Can dreams predict the future? Reading precognitive dreams

BY Chris Menon

4th Mar 2024 Life

7 min read

Can dreams predict the future? Reading precognitive dreams
For centuries, sleepers have claimed to see the future in dreams. But today's scientists say precognitive dreams could change how we define the nature of time
Through the centuries and across the various cultures of the world there is much anecdotal evidence that sometimes dreams can predict the future.
This singular phenomenon is often referred to as a precognitive dream. According to the American Psychological Association, a precognitive dream is defined as: “a dream that seemingly includes knowledge about the future which cannot be inferred from actually available information.”
In various religions it is widely believed that precognitive dreams are possible. For instance, in the Bible (Book of Daniel), Daniel had prophetic dreams from God, while in Islam it is believed that sometimes a dream is based on the truth and foreshadows a coming event.
Similarly, in Buddhism and Hinduism precognitive dreams are accepted.
There are numerous examples of prophetic dreams throughout history. Caesar’s wife Calpurnia is said to have dreamed that something terrible was going to befall her husband, and begged him to stay home. He ignored her warnings and later ended up being stabbed to death by members of the Senate. 

Abraham Lincoln’s dream

abraham lincoln assassination
In 1865 US President Abraham Lincoln had a premonition that foreshadowed his assassination a few days later on April 18.
We know this because he confided the nightmare to his former law partner and friend Ward Hill Lamon, who later published what Lincoln had related:
“I could not have been long in bed when I fell into a slumber, for I was weary. I soon began to dream. There seemed to be a death-like stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping.
"I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible. I went from room to room…Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and so shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered.
"Although it was only a dream, I have been strangely annoyed by it ever since"
"There I met with a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, some gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully.
"‘Who is dead in the White House?’ I demanded of one of the soldiers. ‘The President,’ was his answer; ‘he was killed by an assassin!’ Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd, which awoke me from my dream.
"I slept no more that night; and although it was only a dream, I have been strangely annoyed by it ever since.”
There have also been compelling accounts written a bit more recently, among which was the heart-rending tale around the Aberfan disaster.

Aberfan disaster

aerial shot of aberfan disaster
At 9:15am on October 21, 1966, a mountain of colliery waste collapsed, sliding down onto the nearby town of Aberfan, killing 144 people, including 116 children in the nearby Pantglas Junior School. 
John Barker, a psychiatrist, visited the site the day after and collected accounts from bereaved families that seemed to portend the event. He later published an article entitled "The Pre-disaster Syndrome" on July 3, 1967, in which he related this premonition among others.
“Eryl Mai Jones, aged ten, was a pupil at Pantglas School and one of the victims of the Aberfan disaster. This tragic story was compiled by a local minister. It was then carefully read through by both parents and signed as correct in his presence.
She was an attractive dependable child, not given to imagination. A fortnight before the disaster she said to her mother…‘Mummy, I’m not afraid to die.’
Her mother replied, ‘Why do you talk of dying, and you so young; do you want a lollipop?’
‘No’, she said, ‘But I shall be with Peter and June’ (schoolmates).
"In the communal grave she was buried with Peter on one side and June on the other"
The day before the disaster she said to her mother, ‘Mummy, let me tell you about my dream last night.’
Her mother answered gently, ‘Darling, I’ve no time now. Tell me again later.’
The child replied, ‘No, Mummy, you must listen. I dreamt I went to school and there was no school there. Something black had come down all over it!’
The next day, off to school went her daughter as happy as ever. In the communal grave she was buried with Peter on one side and June on the other.”
If you felt a chill while reading this account, you’re not alone. This precognitive dream is one that even researcher Professor Christopher French admits, “is a real challenge to sceptics.”

