PROPHECY - Paranormality - Richard Wiseman

Paranormality: Why We See What Isn't There - Richard Wiseman (2011)

Chapter 7. PROPHECY

In which we find out whether Abraham Lincoln
really did foresee his own death, learn how to
control our dreams and delve deep into the
remarkable world of sleep science.

Aberfan is a small village in South Wales. In the 1960s, many of those living there worked at a nearby colliery that had been built to exploit the large amount of high quality coal in the area. Although some of the waste from the mining operation had been stored underground, much of it had been piled on the steep hillsides surrounding the village. Throughout October 1966 heavy rain lashed down on the area and seeped into the porous sandstone of the hills. Unfortunately, no one realized 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 morning of 21 October, the side of the hill subsided and half a million tonnes of debris started to move rapidly towards the village. Although some of the material came to a halt on the lower parts of the hill, much of it slid into Aberfan and smashed into the village school. Several classrooms were instantly filled with a ten metre 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 during the first hour or so of the rescue effort, no other survivors emerged. One hundred and thirty-nine schoolchildren and five teachers lost their lives in the tragedy.

Psychiatrist John Barker visited the village the day after the landslide.1 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. To find out, 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.

One of the most striking experiences was submitted by the parents of a ten-year-old child who perished in the tragedy. The day before the landslide their daughter described dreaming about trying to go to school, but said that there was ‘no school there’ because ‘something black had come down all over it’. In another example, Mrs M.H., a 54-year-old woman from Barnstaple, said that the night before the tragedy she had dreamed that a group of children were trapped in a rectangular room. In her dream, the end of the room was blocked by several wooden bars and the children were trying to climb over the bars. Mrs M.H. was sufficiently worried by the dream to telephone her son and daughter-in-law, and tell them to take special care of their two small daughters. Another respondent, Mrs G.E. from Sidcup, said that a week before the landslide she had dreamed about a group of screaming children being covered by an avalanche of coal, and two months before the tragedy Mrs S.B. from London had dreamed about a school on a hillside, an avalanche and children losing their lives. And so the list went on.

Barker was impressed with his findings and in 1966 set up the British Premonitions Bureau. The public were asked to submit their alleged premonitions to the Bureau in the hope that Barker would be able to predict, and possibly avert, future tragedies. Unfortunately, his idea didn’t catch on. Although his Bureau received about a thousand predictions, the bulk of them came from just six people.2 Perhaps the strangest story to emerge from the project came from one of these alleged ‘precogs’, a 44-year-old night telephone operator named Alan Hencher. Hencher usually specialized in predicting air crashes and other major accidents; however, in 1967 he contacted the Bureau to register a far more personal premonition. In what must have been one of the more difficult conversations in the history of parapsychology, Hencher informed Bureau Chief John Barker that Barker would soon die. His comments proved uncannily accurate, with Barker suddenly passing away the following year, aged just 44. To add irony to injury, Barker had previously written a book entitled Scared To Death, in which he argued that hearing a premonition of your own demise may induce a deep-seated fear that affects the body’s immune system and could result in death. The British Premonitions Bureau closed a few years later due to lack of funds. Apparently, neither Hencher nor any of the other expert precogs foresaw the closure.

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. Beliefs like these have been recorded throughout history. The Bible famously describes how Pharaoh dreamed of seven lean cows coming out of a river and eating seven fat cows, and how Joseph interpreted this as the coming of seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine. The ancient Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero reported having a dream in which he saw ‘a noble-looking youth, let down on a chain of gold from the skies’. When he entered the Capitol the following day he saw Octavius and recognized him as the noble-looking youth from his dreams. Octavius later went on to succeed Caesar as Emperor of Rome. In more recent times, Abraham Lincoln reportedly dreamed about an assassination two weeks before being shot dead, Mark Twain described a dream in which he saw his brother’s corpse lying in a coffin just a few weeks before his brother was killed in an explosion, and Charles Dickens dreamed of a woman dressed in red called Miss Napier shortly before being visited by a girl wearing a red shawl and introducing herself as Miss Napier.

What could explain these remarkable events? Are people really getting a glimpse of things to come? Can the human psyche really play havoc with the very fabric of time? Is it possible to see tomorrow today?

