." (He says the second is basically a better writing of the first, so go for The Black Swan.)

Sorry, I don't have any links to hand at present. I found them by Googling "Taleb MP3" or something like that.

- NonE

Taleb on EconTalk

Come to think of it, one of his talks was on EconTalk, so you can go look there. It was a good one.

- NonE