A sceptic view of precognitive dreams

As Emeritus Professor & Head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit in the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths, University in London, Christopher French is an avowed sceptic with a long experience of investigating anomalous phenomena. 
In his latest book, The Science of Weird S**t, French relates his investigation into precognitive dreams and, in an exclusive interview, explained to Reader’s Digest what he considers the most likely explanation for such phenomena. 
“Coincidence is a hugely important factor. In the light of the law of truly large numbers, [which states that with a large enough number of opportunities for an event to occur, even extremely unlikely events become probable] what would be really spooky would be if no one ever had a dream that appeared to match some future event—even very unlikely future events.
"In addition to pure coincidences we must also consider the unreliability of memory (for example, someone wrongly recalling that their dream preceded the event when, in fact, it followed it), dreaming about something that was quite likely to happen anyway (such as anxiety-induced dreaming that a loved one will die when one already knows that they are very ill), and so on,” he says.
Asked what criteria would have to be fulfilled for him to accept that precognitive dreams are a reality, he says: “The main problem with attempts to test the claim that someone has precognitive dreams is that they are often unable to say when the event(s) they have dreamed about will take place.
"What would be really spooky would be if no one ever had a dream that appeared to match some future event"
"However, some rare people claim to be able to ‘dream to order’, so to speak, making such tests feasible. I am also currently involved in a project to test the idea that lucid dreaming may be precognitive. So it is possible, although not easy, to test such claims empirically.”
Professor Caroline Watt, Koestler Chair of Parapsychology at the University of Edinburgh, has also conducted several studies into precognitive dreaming.
She states: “Precognitive dreams are among the most commonly reported experiences that are perceived as paranormal by the experient. However, I tend to agree that under everyday conditions (that is, outside the controlled laboratory context), coincidence distorted by psychological factors in the dreamer is the most frequent explanation.
"However, we can never be sure of the precise explanation due to uncontrolled circumstances.”
She certainly agrees that personal experiences are most compelling, though still probably contain inaccuracies or some unknown factors.
“Studies of the psychology of coincidences show that people are more impressed by coincidences that happen to themselves, compared to coincidences reported by others,” she also adds. 

A powerful coincidence?

Surprisingly, Watt even admits: “I have had my own personal experience (a vivid dream about a colleague who had left the university years before; the dream was so vivid and unusual that I recounted the dream to my partner in the morning; then I went into work and unexpectedly found a greetings card from the former colleague in my mailbox.
"The card was congratulating me on my promotion to professor about six months before, so was not expected and I had not dreamed about the colleague before, so far as I can remember). 
“It was personally a compelling experience, and the fact that I recounted the dream to my partner on awakening means that memory biases are unlikely to have influenced my recall of the dream.
"However, it could still just have been a coincidence, considering all the dreams that I have had that did not coincide with something that arrived in the mail.
"Also I may have dreamed about my colleague before but forgotten the fact. Most people dream several times each night and tend to forget their dreams, unless something happens subsequently to jog their memory of the dream,” she says.

Dream precognition and theoretical physics

Certainly, precognition appears to violate one of the basic assumptions of science; namely the assumption of “causality”, whereby the temporal order of cause and effect appears to be reversed.
Professor Watt argues that if precognition is real then it may be quite possible to find an explanation in terms of theoretical physics, though she adds that it may “require some adjustment to our current understanding.”
Dick Bierman, a retired physicist and cognitive psychologist, who worked at the Universities of Amsterdam, Utrecht and Groningen, has proposed a theory that may help explain precognitive dreams.
It is based on the fact that when scientists use certain mathematical descriptions to talk about things like electromagnetism (the force between electric and magnetic fields), these descriptions don’t favour one direction of time over the other.
"It may be quite possible to find an explanation in terms of theoretical physics"
However, in practice the wave that is running backwards in time is prohibited. He believes these time “symmetries” break down due to external conditions.
As he explains: “The crux of the theory is that it assumes that there is a special context that restores the broken time-symmetry, namely if the waves that are running backwards are ‘absorbed’ by a highly coherent multi-particle system.
"I propose that the brain under certain conditions (that is, a dream state or a meditative state) may be such a system where broken time-symmetry is partially restored. This is still not a full explanation of precognitive phenomena but it shows where physics might be tweaked to accommodate these phenomena.
"To illustrate this I propose that we all experience these moments of partial restoration of time-symmetry when we experience déjà vu.”
Although a highly speculative theory, which is not yet accepted by mainstream science, Professor Watt does think that it could be worth considering.
For now, believing that it’s possible to dream of the future remains an act of faith. Yet, it’s possible that one day we’ll wake up to a true understanding of this fascinating phenomenon.
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