Dreams are a seemingly magical nightly occurrence where we are plunged into a world of strange occurrences and stories. We meet unusual characters, we go on adventures and we get to explore bizarre worlds. None of it quite makes sense, but for some reason at the time it all seems perfectly reasonable and as real as any waking experience.
What makes dreams all the more mystical is the fact that they have not been completely explained by science and the exact process through which they occur is not understood. This then paves the way for many more romantic and exciting explanations for what dreams are and the role they play in our daily lives – and one of the most popular of these theories is that dreams can be used in order to tell the future…
And of course this theory is supported by many stories of people predicting disasters and their own deaths, and a lot of circumstantial evidence. Almost all of us have at some point had a dream that we believe has come true, have had some very convincing experience of deja vu or know someone else who has seemingly made an incredible premonition based on a dream. And in fact there are some studies that seem to suggest this to be possible as well.
Here we will look at whether our dreams really can predict the future by examining what we know about the way dreams work and by examining the evidence. Of course there is no right or wrong answer on this topic, but by examining the information we have currently you will hopefully be able to make up your own mind.
First we will look at our understanding of how dreams work and the leading theories as to what they contain.
Currently science has no definite explanation of how dreams work, however the most widely accepted understanding is that they are caused by the random firing of the pons mostly during REM sleep (though it has recently been discovered that we can dream during the other stages of sleep too). The pons is the part of the brainstem which links the medulla oblongata and the thalamus (the word comes from the Latin for ‘bridge’). The job of the pons is to act as a ‘relay station’ carrying information from the cerebral cortex to the cerebellum – and as these nerves fire this results in our brain getting sensory input. That input is then believed to be interpreted by the brain in such a way as to form a narrative as our brain is naturally inclined to form recognizable narratives and images out of jumbled information (as is evidenced by many optical illusions that rely on this fact). This is known as ‘activation synthesis theory’.
However one problem with activation synthesis theory is that it doesn’t explain why so often the dreams have contents that seem to reflect our waking lives and what’s on our minds. Usually when we dream it contains images of popular culture, people we know from our waking lives, places we’ve been, narratives that relate to our memories and current concerns… etc. Thus enter continual activation theory, which describes the purpose of dreams as being to transfer memories from STM to LTM. There is very little in terms of evidence for this proposed theory, and it doesn’t make intuitive sense when you think that most of our short term memories would already have been converted to long term memories before we fell asleep. There may however just been some ‘cementing’ of long term memories, and this on the other hand does make a lot of intuitive sense when you consider how much a night’s sleep can help you before an exam – and the fact that our body goes into an ‘anabolic’ state of growth and tissue building when we sleep. It makes sense that this would encourage new neuronal pathways to be formed in sleep. Of course it may alternatively just be that the brain draws on our memories in order to interpret the random firings of the pons when we sleep.
Another theory, suggested by Eugen Tarnow, is that dreams are ‘excitations’ of long term memory – random firings of our LTM that in waking life are consciously interpreted and checked against waking life, but that in sleep do not benefit from that process. There are many other theories of dreams, and all of these follow similar beliefs that it is a mixture of memories, neuronal firings and the brain’s innate desire to ‘fill in the gaps’ and create narratives and characters.
Of course another big name when it comes to the interpretation of dreams is Freud, in fact he wrote the book on it (quite literally – his most famous work actually being titles The Interpretation of Dreams). Freud came a while before the theories listed above and he looked at dreams as ‘the royal road’ to the unconscious. A time when our conscious ego is not on guard and the repressed and forgotten jumble of information in our unconscious brain is allowed to ‘leak’ into our thoughts and perception. The ego tries to make sense of this information and at the same time is still using its defense mechanisms to try and protect us from the content – this stuff is unconscious for a reason. Thus the brain will attempt to evaluate the information and will present it almost as riddles – riddles that are highly personal and symbolic to you. By interpreting these dreams Freud believed it would be possible to understand more about the contents of your unconscious mind and thus address many psychological issues that you may be experiencing. Ultimately though he believed that the vast majority of dreams represented unconscious desires – so if you were to dream of climbing a tree and you had a childhood memory of smoking in a tree – then this might represent your desire for a smoke. However in most cases, Freud being Freud, these desires would be sexual in nature.
Support for Freud’s theories do exist though much of his work is controversial and outdated. May case studies exist where patients have been treated for psychological disturbances using the interpretation of dreams, while there is also some biological basis for this too. When we sleep the frontal cortex shuts down but our hindbrain and brain stem – responsible for regulating breathing, appetite, temperature etc continue to operate. Thus we are indeed without a superego to regulate our desires and we would be creatures of instinct. The same occurs when we drink alcohol which shuts our brain down from front to back, and this is why we act more on impulse.
Similarly in studies where dopamine receptors have been de-activated dreaming seems to lessen – and this again supports Freud’s theories as dopamine is the brain chemical that is most associated with reward and is released when we eat or have sex.
