Some scientists say psychic dreams are real. Explaining how they happen is another issue altogether.
"Colossus." Image: jeronimo sanz/Flickr
Every day, office workers everywhere find themselves trapped in cross-cubicle conversations about their co-worker's "crazy accurate" and "totally psychic" dream. Listening to stories about other people's dreams is usually pretty boring, but still, most of us are pretty curious about the idea of dreams that predict the future.
The concept of precognitive dreams—dreams about events or experiences that haven't yet occurred, but later take place in reality—goes against our most basic understanding of time and relativity. If time is linear, and if we learn, see and feel through experience, then precognitive dreams simply can't be legit. Yet we generally place a lot of importance on our dreams and often treat the content and messages in our dreams as more credible than similar waking thoughts. And this tendency applies to precognitive dreams too, which might explain why we all get a little buzz from personal experiences of déjà vu, why "Medium" ran for seven seasons and why millions follow the precognitive or divine dreams of Solomon, Joseph and Muhammad.
But is it really possible to accurately dream about the future?
I asked Dr. Stanley Krippner, professor of psychology at Saybrook University. Dr. Krippner's research and experimentation of parapsychology, precognitive dreaming, and shamanism spans more than 40 years and involves the Grateful Dead. He believes we are capable of precognitive dreams, and says his research backs that up.
He walked me through one of his most significant laboratory studies on precognitive dreaming. Each night, the subject dreamer would go through an ordinary night of dreaming, with an intent to dream about an experience he would have the following morning. The dreamer was woken 4-5 times throughout the night to relay his dreams to an experimenter. The following mornings, experimenters randomly selected an experience from a number of prearranged options, and the dreamer was subjected to that experience. Dr. Krippner said there was no way for the participants to know what experience they would encounter before it was selected and administered.
Dr. Krippner gives an example of a participant who one night had several dreams about birds: birds in the air, birds in a marsh, birds flying overhead, birds everywhere basically. The following morning, the dreamer was subjected to one of the randomly-selected experiences. "The experience was to have him sit with earphones on," Dr. Krippner said. "And what was played? Bird calls. He was also played a video. And what was played? Pictures of birds."
At the end of the eight-night experiment, outside judges were called in to consider the participants' dreams against the experiences they were subjected to, and determine whether the dreams matched the next day's experience. Dr. Krippner says for each participant, the judges found a match between at least one dream and the seceding experience, on most nights of the experiment.
"If we were talking about any other phenomenon, you'd say this phenomenon is pretty well established," Dr. Patrick McNamara, associate professor of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine and professor of psychology at Northcentral University, said about the results from Dr. Krippner's experiments. "But given that there is no known physical mechanism for what these studies seem to be showing, scientists are still saying, 'Well we don't have a good explanation for this so we're very suspect about these experiments.'"
Skepticism in the field of precognitive dreaming is so strong that Dr. Krippner even called in magicians to inspect his laboratory and methodology to see whether there's any room for sleight of hand or falsification in his experiments.
If we accept—for the sake of curiosity—that precognitive dreams do happen, what's the explanation? The short answer is: nobody knows.
"Quantum events happen on a different time scale to what most people live in and experience in the West"
What we do know is that the unconscious mind is definitely capable of deep revelations during REM sleep. Back in 1900, Sigmund Freud reckoned that we give more credence to what happens in our dreams because our unconscious thoughts are apparently immune from the outside influences of the waking world. Sleep studies have since echoed that idea, showing that during REM, the brain is oblivious to the restraints of consciousness and can indulge in a kind of free-flow brainstorming. A mind in REM can churn out some genius ideas, giving us the kind of clarity that settles every-day dilemmas and unearths to some pretty amazing discoveries, including (or so the story goes) Einstein's revelations about the theory of relativity.
This leads to one theory of explanation for precognitive dreams. Perhaps during the brain's unbridled state in REM, it can also identify and process some kind of "signals" that we don't consciously acknowledge, and these signals help inform our understanding and awareness of the future. As for where these signals come from, the answer might lie in quantum entanglement, the idea that two distinct particles or points in time can interact as if connected to one another, despite being spatially separated.
Dr. Krippner elaborated on how quantum physics could explain precognitive dreaming. "Quantum events happen on a different time scale to what most people live in and experience in the West," he explained. "We have this understanding of time that is: 'past, present, future.' But quantum physics gives you a different concept of time." Dr. Krippner says the same concepts are present in a lot of indigenous cultures that he's studied as part of his research in to precognitive dreaming and shamanism.
"Many indigenous people see time going in a circle; it goes around and around and it's a spiral," Dr. Krippner said. "Then you also have the indigenous North American point of view that people lived in a 'long body'; they do not end where their skin ends. A person's long body projects and involves other people and other parts of nature, so everything is happening all at once. For them it's no surprise that you can dream about the future."
Apparently this acceptance that time is not linear makes people in indigenous societies more receptive to precognitive dreams, and Dr. Krippner has found precognitive dreaming is more common and more valued in indigenous cultures than Eurocentric ones.
Dr. McNamara gave other examples that he thinks suggests there's something a little psychic going on when we sleep.
"Take dreams between twins," he said. "We now have very well documented cases where one twin dreams that something is going to happen to the other twin and it does in fact happen. We also have very well documented cases of twins dreaming very similar dreams and knowing that they just dreamed a similar dream and being able to finish the dream of the other person."
"The fact that these dreams occur between biological relatives or between people with deep emotional bonds strengthens the case for the fact that something new is happening, some real cognitive or biological process is happening in these cases that is currently unknown and unchartered by science," he added.
But there are some pretty convincing explanations that serve to debunk the concept of precognitive dreams. According to Dr. Robert Todd Carroll, a writer and academic who studies the psychology of belief, subconscious influence is largely responsible for dreams that seem precognitive.
Take for example, one of the most famous precognitive dreams in history. In 1865, then-President Abraham Lincoln had a vivid dream in which he walked through the White House amid sounds of grieving. He reached the East Room where he saw a casket guarded by soldiers and was told the president had been assassinated. In the following days, Lincoln shared his dream with his wife and a few close friends; 13 days after the dream, he was killed.
"It might be that all these studies on precognitive dreams are ahead of their time"
In Lincoln's case, we can infer a few subconscious influences: first of all, as president during the Civil War, his personal security was probably a necessary preoccupation. On top of that, Lincoln had been the subject of an assassination attempt less than a year before.
Dr. Carroll also says probability and coincidence can help explain dreams that seem to predict the future. "There are billions of dreams a night on this planet and it would be pretty odd if none of them corresponded in vague or precise ways to actual events past, present or future," he writes.
Indigenous wisdom and psychological rationale aside, the hunt for a scientific explanation to precognitive dreaming is on. Despite our curiosity in dreams, the study of dreams hasn't been a priority in modern science. But that's changing with the advent of neuroimaging technology that allows scientists to observe the dreaming brain as well as standardized tests for dream content. Accessible technology is also helping the cause, with dream recording apps like Dream:ON giving scientists access to a huge cross-cultural database of dreams.
Dr. Krippner, who has travelled the world and spent time with indigenous cultures in Asia, Africa, North America, South America, and Australia for his dream studies, is optimistic about the future of precognitive dream studies.
"There are some things that happen in the world that are anomalies that we can't explain with the Western point of view," he told me. "It might be that all these studies on precognitive dreams are ahead of their time and we might have to wait 50-100 years before we understand them."
Fittingly, he thinks the answers of the future might lie in the past: "I think findings on precognitive dreams are going to be in accord with what indigenous people believe about time."