Prophecy and dreams go hand in and like milk and honey. They are as ancient as Old Egypt (or older) and still being seen as significant today. I don’t discount that prophecy could happen in your dream or dreams, but I do think that context needs to be given within the scientific facts that we do have at hand.
1. Your brain is big, really really big.
No really. You are a member of Homo sapiens (or a exceptionally close approximation) and thus your brain in comparison to your body mass pretty much the biggest that has ever existed on this planet. Only Blue Wales and Dolphins get close (but diffrent brains act diffrently and this is only a size comparision).
A large part of this brain is used to deal with daily mathematical problems you don’t even know about. I know some of you will say “I am crap at math” but actually your brain is really good at it. If you have done the simple task of reaching for a bottle on the bench top then you have just performed an action that took a virtual mountain of complex mathematical equations without even knowing you did. To deal with a onslaught of huge maths your brain evolved to make sure you could do this easily but discerning patterns that occurred on a frequent basis i.e. if you look at a optical illusion such a:
You will see how your brain keeps trying to find patterns and some will even see false colors and dots were none actually are. The magic eyes you see on occasion in $2 shops and at optometrists are a great example of how complex the pattern can be. I know some of you will say they don’t work, but there is an even better example of the complexity of patterns everyone deals with. Were’s Wally (or Waldo) is a pattern game we can all play, and easy to remember and do. If you can think of the one were Wally (or Waldo) is in a maze of other pretend Wallys (or other Waldos) and you can still eventually find him. The Wallys are a big pattern and actually not the most complex your brain can deal with (Oberheim et al., 2006; A. Meyer-Lindenberg, 1998) , but show an example of the sort of things I am referring to. The point is that dealing with these patterns happens daily for the part of your brain you are rarely aware of, and the part of you that dreams accesses it as much as you do.
2. Memory isn’t as good as we think it is.
Your memory while not perfect or always entirely correct, is pretty damn good. However, despite it’s capacity and ability to hold your precious moments, and many others, it’s actually possible to change it.
Changes in your memory are not a bad thing. The ability to forget and change memory are essential to your experience as a human. The ability to change a memory is provable, but a bit scary. The way to prove it is simple. Imagine a yellow car, it’s big, fast and yellow and it’s parked in a car park with no cars on either side of it. We see this yellow car as clear as we can in our memory. Now a black bird flys and lands on the car and it’s caws like a raven, but it’s actually an eagle and it’s feathers are black from soot. You look at the sky and see a smoke stack with black smoke coming out. You think it might be a good idea to move your black car.
What color was it originally?
This is where a lot of people will scroll back and see the car was yellow, but some of you will have changed it to black, some yellow with soot and a few will have changed the car to another color entirely. Why?
Visualization exercises like this are easy make changes in, it’s a old pallor trick that magicians often use and sometimes other confidence tricksters and even psychologists and doctors. The idea (for those not using it to trick you) isn’t actually to demonstrate your short term memories ability to change at a moments notice, it’s to give you an idea that change is possible! These changes happen very frequently in dreams, the red hairs on a girls head are suddenly blue, the light that was on is off, the door handle is rounded is then a diamond. This is what makes reality checks possible for those who do lucid dreaming.
The changes in dreams are a lot easier to affect than your short term memory and I am afraid I don’t know why.
Long term memory is a lot harder to change, but change can and does happen. It’s not a reflection on you, or a reflection on your memory. I am not trying to hurt or insult you buy saying this. However, the fact is your long term memory isn’t as unchangeable as you think. Proving this is a lot harder and can’t be done over the Internet, but the long term memory change is something of a very hard subject to get a grip on (Minna Huotilainena, Anu Kujalaa, Paavo Alkub, 2001).
Now we have looked at how good at pattern matching we are and how we can change our memories, but what does this have to do with prediction in dreams?
3. You predict things all the time based on your memory of the past and patterns you saw. The simplest way to prove this is to look at a ball rolling on the ground. You can predict where it is going as you know how a ball moves and have knowledge of surface it’s on. Your ability to predict future events is all based on this fairly simplistic example, if you add more balls you get a harder task, every time another ball is added the task is harder. However you can keep on adding almost 50 balls and still be able to predict their movements as the roll and bounce off walls and collide. At 50 balls you will not be able to track all the balls, so occasionally you get something that surprises you.
The ability to predict, with your dreaming self access to your memories and the ability to change memories are all added to give us an idea how easy it can be to predict your future. You brain knows pattern such as the red haired girl catches the bus on Monday, you catch the same bus, your always sitting at the seat near the back, thus you have a dream were you see a red haired girl in your seat and you get to sit next to her the day after your dream. It’s even possible based on your memory and knowledge of the red haired girl to know she will be in a green dress and have a red necklace on and that she will talk to you about her new puppy. How? You pattern filled brain knows how often you have seen her in a green dress (5 Monday’s out of 8) and that she often wears a red necklace with this dress, and you know most people own a pet. Your brain also just makes up the puppy but as you remember the dream in your mind when she talks to you, you will go home look in your dream log and find originally she talked about an old dog in your dream, not a new puppy. Perfection it is not, the level of uncanniness is pretty high though. This uncanniness leeds to people beliving in the power of dreams to predict, and predict well.
I don’t discount that true prediction is possible, I am not an unbeliever in this debate (see my post on being a pagan) but I am a skeptic as well. Skepticism is needed here because the ability to predict is something many want to believe they have, and although possible the ablity to be able to predict something very well isn’t going to be common if it exsists at all. Dreams have a way of telling both secrets, lies and mystery and making sure you approach people who say “this will happen as I dreamed it” need to be taken with a grain of salt. A full documented account of the dream and documented evidence of the actual event examined by a committee of independent peers is probably unlikely but it’s what I personally would want to see to think someone is actually predicting real events from dream content (there is a good Jonothon Creek episode on the very topic). I would also want to make sure they are truly writing down their dreams and not just listening to the midnight news to get the latest before I (or anyone else) woke. The predictions would also need to be statistically significant: I.e. they can’t just predict a car crash, it has to be a car crash on a certain street at a certain time, etc. the more accurate the detail the more likely I am to think they might just have a point with the I can predict things in my dreams claims.
The most famous dream prediction I can think of is that of the Pharos Soothsayer. The Pharo had a dream of three fat cows being eaten by three skinny cows. Thus he went to his Soothsayer and he said the Pharos dream meant there would be three good years followed by three years of harsh drought. Thus acting on this Pharo orders the construction of granaries and stores salted meats and other foodstuffs for three good years and his country is fed for three bad years that follow. Although it seems entirely possible this is true, it could also be that it was standard practice to store food in Egypt during good years anyway. It seems like a fairy story mums tell children to make sure they don’t spend all the pocket money at once.
Oberheim et al. (2006). Astrocytic complexity distinguishes the humanbrain, Trends in Nuerosciences, 29, 10, pp. 547–553.
Meyer-Lindenberg, A. (1996). The evolution of complexity in humanbrain development: an EEG study, Electroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology, 99, 5, pp. 405–411
Minna Huotilainena, Anu Kujalaa, Paavo Alkub, (2001). Long-termmemory traces facilitate short-termmemory trace formation in audition in humans, Neuroscience Letters, 310, 2–3, pp. 133–136