Throughout history, these questions have taxed the minds of many of the world’s greatest thinkers. For example, in about 350 BC the classical Greek philosopher Aristotle penned a short text entitled On Prophesying by Dreams. Aristotle’s two-part argument was as simple as it was strange. Having thought about the issue for some time, the great philosopher concluded that only God would be able to send prophetic dreams. However, Aristotle had observed that those reporting the dreams did not appear to be especially upstanding citizens, and often turned out to be rather ‘commonplace persons’. Figuring that God wouldn’t waste time casting his pearls of wisdom among swine like that, Aristotle concluded that prophetic dreams could be safely dismissed as coincidences. It is an interesting argument, albeit one that is likely to be disputed by both modern scientists and Mrs M.H. from Barn-staple. However, despite over 2,000 years of interest in the mystery of prophetic dreaming, it is only in the last century or so that researchers have managed to solve the puzzle.

Before reading further you might like to make yourself a hot mug of cocoa and snuggle under the covers. We are about to enter the strange world of sleep science.

However, before we begin, let’s have a quick memory test. Take a look at the following list of words and try to remember them.











Many thanks, more about this later. Let’s start.

Spread Betting

Chapter 5 described how the pioneering work of Eugene Aserinsky helped pave the way for a new science of dreaming. Aserinsky showed that waking up a person after they have spent some time in the REM state is very likely to result in them reporting a dream. In doing so, he kick-started decades of research into the nature of nod. Much of the work involved inviting people to spend the night in special sleep laboratories, monitoring them as they sleep, waking them up after they emerge from REM state, and asking them to describe their dream.3 The work has yielded many important insights into dreaming. Almost everyone dreams in colour. Those who are blind from birth do not ‘see’ in their dreams, but experience many more smells, tastes and sounds. Although some dreams are bizarre, many involve everyday chores such as doing the washing-up, filling in tax forms, or vacuuming. If you creep up on someone who is dreaming and quietly play some music, shine a light onto their face or spray them with water, they are very likely to incorporate the stimuli into their dreams. However, perhaps the most important revelation was that you have many more dreams than you might think.

Sleep scientists quickly discovered that you have an average of about four dreams each night. They take place every 90 minutes or so, and each one lasts around 20 minutes. You then forget the vast majority of these episodes when you wake up, leaving you with the impression that you dream far less than is actually the case. The only exception to this rule occurs when you happen to wake up during a dream, perhaps because your alarm clock goes off in the morning or you are disturbed during the night. When this happens you will usually remember the general gist of the dream and perhaps some specific fragments but, unless it is especially striking, you will soon forget all about it. There is, however, a rather unusual set of circumstances that can greatly increase your likelihood of remembering these dreams.

Earlier in this chapter I presented you with a list of ten words and asked you to try to commit them to memory. Now I would like you to attempt to remember all ten words. To help you, here are five words that are associated with a few of the words in the original list.






Please get a pen and a piece of paper and try to remember the original list. Don’t turn over the page until you have done your best to remember all of the words.

All done? Check your list against page 276.

How did you do? My prediction is that you will have been especially likely to remember the words ‘lamp’, ‘clock’, ‘apple’, ‘horse’ and ‘bird’. Why? Because the associated words ‘light’, ‘fruit’, ‘time, ‘gallop’ and ‘wings’ will have acted as cues. It wasn’t that you had forgotten these words, but rather that they were lurking in your unconscious and just required a little help to emerge. A similar principle applies to your memory for dreams. In the same way that the associated words helped you remember words you couldn’t instantly recall from the original list, so an event that happens to you when you are awake can trigger the memory of a dream. To discover the relationship between this effect and the gift of prophecy, let’s imagine three nights of disturbed dreaming.

On day one you go to bed after a hard day at work. You shut your eyes and slowly lose consciousness. Throughout the night you drift through the various stages of sleep and experience several dreams. At ten past seven your brain once again bursts into action and presents you with another entirely fictitious episode. For the next 20 minutes you find yourself visiting an ice cream factory, falling into a huge vat of raspberry ripple, and attempting to eat your way out. Just when you can take no more, your alarm clock sounds and you wake up with fragments of the factory and raspberry ripple ice cream drifting through your mind.

On day two the same series of events unfolds. You go to bed, drift to sleep and have several dreams. At two o’clock in the morning you are right in the middle of a rather sinister dream in which you are driving along a dark country lane. Eric Chuggers, your all-time favourite rock star is sitting in the passenger seat, and the two of you are chatting easily. Suddenly a giant purple frog jumps out in front of the car, you swerve to avoid the frog but go off the road and hit a tree. However, tonight your cat feels a tad peckish and decides to come and pester you for food. As she jumps onto the bed you wake up from the dream with a vague memory of Eric Chuggers, a giant purple frog, a tree and impending death.

