To Sleep, Perchance to Dream: How the Science of Sleep Explains 'Precognitive' Dreams

By Wiseman, Richard | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream: How the Science of Sleep Explains 'Precognitive' Dreams


Wiseman, Richard, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


ABERFAN IS A SMALL VILLAGE IN SOUTH WALES. IN the 1960s, many of those living there worked at a nearby mine that had been built to exploit the large amount of high quality coal in the area. Much of the waste from the mining operation had been piled on the steep hillsides surrounding the village, and throughout October 1966 heavy rain lashed down on the area and seeped into the porous sandstone of the hills. No one realised that the water was then flowing into several hidden springs and slowly transforming the pit waste into soft slurry.

Just after nine o'clock on the 21st of October that year, the side of the hill subsided and half a million tons of debris started to rapidly move towards the village. Much of it slid into Aberfan and smashed into the village school, filling several classrooms with a ten meter deep mass of slurry. The pupils had left the school assembly hall a few moments before, having sung the hymn "All things bright and beautiful," and so were just arriving in their classrooms when the landslide hit. Parents and police rushed to the school and frantically began digging through the rubble. Although a handful of children were pulled out alive, 139 schoolchildren and five teachers lost their lives in the tragedy.

Psychiatrist John Barker visited the village the day after the landslide. Barker had a longstanding interest in the paranormal and wondered whether the extreme nature of events in Aberfan might have caused large numbers of people to experience a premonition about the tragedy. Barker arranged for the Evening Standard newspaper to ask any readers who thought they had foreseen the Aberfan disaster to get in touch. He received 60 letters from across England and Wales, with over half of the respondents claiming that their apparent premonition had come to them during a dream.

Believing that you have seen the future in a dream is surprisingly common, with recent surveys suggesting that around a third of the population experience this phenomenon at some point in their lives. But are people really getting a glimpse of things to come? Throughout history, this question has taxed the minds of many of the world's greatest thinkers. However, it is only in the last century or so that researchers have come up with explanations.

"Other than that, did you enjoy the play, Mrs. Lincoln?"

Open almost any book on the paranormal and you will soon discover that President Abraham Lincoln once had one of the most famous precognitive dreams in history. According to the story, in early April 1865 Lincoln went to close friend and bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon and explained that he had recently had a rather unsettling dream. During the dream Lincoln had felt a "death-like stillness" in his body and heard weeping from a downstairs room in the White House. After searching the building, he arrived at the East Room and came across a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. A crowd of people were gazing mournfully at the body. When Lincoln asked who had died, he was told that it was the President, and that he had been assassinated.

Two weeks after the dream, Lincoln and his wife went to see a play at Ford's Theatre in Washington D.C. A short time after the start of the play Lincoln was shot dead by Confederate spy John Wilkes Booth.

Sleep research may provide an explanation for the case. In the late 1960s researchers carried out a ground-breaking experiment with a group of patients who were attending therapy sessions to help them cope with the psychological effects of undergoing major surgery. The researchers monitored the patients' dreams over the course of several nights and discovered that when they had attended a therapy session during the day they were far more likely to dream about their medical problems. For example, one patient was having a tough time coping with the drainage tubes resulting from his surgery. After spending time at a therapy session talking about the issue, he was especially likely to have dreams that involved him continually inserting tubes into himself and others. …

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