What causes precognitive prophetic dreams

Can dreams be prophetic?

Cover of the last issue of The Strange World of Your Dreams (1953) by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
Source: Prize Publications / Public Domain

In September 1913, Carl Jung, the great pioneer of depth psychology, was on a train in his native Switzerland when he experienced a waking vision. He looked out the window at the country and saw a devastating flood inundated Europe. The vision shocked and disturbed him. Two weeks later, on the same trip, the vision reappeared. This time an inner voice said to him: “Take a good look at it; it is all real and it will be. You can't doubt it. "

Years later, in his memoir,Memories, dreams and reflectionshe remembers the event and his concern that he was having a psychotic hiatus.

“I was suddenly seized by an overwhelming vision: I saw a monstrous flood that covered the entire north and the depths. Lies lands between the North Sea and the Alps. When it came to Switzerland, I saw that the mountains were getting higher and higher to protect our country. I realized that a terrible disaster was afoot. I saw the mighty yellow waves, the floating debris of civilization, and the drowned bodies of countless thousands. Then the whole sea turned to blood. "

In the following spring of 1914, he had three disastrous dreams in which he saw Europe being flooded by ice, vegetation gone, and people deserted. Despite his awareness that the situation in Europe was “darkening”, he interpreted these dreams personally and feared that he would go crazy. In August of this year, however, his dreams and visions were confirmed: the First World War had broken out.

About fifty years earlier, President Abraham Lincoln had a prophetic dream. Three days before he was murdered, Lincoln conveyed his dream to his wife and a group of friends. Ward Hill Lamon, an attendant present, recorded the conversation.

“Abraham's dream! Coming events cast their shadows beforehand. “Lithograph by Currier & Ives (1864)
Source: Library of Congress / Public Domain

“I retired very late about ten days ago. I had waited for important broadcasts from the beginning. I couldn't lie in bed long when I fell asleep because I was tired. I soon started dreaming. There seemed to be a death-like silence around me. I think I heard muffled sobs, like some people were crying. I thought I got out of bed and went down the stairs. There the silence was broken by the same pathetic sobbing, but the mourners were invisible. I went from room to room; There was no living person in sight, but the same sad sounds of distress hit me as I walked on. It was bright in all rooms; every object was familiar to me; but where were all the people who were grieving as if their hearts were breaking? I was confused and alarmed. What could it all mean? Determined to find the cause of such a mysterious and shocking state, I continued walking until I arrived at the eastern room, which I entered. There I met a disgusting surprise. In front of me was a catafalque on which lay a corpse wrapped in burial robes. Soldiers were stationed around him and acted as guards; and there were a lot of people, some staring sadly at the corpse whose face was covered, others wept pitifully. "Who's dead in the White House?" I asked one of the soldiers. "The President" was his answer; "He was killed by an assassin." Then there was a loud outburst of sadness from the crowd that woke me from my dream. I didn't sleep that night; and although it was just a dream, I've been strangely angry about it ever since. “(Memories of Abraham Lincoln, 1847-1865 by Ward Hill Lamon, published 1911.)

Two weeks later, on April 14, 1865, Lincoln was murdered by John Wilkes Booth. As in his dream, his coffin was displayed in the east room of the White House and guarded by soldiers.

These are two terrifying examples of dreams that emerged during times of collective crisis and accurately predicted historical turning points. Do prophetic dreams occur more often in turbulent times? How does the dreamer know whether a dream is to be interpreted personally and symbolically or as a warning for others and the whole world?

I asked these questions to Dr. Murray Stein, a renowned author and Jungian analyst at the International School for Analytical Psychology in Zurich, Switzerland. Dr. Stein replied that he had no statistics on whether people were more likely to have predictive dreams in times of crisis than at other times. In his experience, it is only after the event that one can know whether a dream is precognitive. After September 11th, people reported precognitive dreams that predicted the disaster. He said people also reported that dreams predicted the 2008 financial crisis, which he called "a black swan event." According to Investopedia:

“A black swan is an unpredictable event that goes beyond what is normally expected of a situation and has potentially serious consequences. Black Swan events are characterized by their extreme rarity, grave implications, and the practice of explaining the widespread failure to predict them with hindsight as simple folly. "

The recent coronavirus outbreak could be viewed as a black swan event, and perhaps we will soon hear from people who had prophetic dreams of its manifestation.