On the third night you again fall asleep. At four o’clock in the morning you experience a rather traumatic dream. It is a surreal affair, with you being forced to audition for the part of an Oompa-Loompa in a new film version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Although successful, you subsequently discover that the orange makeup and green hair dye used in the audition is permanent. You suddenly wake up feeling very stressed, remember the audition and spend the next 20 minutes trying to figure out the symbolic meaning of the dream. You then go back to sleep for the rest of the night.

In the morning you wake up, turn on the radio and are shocked to discover that Eric Chuggers was killed in a car accident during the night.

According to the news report, Chuggers was driving through the city, swerved to avoid another car that had drifted onto the wrong side of the road, and collided with a lamppost. Bingo. In the same way that the words ‘time’ and ‘gallop’ helped you remember the words ‘clock’ and ‘horse’, so the news report acts as a trigger, and the dream about the car accident jumps into your mind. You forget about consuming copious amounts of raspberry ripple ice cream, and the stressful Oompa-Loompa audition. Instead, you remember the one dream that appears to match events in the real world and so become convinced that you may well possess the power of prophecy.

And it doesn’t stop there. Soon after convincing yourself that you had a glimpse of the future while fast asleep, a ‘let’s make this experience as spooky as possible’ part of your mind gets to work. Because dreams tend to be somewhat surreal they have the potential to be twisted to match the events that actually transpired. In reality, Eric Chuggers was not driving along a country lane, did not hit a tree and the accident didn’t involve a giant purple frog. However, a country lane is similar to a city road, and a lamppost looks a bit like a tree. And what about the giant purple frog? Well, maybe that symbolized something unexpected, such as the car that drifted onto the wrong side of the road. Or maybe it turns out that Chuggers was on hallucinogenic drugs and so might have thought that the oncoming car was indeed a giant purple frog. Or maybe you see a photograph from the scene of the accident and discover that Chuggers’ car had a purple mascot on the dashboard. Or maybe an advertising billboard close to the accident contains an image of a giant frog. Or maybe Chug-gers’ next album was going to have a frog on the cover. Or maybe Chuggers was wearing a purple shirt at the time of the collision. You get the point. Provided that you are creative and want to believe that you have a psychic link with the recently deceased Mr Chuggers, the possibilities for matches are limited only by your imagination.

So far we have focused on your dream about Chuggers because it resembled events that happened a few days later. But let’s imagine that instead of Chuggers dying, you went out to a supermarket and were offered an especially gorgeous sample of raspberry ripple ice cream? Under those circumstances you might well have forgotten about the dreams involving Chuggers and the Oompa-Loompas, and been tempted to tell your friends and family about how your dream seemed to have predicted the unexpected encounter with raspberry ripple ice cream. Or let’s imagine that a few days later the company that you work for promotes you, and your new position involves wearing a garish uniform. Suddenly the deep symbolism involved in the dream about the Oompa-Loompas would seem obvious, and the dreams about Chuggers and the raspberry ripple ice cream would remain buried in your unconsciousness.

In short, you have lots of dreams and encounter lots of events. Most of the time the dreams are unrelated to the events, and so you forget about them. However, once in a while one of the dreams will correspond to one of the events. Once this happens, it is suddenly easy to remember the dream and convince yourself that it has magically predicted the future. In reality, it is just the laws of probability at work.

This theory also helps explain a rather curious feature of precognitive dreaming. Most premonitions involve a great deal of doom and gloom, with people regularly foreseeing the assassination of world leaders, attending the funeral of close friends, seeing planes falling out of the sky, and watching as countries go to war. People rarely report getting a glimpse of the future and seeing someone deliriously happy on their wedding day or being given a promotion at work. Sleep scientists have discovered that around 80 per cent of dreams are far from sweet, and instead focus on negative events. Because of this, bad news is far more likely than good news to trigger the memory of a dream, explaining why so many precognitive dreams involve foreseeing death and disaster.

At the start of this chapter I described how psychiatrist John Barker found 60 people who appeared to have predicted the Aberfan mining disaster. Does the research into dreaming and memory alter the evidential value of these alleged premonitions? In 36 of Barker’s cases the respondents provided no evidence that they had recorded their dream prior to the disaster. These respondents may have had many other dreams before hearing about Aberfan, and then only remembered and reported the one dream that matched the tragedy. Not only that, but the lack of any record made at the time of the dream means that they could have inadvertently twisted and turned the dream to better fit the unfortunate events that transpired. Blackness may have become coal, rooms may have become classrooms, and rolling hillsides may have become a Welsh valley.