Interestingly Freud also noted that dreams of bodily harm were likely to be signs of medical problems that we were only aware of on an unconscious level. Our body would note the changes to our health and of course our chemistry would change as our immune system would kick in etc. Freud used dream interpretation then to actually predict his own death which he knew would be a result of cancer of the mouth (which he viewed as ironic – he being the Father of the ‘talking cure’). Modern science seems more inclined to support this aspect of Freud’s explanation too so in this sense at least dreams may be able to predict the future.
Conclusions Drawn From Dream Theories
The explanation for what dreams are and what they mean lies most likely somewhere in this jumble of explanations – a mixture of firings, of desires, or memories and of our brain’s attempt to create stories. You could possibly even link in Jung and Joseph Campbell’s work on archetypes and the ‘Heroes Journey’ in order to explain why dreams often share common themes.
However none of these theories explicitly explain how dreams might accurately predict the future and any theory that does would have to work with them. How could randomly firing pons or unconscious urges help us to tell the future? Except perhaps the future of our own bodies… And yet there is some evidence of dreams predicting the future…
Evidence for Dreams Predicting the Future
One study was carried out in the 1960s by a psychologist named John Barker. Following an incident in Aberfan, Wales, in which many people were killed when a mud slide crushed a school following a mining operation that had piled its waste on a hillside, the psychologist wondered if the large-scale event had been predicted by anyone in the country. Thus he appealed via newspapers for anyone who had had a relevant premonition to get in touch, and had 60 responses almost all of which were reports of dreams that had predicted the event. One particularly startling case was reported by the parents of one of the children killed in the catastrophe who reportedly had dreamed that he ‘couldn’t go to school’ as a result of the school being ‘gone’ because it was ‘covered in black stuff’.
Of course there are many problems with this study – the main fact being that the study was carried out after the incident and so there is no way to prove the predictions were accurate. It may just be that a link was made with hindsight, or that the information was misremembered or even fabricated.
At the same time there is always going to be a possibility of ‘chance’ resulting in seemingly precognitive dreams. When you think about it, 60 respondents is not actually that many and it may simply be a result of cognitive bias – we only pay attention to those dreams that appear to predict the future and ignore the hundreds that do not.
In a survey it was found that it is quite common for people to believe their dreams could predict future events and that most people had experienced this at some time. However again this can be explained through memory biases and chance. The jumbled nature of dreams also makes it relatively simple to find connections between dreams and reality.
Crucially no blind trials have managed to prove a link between dreams and future events. In one experiment participants were asked to keep dream diaries and real diaries and this would eliminate memory bias as well as retrospective fitting the dream to the event. When examined the events in the dreams did not appear to match up with events in the diary. In other studies where individuals were asked to read about dreams that predicted the future and those that didn’t in fake diaries, it was found that people are more inclined to remember dreams that do appear to predict the future, demonstrating the cognitive bias that may lead to such reports.
That said the sheer weight of case studies and claims where dreams have predicted the future accurately makes this an area worthy of study and one that continues to gain attention.
Predictive Dreams in History
A lot of these reports come from history, and records are rich with historical accounts of individuals having important predictions and messages in dreams. There are a particularly large number of accounts of precognitive dreams when you look at religious texts and scriptures. Here many individuals throughout history have described being visited by prophets, angels, Gods etc and given messages pertaining to their individual futures and the future of their country. In the Bible the story of Joseph is a particularly strong example of this, while Greek and Roman mythology similarly has many accounts. Drawings too also portray many of the strange phenomenon that occur in dreams, and countless stories involve the main character being ‘visited’ in dreams. Many religious and old-fashioned beliefs in dreaming describe dreams as a time when the spirit physically removes itself from the body and can this way allow the individual to view things remotely and to travel through space and time – which would be an explanation for how they could see into the future.
Throughout history particular individuals have made a living out of their ability to predict the future in their dreams. The most famous example of this comes from ‘Nostradamus’ a character from history whose riddles are believed by some to tell of the two world wars, our visit to the moon and global warming – though skeptics believe that the wording of the predictions means that their meaning can be interpreted many ways to fit life events after they have occurred.
In conclusion then there is currently no scientific explanation for how our dreams might predict the future, but many still choose to believe that they can due to their own first-hand experience or accounts from others.
One likely explanation is that our brain is able to pick up on a huge wealth of information and not all of this we are consciously aware of. Just as our dreams might tell us that there is something wrong with our bodies, they might also suggest clues into the future as our brain looks at the random information it has collated and weaves this into a narrative. To take the example of the study in Aberfan – perhaps that little boy was unconsciously aware of the fact that the waste on the hill side posed a threat to his school, or perhaps he had heard angry parents or media representatives talking about it. Even without consciously worrying about the mud slide, the imagery and the subject might find its way into his memories and his brain might turn this information into a story about it damaging his school.
This could explain many cases of our dreams predicting the future, and then if you combine this slightly increased chance of our brains ‘getting it right’ with the fact that we have a cognitive bias that causes us to pay most attention to those dreams that are accurate… then it’s no wonder that we should start to get the feeling that our brains are predicting the future.
Of course that’s just one explanation that caters to both camps and it is not set in stone. Your own interpretation of dreams and their meaning is yours to make.