Daniel interprets Nebuchadnezzar's dream (around 1670) by Mattia Preti (1613-1699)
Source: Sothebys / Public Domain

While there is no easy answer or best practice way to tell whether a dream should be interpreted personally or more generally, we can examine its content with both aspects in mind. For example, when I have a dream that I'm a kid who has been put in a cage. I could ask: What aspect of me is feeling “locked in” right now? If I find out that I am a child in a dream, I could ask further: Is there something from my childhood that still restricts me and narrows me down? I could try to estimate the age of the child in a dream and remember that age and remember if anything significant happened then. Perhaps my parents had started thinking about divorce at the time, I felt trapped by their emotions. I could then inquire if something similar is going on in my life right now, not necessarily a divorce but an impending disorder or the loss of a cherished relationship. When we return to a dream to expand, each question generates different questions that can lead to deeply buried insights. (For a more complete explanation of Jung's use of reinforcement as a technique, see Michael Vannoy Adams' description at JungNewYork

But what if I dream that I am a child who has been put in a cage and a few days later I discover that immigrant children are actually caged in detention centers? While my dream would be personally relevant, it would also have a collective or more public meaning. This collective meaning of the dream testifies to the interconnectedness of our species, to our capacity for empathy (we see a horror in the news and we feel it invade us) and to the common values ​​we share about the quality of human life .

If we had lived in the beginning of the last century, or in an indigenous culture, or in ancient Mesopotamia, we could examine our dreams for deep wisdom and as augurs for the future. These days, we're more likely to look to neuroscience to understand our dreams. Neurobiology tells us that sleep is a complex neural activity of the brain that stays busy activating and deactivating complicated neurosystems while we doze, including consolidating memories, regulating mood, restoring immune function, and many others important useful tasks. But neuroscience tells us nothing about the meaning of dreams or why our dreaming life has meant something to man since we first set foot on the planet.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight the bull of heaven. Gilgamesh cylinder seal, Assyria, c. 7th century BC
Source: British Museum / Public Domain

About thirty thousand years ago, towards the end of the Paleolithic, our ancestors, who were hunter-gatherers, descended into the subterranean darkness of the caves to perform rituals of trance and dreaming. Recently, archaeologists and ethnographers have speculated that the artifacts found in the caves of southern Europe - bone flutes, pipes, and types of drums - and the now famous discovery of cave murals suggest that ancient shamans may have used these caves for ceremonial dreams (see in particular the work of David Lewis-Williams). We can speculate that the depictions of bison and large and small game as well as hunting scenes on the walls could reflect shamanic dream content. Perhaps the shaman rose from his retreat after visions of the abundance and location of the booty that would be vital to the clan.

Later, human societies continued to transcribe their dreams. The oldest written dream is in the Sumerian epic from Gilgamesh (2100 BC). Similar to King Nebuchadnezzar's terrifying dream in the Book of Daniel, Gilgamesh, king of the Sumerian city of Uruk, has violent nightmares about death that shakes him to the core and sends him on his search for immortality. But Gilgamesh cannot interpret his own dreams, and like many of the dreamers in the Old Testament, he needs an interpreter. How significant is that since ancient times the one who receives the dream and the one who knows its meaning are different people.

Nicholas Black Elk with his daughter Lucy Black Elk and his wife Anna Brings White.
Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain

In some contemporary cultures, it is believed that dreams are a way of receiving messages from the spirit world. A holy man or medicine woman, elder or shaman is the recipient of the prophetic dream given for the good of all and linked to the survival of the tribe or people. Black Elk, the Lakota Sioux holy medicine man, explained this when he said a dream is worthless if it is not shared with the tribe.

How can we relate to the dreams that haunt us? Are they simply the result of complex neurological activity and of no real meaning, just as we know the moon is not an enchanted sphere, but just a stone in space? What could we miss if we took a stand based entirely on the material world in our lot? Is it possible to regard the two worlds as equally significant, the world of science and, to borrow the phrase that John Keats uses to characterize adventurers on the threshold of a new frontier, the world of "wild guess"? Can we think of ourselves as vessels open to receiving wisdom through unusual means? Can we be our own shamans?