Of course, those who believe in paranormal matters might argue that they are convinced by instances when people tell their friends and family about a dream, or describe it in a diary, and then discover that it matches future events. Do these instances constitute a miracle of the mind? To find out, we are going to drift even deeper into the science of sleep.


Interview with Caroline Watt, from the Koester Parapsychology Unit,
about sleep precognition

‘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.

But the vast majority of books describing the dream aren’t giving their readers the full picture. Joe Nickell has had a long and colourful career that has seen him working as an undercover detective, riverboat manager, carnival promoter, and magician. He is now a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Inquiry, an American organization that investigates paranormal matters. In the 1990s Nickell decided to take a closer look at Lincoln’s apparent prophecy.4 He tracked down Ward Hill Lamon’s account of the incident in his 1895 memoir, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, and discovered that many of the second-hand accounts of the incident missed out one very important part of the episode. After being told about the dream, Lamon expressed his concern, but the President calmly replied, ‘In this dream it was not me, but some other fellow, that was killed. It seems that this ghostly assassin tried his hand on some one else.’ In other words, Lincoln did not actually think that he had seen his own death but rather that of another President.

Of course, believers might argue that the President did foresee his own assassination, albeit without realizing it. Even assuming that, would the incident count as compelling evidence for precognition? The answer once more lies in the pioneering work of sleep science.

In the late 1960s dream researchers carried out a groundbreaking experiment with a group of patients who were attending therapy sessions to help them cope with the psychological effects of undergoing major surgery.5 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. In short, the patients’ dreams tended to reflect their anxieties. Similar studies have revealed the same effect. The content of our dreams is not only affected by events in our surroundings, but also often reflects whatever is worrying our minds.

Nickell noted that even the briefest of glances through the history books reveals that Lincoln would have had every reason to be anxious about the possibility of being assassinated. Just before his first inauguration, he was advised to avoid travelling through Baltimore because his aides had uncovered an assassination plot there, and during his time in office he had received several death threats: on one especially memorable occasion an incompetent would-be assassin fired a shot through his top hat. Seen in the light of these findings, Lincoln’s famous dream suddenly looks less paranormal.

The same concept may also explain one of the most striking examples of alleged precognition about the Aberfan disaster. At the start of this chapter I described how one of the young girls who would later perish in the tragedy told her parents that she had dreamed about ‘something black’ coming down over her school and the school no longer being there. For several years before the disaster the local authorities had expressed considerable concern about the wisdom of placing large amounts of mining debris on the hillside, but their worries had been ignored by those running the mine. Correspondence from the time makes the extent of these concerns clear.6 For example, three years before the disaster, the Borough Engineer in the area wrote to the authorities noting, ‘I regard [the situation] as extremely serious as the slurry is so fluid and the gradient so steep that it could not possibly stay in position in the winter time or during periods of heavy rain’, and later added, ‘this apprehension is also in the minds of … the residents in this area as they have previously experienced, during periods of heavy rain, the movement of the slurry to the danger and detriment of people and property’. There is no way of knowing for sure, but it is possible that the young girl’s dream may have been reflecting these anxieties.

But what about the other 23 cases in which people produced evidence that they had described their dream before the tragedy occurred, and where the dream did not seem to reflect their anxieties and concerns. To investigate, we need to move away from the science of sleep and into the heady world of statistics. Let’s take a closer look at the numbers associated with these seemingly supernatural experiences.

First, let’s select a random person from Britain and call him Brian. Next, let’s make a few assumptions about Brian. Let’s assume that Brian dreams each night of his life from age 15 to 75. There are 365 days in each year, so those 60 years of dreaming will ensure that Brian experiences 21,900 nights of dreams. Let’s also assume that an event like the Aberfan disaster will only happen once in each generation, and randomly assign it to any one day. Now, let’s assume that Brian will only remember dreaming about the type of terrible events associated with such tragedy once in his entire life. The chances of Brian having his ‘disaster’ dream the night before the actual tragedy is about a massive 22,000 to 1. Little wonder that Brian would be surprised if it happened to him.

However, here comes the sneaky bit. When Brian is thinking about the chances of the event happening to him he is being very self-centred. In the 1960s there were around 45 million people in Britain, and this same set of events could have happened to any of them. Given that we have already calculated that the chances of any one of them having the ‘disaster’ dream one night and the tragedy happening the following day is about 22,000 to 1, we would expect 1 person in every 22,000, or roughly 2,000 people, to have this amazing experience in each generation. To say that this group’s dreams are accurate is like shooting an arrow into a field, drawing a target around it after it has landed and saying, ‘wow, what are the chances of that!’

