Presentiment and Crisis Apparitions in Victorian-era Case…

Presentiment and Crisis Apparitions in Victorian-era Case Collections:  Phantasms of the Living (1886) as seen through Natural Language Processing

Presentiment in the classical sense is a form of precognition involving a feeling,  perception or premonition that something will or is about to happen.  From experimental parapsychology, the term now refers to an effect involving capacities to feel or intuit the future.  This modern sense of presentiment (feeling) sets it apart from precognition (knowing)

Phantasms of the Living, published in 1886 by the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), contains a collection of 702 Victorian-era cases involving classical presentiment phenomena occurring in various forms to include: dreams and premonitions; clairvoyance; as well as crisis apparitional experiences   

Phantasms was also a pathfinding study on extrasensory perception as it introduced the term “telepathy.”  The authors believed presentiment involving living persons in moments of crisis or danger, to include crisis apparitions, were evidence of “shock-induced” forms of thought transference

As a project, we wondered how might how machine learning might make sense of classical presentiment experiences in the Phantasms case collection  

Natural Language Processing (NLP) is a field of computing that enables computers to analyze, understand and communicate human language.  

The Natural Language Toolkit (NLTK) is a platform of libraries and programs for natural language processing written in the Python programming language

Word clouds are the most basic and familiar NLP products.  Word clouds do not support fine grained analysis, but instead provide a visualization of key words and phrases,

where the sizing of words reflects their prominence within the text

Phantasms is available in various Internet archives in a variety of digital formats. For this project, a corpus (body) of plain text was created from a reprint of Phantasms hosted at the Esalen Center 

  • To derive meaningful insights the corpus was processed to remove stop words, such as commonly used prepositions.  Since the work represents a case collection, the set of stop words was expanded to remove references to “case(s)” and “fact(s)” and how they were documented, (i.e.words like “said ” and “told”).  Formal salutations (“Mr”, “Mrs”, “Miss) were also added to stop words
  • Since presentiment experiences can occur at any time, words having a temporal character were excluded from consideration to include: “day”, “night”, “morning”, “evening”, “hour”, and “time.”  Many presentiment experiences were singular events, hence ordinal and cardinal numeric references were also removed to include: “first”, “second” as well as “one” and “two”
  • Finally, some words often associated with precognition such as “will” and “may” were also added to set of stop words to allow greater emphasis on the features of presentiment experiences

The resulting word cloud presents a case pattern of presentiment experiences involving families and friends.  Mothers featured prominently in case accounts often as the percipient, and in other instances as the agent (or source) of the presentiment experience  

Many presentiment experiences were in the form of dreams or premonitions that were coincident with the death of loved ones. However the case collection also included other forms extrasensory perception (e.g. telepathy, clairvoyance and precognition) as well as crisis apparitional experiences 

The fact that mothers featured so prominently in these presentiment cases suggests a wider question, which arises elsewhere in parapsychology, of whether there is a natural (in the sense of evolutionary) explanation for presentiment phenomena and for psi functioning writ large. Toward this end, one of the authors of Phantasms concludes:

“If the natural system includes telepathy, Nature has certainly not exhausted herself in our few hundreds of instances: that these facts should be genuine would be almost inconceivable if she had not plenty more like them in reserve”


Bem, D. J. (2011). Feeling the future: experimental evidence for anomalous retroactive influences on cognition and affect. Journal of personality and social psychology, 100(3), 407.  Hosted on Semantic Scholar

Bird, S., Klein, E., & Loper, E. (2009). Natural language processing with Python: analyzing text with the natural language toolkit. “ O’Reilly Media, Inc.”.

Gurney, E., Myers, F. W. H., & Podmore, F. (1886). Phantasms of the living (Vols. 1-2). London: Trübner & Co. Reprint by the Esalen Center, Carmel CA

Radin, D. (2016). Presentiment. Psi Encyclopedia, Society for Psychical Research


Wordcloud from Phantasms of the Living Corpus. (2018, Feb 24). © Maryland Paranormal Research ®.  All rights reserved.