Can dreams predict the future?

Are there people who can really see the future in their dreams? From the Biblical account of Pharaoh’s fateful dream (seven fat kine and seven lean) to Suetonius’s report of Caligula’s nightmare the night before his assassination, the annals of antiquity are filled with stories of prophetic visions.

More recently, many people believe President Abraham Lincoln foresaw his own death. Three days before his assassination, Abraham Lincoln related a dream to his wife and a few friends, one of whom was his self-appointed bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon. After his death, Lamon’s daughter published his papers under the title, “Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, 1847-1885.” The volume included an account of the President’s dream: “Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, some gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully. 'Who is dead in the White House?' I demanded of one of the soldiers 'The President' was his answer; 'he was killed by an assassin!”

Great story, isn’t it? Problem is that no attempt was ever made to fact check its veracity. In life, Lamon had a reputation as something of a buffoon; certainly the circumstances of the memoir’s publication, thirty years after Lincoln’s death, could easily lend themselves to playing fast and loose with the truth.

And that’s the problem with dreams that purport to be glimpses into the future: they can’t be substantiated through empirical research.

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What scientists know about dreams is this: they are strongly associated with a distinctive electrophysiological state of sleep – so-called REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep – during which time the sleeper’s brainwaves most closely approximate the waking state; they tend to be short, between five and 20 minutes on average; and they occur in other mammals besides man. REM sleep itself is associated with the inhibition of neurotransmitters that are precursors to movement: most people, when they dream of moving, do not actually move.

The most recent cognitive research seems to support the theory that dreams may provide a kind of learning exercise for the brain. Researchers at Harvard Medical School asked a group of volunteers to study the layout of a complex three-dimensional computer maze in order to find an object when they were “dropped” into the virtual space five hours later. In between, some of the subjects were allowed to take a quick nap. Scientists found that those subjects who dreamed about the task while they were catnapping were ten times better at finding the object in the maze than those who didn’t sleep or dream.

Harvard Medical School Professor Robert Stickgold thinks this might be the first scientific evidence of what function dreaming plays in human behavior: “What’s got us excited, is that after nearly 100 years of debate about the function of dreams, this study tells us that dreams are the brain’s way of processing, integrating and really understanding new information. Dreams are a clear indication that the sleeping brain is working on memories at multiple levels, including ways that will directly improve performance.”

Seen in this context then, Abraham Lincoln’s dream of his own death may be seen less as a prophetic glimpse into the future than a problem-solving exercise on his part. At least two previous attempts on Lincoln’s life had been made: one, the so-called Baltimore Plot, was an assassination attempt made while the President was en route to his inauguration; the other was made in 1864, a year before the President’s death. Lincoln recognized there were threats to his life. Perhaps the dream that Lamon recorded was an exercise in scenario planning on the part of the President’s unconscious, a future possibility to guard against. Unfortunately he was not able to.

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