The principle is known as the ‘Law of Large Numbers’, and states that unusual events are likely to happen when there are lots of opportunities for that event. It is exactly the same with any national lottery. The chances of any one person hitting the jackpot is millions to one, but still it happens as regular as clockwork each week because such a large number of people buy tickets.

For genuine evidence of premonitions then, the situation is even worse than we have imagined. Our example only concerned people dreaming about the Aberfan tragedy. In reality, national and international bad fortune happens on an almost daily basis. Aeroplane crashes, tsunamis, assassinations, serial killers, earthquakes, kidnappings, acts of terrorism, and so on. Given that people dream about doom and gloom more often than not, the numbers quickly stack up and acts of apparent prophecy are inevitable.


Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner has come up with a simple but effective way of controlling your dreams.7 As noted in Chapter 4, Wegner has carried out a great deal of work into the so-called 'rebound effect', wherein people who are asked not to think about a certain issue have a surprisingly hard time keeping it out of their mind. Wegner wondered whether the same effect could also be used to influence people's dreams. To find out, he gathered together a group of participants, gave each of them two envelopes, and asked them to open one envelope just before they went to sleep at night and the other when they woke up in the morning.

The first envelope contained an unusual set of instructions. All of the participants were first asked to think of someone that they found especially attractive. Half of the participants were then instructed to spend five minutes trying not to think about this person, while the others were asked to think about their dream date. When everyone woke up in the morning they opened the second envelope and found another set of instructions. This time they were asked to describe any dreams that they had had during the night. Wegner discovered that participants who had tried not to think about the person they found attractive were roughly twice as likely as the others to have dreamed about that person. The message is clear -if you want to have a particular person crop up in your dreams, spend five minutes trying not to think about that person before you nod off.

So far we have seen how the science of sleep and the study of statistics suggest that precognitive dreams are due to selective remembering, anxiety, and the law of large numbers. Of course, it could always be argued that although these explanations are true of many apparently precognitive dreams, some others are still genuinely supernatural.

The bad news is that although testing this sounds simple in theory, it is tricky in practice. It is no good asking to people to get in touch after a national disaster or tragedy because they are likely to report just one of many dreams that they have had, or be part of the group of people who happened to get lucky via the law of large numbers. Also you can’t ask people to dream about an event that is in any way predictable. Instead, you have to record lots of people’s prophecies before an unpredictable event has happened. According to the law of large numbers you would end up with a large range of predictions, with just a small sliver of them subsequently proving correct. In contrast, those with a paranormal bent would predict that this would produce a surprisingly large number of the premonitions that point to one particular future.

The good news is that such a study has already been carried out.8 Welcome to the curious case of Charles Lindbergh, Jr.

‘The Biggest Story Since the Resurrection’

Born in 1893, Harvard psychologist Henry Murray spent much of his life trying to unravel the mysteries of the human personality. During the late 1930s he helped develop a well-known psychological tool known as the ‘Thematic Apperception Test’, or ‘TAT’ for short. During the TAT people are shown images depicting various ambiguous scenes, such as a mysterious woman looking over a man’s shoulder, and asked to describe what they think is happening in the picture (‘What do you make of TAT?’). According to proponents of the test, highly trained therapists can use these comments to gain an important insight into people’s innermost thoughts, with, for example, remarks about killing, violence and murder all raising red flags. The TAT is not Murray’s only claim to fame. Towards the end of the Second World War the American government called on him to help compile a psychological profile of Adolf Hitler. As a face-to-face consultation seemed highly unlikely, Murray was forced to rely on other sources, such as Hitler’s school record, writings, and speeches. He concluded that although the dictator appeared outgoing, he was actually quite shy and had a deep-seated need to annex the Sudeten-land. Just kidding. Actually, Murray thought that Hitler was a classic example of a ‘counteractive narcissist’, a man who held grudges, exhibited excessive demands for attention, displayed a tendency to belittle others, and couldn’t take a joke. In addition to developing the TAT and putting Hitler on the couch, Murray also conducted a unique test examining the precognitive power of dreams.

In 1927, 25-year-old American Air Mail pilot Charles Lindbergh achieved international fame by making the first solo, non-stop flight across the Atlantic. Two years later Lindbergh married author Anne Spencer Morrow, and the two of them continued to attract huge amounts of publicity by setting several additional flying records, including being the first people to fly from Africa to South America, and pioneering exploration of polar air routes from North America to Asia. In 1930 the Lindberghs had their first child, Charles Lindbergh, Jr., and moved into a large secluded mansion in Hopewell, New Jersey.

