Dreams can provide a lot of information about your present state of mind, worries, and hopes for the future. But can they actually predict things that haven’t happened yet?
Precognitive dreams, in simple terms, are any dreams that give you information about the future you wouldn’t otherwise have.
Say you dream about your brother after not hearing from him for months. The next day, he gives you a call.
Or, maybe you wake from a dream with some unpleasant emotions, like terror or disappointment. This doesn’t seem meaningful until something frightens or disappoints you shortly afterward. You can’t recall any specific dream details, but you have the exact same feelings.
Having a precognitive experience may unsettle you, even when you don’t put much stock in future-telling.
Read on to learn more about potential scientific explanations for these dreams and how to go about dealing with them.
While scientific research hasn’t found evidence to support the idea of prophetic dreams, people do commonly report dreaming about events or circumstances that later happened.
You might have heard of these famous examples.
Nearly 150 children and adults were killed in 1966 when waste from a coal mine buried a school in South Wales.
When psychiatrist John Barker visited the town and spoke to many of the residents, he realized many of them had experienced some type of premonition about the disaster.
Even some of the children who had died had mentioned dreams and premonitions of dying in the days before the landslide.
Barker advertised in a London newspaper, asking anyone who had experienced a premonition before the landslide to send a written account. He received more than 60 replies, about half of which mentioned a dream of the disaster.
About 2 weeks before his assassination, President Abraham Lincoln described a recent dream to his wife and a few of his friends.
He dreamed of walking through the White House until he came upon his own corpse, guarded and lying in state in the East Room — exactly where his casket rested after his death.
Jung, one of the key founders of modern psychotherapy, also reported several precognitive dreams and experiences.
One of his dreams appeared to warn him of his mother’s death. He also described a series of three dreams in early 1914 that involved a “darkened” Europe in the grips of a catastrophe. Many people later connected these dreams to the start of World War I.
Some research suggests up to a third of people report some type of precognitive experience, often in the form of a dream that seemed to come true.
According to Psychology Today, informal surveys put this figure much higher, suggesting around half of the population has had some type of prophetic dream.
Results of surveys can sometimes become skewed, depending on who they involve. People with stronger belief in psychic experiences, including precognitive dreaming, tend to have a higher likelihood of interpreting dreams as precognitive.
People who don’t believe in psychic experiences, on the other hand, likely won’t even consider the possibility of their dreams predicting the future.
To sum up, until experts conduct more extensive research on precognitive dreams, there’s no way to determine how often they occur, or even if they truly do occur.
While science hasn’t found evidence to support the idea of truly prophetic dreams, experts have found a few alternative explanations.
According to 2014 research, selective recall is one possible cause.
Researchers gave 85 participants a fictional dream diary and true event diary, telling them the same student had written both as part of a separate study.
The event diary contained an entry that either confirmed or disconfirmed each dream recorded in the other diary.
They asked the participants to read both diaries and write down the dreams they remembered and any relevant diary events. They hypothesized that participants would remember more of the events that confirmed their dreams than events that did not.
Just as the researchers predicted, the participants had better recollection of their dreams confirmed by events in the diary. This selective recall was consistent across participants, regardless of their level of belief in precognitive dreams.
When an event in your daily life appears to parallel something that happened in a dream, you’re more likely to remember the similarities than note the differences.
Say you have a long, complicated dream about going for a walk in the woods, getting lost, losing your shoes, and missing your best friend’s birthday party. A few days later, you leave your shoes in the sand at the beach and the tide carries them away.
Even though only one small part of the dream occurred, your brain focuses on the part that happened correctly. That’s why your dream seems to predict your lost shoes, even though none of the other details fit.
Association of unrelated events
The research mentioned above also involved a second study with different participants. This study tested the idea that people who believed more strongly in precognitive dreams would have a greater tendency to make connections between unrelated events.
They asked 50 participants to read four different pairs of dream diaries and news articles and list as many connections as they could find. Those who reported higher levels of paranormal belief or belief in precognitive dreams specifically made more associations between the news articles and the dream diaries.
Here’s a real-life example:
You dream about fighting with someone. When you wake up, you recall feeling very angry. The next night, you dream about feeling very sad. Although you can’t recall many specifics, you do remember crying.
A few days later, you get into a car accident. No one gets hurt, but your nearly new car is pretty beat up. Feeling angry and sad about your car, you think back to those dreams you had.
Sure, they absolutely seem like a prediction of the accident, but there’s nothing directly connecting them.
Another likely factor in precognitive dreams is simple coincidence.
Part of this lies in the law of large numbers: You’re going to have a ridiculously large number of dreams, on widely varying topics, over the course of your life. It’s only natural that occasionally something in your life will match up.
This isn’t just natural, it’s pretty much bound to happen at some point, as improbable as it might seem. And the more dreams you remember, the better chance you’ll experiencing something that seems to align.
It’s pretty common to dream about things you already think about often, especially things that worry you.
If you dream about breaking up with your partner and then really do break up, you might immediately remember your dream. But breakups generally don’t come out of nowhere.
Maybe you were having some issues that made you worry a breakup was coming. Even if you didn’t actively worry, the factors contributing were still present, so your dream could have come from your awareness of those problems.
Your mind can also make connections you don’t have any awareness of, and these can surface in your dreams.
Say you dream about a terrible fire. You wake up to read on social media that the local library caught fire in the middle of the night after a nearby tree was struck by lightning.
If it’s summer and you live in a dry area prone to fires, that could explain why fire is on your mind. Or maybe you half-heard a weather report predicting storms with a high chance of lightning, and your brain linked lightning to fire.
It’s been suggested that reports of precognitive dreams could become more common in times of widespread crisis.
Take Jung’s dreams about war. Plenty of concrete signs suggested the possibility of war. Jung himself remarked on the uneasiness he felt at the time.
When bad things happen around you, you’re more likely to have dreams reflecting this turmoil. When facing many unpleasant circumstances at once, in your personal life or the world at large, you’re even more likely to dream about something similar.
But that’s more a reflection of how deeply life experiences can affect your consciousness.
Persistent, troubling dreams can keep you from getting enough sleep, which can make you feel even worse. It’s bad enough to have to worry about things during the day. Sleep should provide a chance to recharge.
Decreasing stress in your waking life can help you get better sleep, so when you feel lonely, sad, or deeply affected by current events, talking to a therapist can help.
Therapy can help you learn to manage and cope with difficult emotions, which can help you feel more present during the day and better rested after a night of (peaceful) sleep.
Dreams that predict the future — could they be real?
The short answer: Who knows? Scientific research offers several more likely explanations, but experts still don’t fully understand the role of dreams.
So, let your dreams tell you what they will. But when they affect your rest, check out some new sleep habits.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.