On 1 March 1932 the Lindberghs’ world changed for ever. At around 10 o’clock at night, the Lindberghs’ nurse rushed to Charles Sr. and told him that Charles Jr. had been taken from his room, and that the kidnappers had left a ransom note demanding $50,000. Lindbergh quickly grabbed a gun and searched the grounds. He discovered the homemade ladder that had been used to climb into the child’s second storey room, but found no sign of his son. The police were called and Colonel Norman Schwarzkopf (father of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who commanded the coalition forces during Operation Desert Shield) took charge of the case and organized a massive search effort. The Lindberghs’ fame resulted in the case generating an enormous amount of publicity, with one journalist referring to it as ‘the biggest story since the Resurrection’.

A few days after the news of the kidnapping broke, Murray decided to use the high profile case to study the accuracy of precognitive dreaming. He persuaded a national newspaper to ask their readers to submit any premonitions about the case that had appeared in their dreams. Word of Murray’s study spread from one newspaper to another, resulting in the psychologist eventually receiving over 1,300 responses. To properly assess the replies, Murray was forced to wait two years until the crime was solved.

Within a few days of his son’s disappearance, Lindbergh made various public appeals for the kidnapper to start negotiations. None of them elicited a response. However, when retired schoolteacher John Condon placed an article in a newspaper making it clear that he was willing to act as a go-between and add an additional $1,000 to the ransom, he received a series of notes from the alleged kidnapper. On the second of April, one note asked Condon to meet in a Bronx cemetery and to hand over $50,000 in gold certificates in exchange for information about the child’s location. Condon collected the certificates from Lindbergh, handed them over at the meeting, and was told that the child could be found on a boat that was moored along the Massachusetts coast. Lindbergh flew over the region for days but failed to find the alleged boat.

On 12 May 1932, a truck driver pulled over to the side of a road a few miles from the Lindbergh home and walked into a grove of trees to relieve himself. There he chanced upon the corpse of Charles Lindbergh, Jr., buried in a hastily prepared shallow grave. The baby’s skull was badly fractured, and his left leg and both hands were missing. A coroner’s examination later showed that the baby had been dead for about two months, and that his death was due to a blow on the head.

For over two years the police struggled to solve the crime. Then, in September 1934, a petrol station attendant became suspicious when a customer paid for five gallons of petrol with a ten dollar gold certificate. The attendant took a note of the customer’s number plate and passed it on to the authorities. The police identified the vehicle’s owner as Bruno Richard Hauptmann, an illegal German immigrant currently working as a carpenter. Police searched Hauptmann’s house, discovered $14,000 of the ransom money, and promptly arrested him. During Hauptmann’s trial the prosecution showed that his handwriting matched the ransom notes sent to Condon, and that the floorboards in his house were made of the same wood as the ladder discovered at the Lindbergh’s house. After an 11-hour deliberation, the jury returned a guilty verdict and Hauptmann was sentenced to death.

Case closed, Murray set to work. He examined his collection of alleged premonitions for three important pieces of information that would have helped the police investigation enormously - the fact that the baby was dead, buried in a grave, and that the grave was near some trees. Only about 5 per cent of the responses suggested that the baby was dead, and only 4 of the 1,300 responses mentioned that he was buried in a grave near some trees. In addition, none of them mentioned the ladder, extortion notes or ransom money. Exactly as predicted by the ‘dream premonitions are the work of normal, not paranormal forces’ brigade, the respondents’ premonitions were all over the place, with only a handful of them containing information that subsequently proved to be accurate. Murray was forced to conclude that his findings did ‘not support the contention that distant events and dreams are causally related’. Although people may dream about the future, those dreams do not represent a magical insight into what will be.

Unfortunately, no one seems to have told the public this. In 2009, psychologists Cary Morewedge from Carnegie Mellon University and Michael Norton from Harvard University carried out an experiment to discover whether the modern mind is still attracted to the notion that dreams predict the future.9 Nearly 200 commuters at a Boston railway station were asked to imagine that they had booked to be on a certain flight, but that the day before they were due to travel one of four events occurred. Either the government issued a warning of a possible terrorist attack, they thought about their plane crashing, a real plane crashed on the same route or that they dreamed about being in an airplane accident. After imagining each scenario, everyone was asked to rate the likelihood of them cancelling their flight. Amazingly, having an alleged precognitive dream came top of the pile, causing a greater sense of anxiety than a government terrorist warning or even an actual crash.

In addition to casting serious doubts on the ‘dreams as prophecy’ model of the human psyche, the science of sleep has also made considerable progress in tackling perhaps the greatest dream-based mystery of all - what are our dreams actually for?


The ultimate type of dream control involves lucid dreaming. This most desirable of night time activities means that you can experience the impossible, allowing you to fly, walk through walls and spend quality time with your favourite celebrity. At first, this strange phenomenon caused a great deal of debate among scientists, with some researchers arguing that perhaps those reporting these experiences weren't actually dreaming. However, the issue was resolved in the late 1970s when dream researcher Keith Hearne monitored the brain activity of those claiming to regularly experience lucid dreams.10 In perhaps his best-known study, Hearne invited his star subject to his sleep laboratory, asked him to indicate when he was having a lucid dream by moving his eyes right and left eight times, and then monitored his brain activity as he slept. Hearne discovered that the lucid dreams took place during REM sleep and were associated with the same type of brain activity as a normal dream. In short, evidence that lucid dreams are produced by the dreaming brain.

Hearne's work helped kick-start research into lucid dreaming, with scientists investigating a range of issues, including the best ways of increasing the chances of having a lucid dream. Their research suggests that the following steps will help you gain control of your dreams.11

1. Set your alarm clock to wake you up about four, six and seven hours after falling asleep. In theory, this will increase the likelihood of you being woken up during or straight after a dream.

2. If the alarm clock wakes you during a dream, spend ten minutes reading, writing down information about the dream or walking around. Then go back to bed and think about the dream that you had before waking up. Tell yourself that you are going to have the same dream again, but this time you will be aware that you are dreaming.

3. Draw a large letter 'A' (for 'awake') on one of your palms and the letter 'D' (for 'dreaming') on the other. Whenever you notice either of the letters, ask yourself whether you are awake or asleep. This helps you get used to the ritual and therefore asking the same question when you dream. Also, as you prepare to nod off each night, lie in your bed and take a minute to look at the palms of your hands and quietly tell yourself that while you dream you will look at your hands.

4. If you do manage to have a lucid dream, you will find yourself having to decide whether you are dreaming or actually in the real world. The good news is that there are various actions that will allow you to tell fiction from reality. First, try looking into a mirror - in a lucid dream your image will appear blurry. Second, feel free to bite your arm. If you are in a lucid dream you won't be able to feel a thing, whereas in the real world it will hurt like hell. Finally, try leaning against a wall. In a lucid dream you will often fall through the wall, whereas in the real world this will only happen if the building has been constructed by British engineers in the last ten years.

A Stroll Down the Royal Road to the Unconscious

There is an old joke about a woman who wakes up in the morning, turns to her husband, and says, ‘Last night I dreamed that you gave me a wonderful silver necklace for my birthday. What do you think that means?’ Her husband replies, ‘You’ll know tonight.’ That evening, the husband returns home with a small package and gives it to his wife. Delighted, she opens the package and finds a copy of The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud.

The joke is fictitious, but the book is real. Sigmund Freud was fascinated by dreams and famously referred to them as ‘the royal road to the unconscious’. Freud’s basic model of the mind revolved around the notion that we all have various fears and worries, and that our conscious mind deals with them by repressing them into our unconscious. During dreaming the conscious mind takes a well-earned break, allowing our true desires and emotions to emerge. Freud therefore thought that it was possible to gain an insight into someone’s secret desires by having them describe the ‘manifest content’ (what they actually dreamed about) of a dream, and using this to determine the ‘latent content’ (the unfulfilled emotions that the dream represents). However, this was often far from straightforward because the unconscious mind isn’t big on language and instead tends towards symbolic communication. Although some of these symbols are both universal and obvious (dream ‘cigar’, think ‘penis’), others are very personal and can only be fully understood with the help of a skilled therapist (dream ‘constantly hugging a policeman’, think ‘£200 an hour’). Freud’s ideas have spawned an entire industry devoted to dream interpretation, with unrepressed salespeople across the world eager to sell manuals, training seminars, and DVDs on the subject. There is just one small problem. Many scientists now think that Freud got it badly wrong, and that these attempts at interpretation are a complete waste of time.

Some scientists adopt a more evolutionary approach to dreaming. If I were to wake you up from REM and ask for a dream report, two things are likely to happen. First, you would probably ask what I am doing in your bedroom. Second, as noted earlier in the chapter, around eight out of ten times you would relate some sort of negative emotion or situation. Perhaps you would say that you were naked in public, sinking in quicksand, or being laughed at by others (or, on a really bad night, all three). Why should such doom and gloom dominate our dreaming mind? According to some evolutionary psychologists, dreams are a dress rehearsal for the threatening situations that you may encounter in the real world.12 They allow us to think about what to do in difficult situations without actually putting ourselves at risk.

If you are not a fan of this ‘dreams are a psychological self-defence class’ model, you might be more taken with the ideas proposed by the man who helped unravel the structure of DNA, Francis Crick.13 In the mid-1980s Crick took a very different approach to the problem, arguing that dreams are the brain’s way of sorting through the day’s information by throwing out unimportant data and making new connections between events and ideas. Seen from Crick’s perspective dreams are both a way of defragmenting the hard drive of the mind, and a giant ‘eureka moment’ generator. The idea is not without merit, with many great minds reporting that their dreams were a vital source of inspiration. For example, in the 1840s Elias Howe wanted to create the first sewing machine, but couldn’t figure out exactly how it would work. One night he dreamed he was surrounded by a group of tribal warriors, and noticed that their spears had holes near their tips. Howe realized that the dream contained the solution to his problem, because by placing a hole at the tip of the needle the thread would catch after it went through cloth and thus make his machine workable. Similarly, chemist August von Kekule spent years trying to figure out the structure of the chemical compound benzene, before dreaming about a snake biting its own tail and realizing that the elusive compound could be composed of a ring of carbon atoms. (Writer Arthur Koestler later described this incident as ‘probably the most important dream in history since Joseph’s seven fat and seven lean cows’.) The same process has also influenced the history of sport and music, with golfer Jack Nicklaus reporting that he enjoyed a significant upswing in his game after dreaming about a new way to hold his golf club and Paul McCartney noting that the song ‘Yesterday’ came to him fully formed in a dream. (One academic recently studied McCartney’s eureka moment and concluded ‘These three components, person, domain and field, comprise a system with circular causality where the individual, the social organization they create within, and the symbol system they use are all equally important and interdependent in producing creative products. “Yesterday” is but one creative product of this system at work.’14Good to get that sorted.)

If you don’t like the idea of dreams as ‘threat rehearsal’ or ‘idea generator’, you might be drawn to the current front-runner in scientific circles, namely the notion that dreams are the meaningless product of random brain activity. This idea, known as the ‘activation-synthesis hypothesis’, was first proposed by Harvard psychiatrist James Hobson in the late 1970s.15 When you sleep, you obviously don’t receive very much information from your senses. However, according to Hobson, the evolutionarily older parts of the brain, responsible for basic functions such as breathing and the heartbeat, produce regular surges in activity that result in random action throughout the brain. Confused, the more modern part of the brain does its best to make a meaningful story out of these sensations, producing bizarre dreams that combine everyday concerns with random elements. Given that sleep is essential for your well-being, some theorists believe that in a way, dreams represent the ‘guardians of sleep’ - a mechanism that allows you to deal with brain activity without waking up. Interestingly, the latest cutting edge research suggests that they might be right, with people who have damaged the part of the brain that enables them to dream often reporting that they find it very difficult to get a good night’s sleep.16 The ‘activation-synthesis hypothesis’ does not rule out Freud’s notion that dreams reflect everyday worries and concerns, but it certainly calls into question the idea that they possess a weird kind of symbolism that can only be unravelled with the help of a skilled therapist.

Or perhaps it is far simpler than all that. As sleep researcher Jim Horne from Loughborough University once memorably put it, perhaps dreams are nothing more than a kind of ‘cinema of the mind’ that is there to keep your brain entertained during the otherwise tedious hours of sleep.

For thousands of years people believed that their dreams could provide a fleeting glimpse of the future. It was not until the 1950s that scientists discovered how to investigate the sleeping brain and figured out the truth about these alleged acts of prophecy. You dream far more than you think and only remember those dreams that appear to come true. Many of your dreams revolve around topics that make you feel anxious and so are more likely to be related to future events. Contrary to popular belief, nearly everyone dreams, and so some of the many millions of dreams that take place each night will depict future events by chance alone. Carry out experiments that eliminate these factors and suddenly your sleeping mind cannot figure out what tomorrow will bring. Perhaps more importantly, these scientific expeditions into the land of nod have produced important clues about the real reasons for your nightly flights of fancy, including how your dreams could prepare you for threatening situations, increase your chances of coming up with creative ideas, and help you get a good night’s sleep. There are many more mysteries of sleep waiting to be solved, but one thing is certain - for those who wish to believe in the reality of the paranormal, the findings from the science of sleep are a nightmare.