Several years ago I awoke in a panic from a nightmare. I didn’t remember the nightmare, but the first thought that I had upon awakening was, What if it is melanoma? I’m not prone to nightmares, and I wasn’t worried about the new mole that I had seen on the back of my leg the week before. It looked perfectly normal. I had no history of sunburns. In fact, I never spent much time in the sun and barely remember having had tans. No one in my family ever had melanoma. Still, I showed it to my then husband, who was an oncologist.
“That’s not melanoma,” he said looking at my leg. “It’s perfectly round, has uniform color, and is less than a half centimeter.”
“I know,” I said feeling almost foolish for asking. “I went to the same medical school as you. It’s just unusual for me to wake up terrorized.”
I didn’t think about it again, that is until I awoke the following month in a panic. But what if it is melanoma? I sought reassurance from my husband a second time. After the third awakening, I scheduled an appointment.
“It’s not melanoma,” said my internist with certainty, “but if you want me to take it off I will.”
“Please do. At least it will help me sleep better.”
I returned the following week to have the suture removed and to receive the pathology report. My internist looked her usual serene self, so I felt relieved immediately. Upon opening my chart, her expression changed to concern. “Oh…….I’m sorry. I didn’t review this before you arrived. It is melanoma. Fortunately, it is in situ and can be cured by a wider excision. Good thing we caught it early.”
Reports of prophetic or precognitive dreams exist throughout the ages and across almost every culture. The first written record of dreams dates back to 2000 B.C. (the Egyptian papyrus of Deral-Madineh.) Back then prophetic dreams were considered divine revelations. The Bible has about 70 references to such dreams and visions. One that includes both is the dream of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 2:1-35). Nebuchadnezzar had an oracular dream, but couldn’t remember the details. Because dreams were viewed as extremely important, kings had dream interpreters to guide them. Daniel was consulted, and he in turn asked God for an answer. Daniel then had a night vision which Nebuchadnezzar recognized as his dream. Many interpret subsequent history as evidence that the dream’s prophecy came true.
By the time of the following dreamer, heads of state no longer relied upon dream interpreters.
About ten days ago, I retired very late. I had been up waiting for important dispatches from the front. I could not have been long in bed when I fell into a slumber, for I was weary. I soon began to dream. There seemed to be a death-like stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing but the mourners were invisible. I went from room to room; no living person was in sight, but the same mournful sounds of distress met me as I passed along. I saw light in all the rooms; every object was familiar to me; but where were all the people who were grieving as if their hearts would break? I was puzzled and alarmed. What could be the meaning of all this? Determined to find the cause of such a state of things so mysterious and so shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the East room, which I entered. There I met with a sickening surprise. 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, 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.” Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd, which woke me from my dream. I slept no more that night; and although it was only a dream, I have been strangely annoyed by it ever since.
Abraham Lincoln, three days before his assassination, as relayed to his wife and a few friends. (Recollections of Abraham Lincoln 1847-1865 by Ward Hill Lamon)
Precognitive dreams have been well documented. For example, Stevenson reported ten cases of precognition of the sinking of the Titanic, eight of which involved dreams. (Morgan Robertson wrote a novel in 1898 called Futility about the wreck of a giant ship named Titan. The similarities between its details and the Titanic disaster 14 years later are striking. The Titan was considered unsinkable, displaced 70,000 tons, was 800 feet long, had 24 lifeboats, carried 3000 passengers, and sunk in April after hitting an iceberg at 25 knots. The Titanic displaced 66,000 tons, was 828 feet long, had 24 lifeboats, almost 3000 passengers, and sunk in April after hitting an iceberg at 23 knots.) Similarly, several Muslims came forth after 9/11 to say that they had precognitive dreams of the events of that day.
Another paranormal dream experience is dream telepathy. The first attempt at a theory to explain dream telepathy was made by Democritus (460-370 B.C.) who postulated that emotionally charged images could be transmitted to dreamers through their pores. It wasn’t until 1882, with the founding of the Society for Psychical Research that serious scientific study of the subject was done. In their historic work, Phantasms of the Living, they reported 149 cases of dream telepathy. A typical story is the following, which corresponded with the event in great detail:
My brother and I were on a journey…I dreamt….I saw father driving in a sledge, followed in another by my brother. They had to pass across-road on which another traveler was driving very fast, also in a sledge with one horse. Father seemed to drive on without observing the other fellow, who would…have driven over father if he had not made his horse rear, so that I saw my father drive under the hoofs of the horse. Every moment I expected the horse to fall down and crush him. I called out, “Father! Father!” and awoke in great fright.
The pattern noted by the researchers was that over half of the dreams concerned death. Another significant number concerned an emergency. In most cases the dreamer and subject of the dream were related or friends. The dreamers had no special psychic abilities before or after the dreams.
Dreams have also been credited with multiple discoveries and inventions. It has been in dreams that many have been able to solve problems that their awake minds could not. One of the most famous is the discovery of the molecular ring structure of benzene by Kekule. He had assumed it was linear until a dream. He described the discovery to a group of scientists as follows:
I turned my chair toward the fire place and sank into a doze. Again the atoms were flitting before my eyes. Smaller groups now kept modestly in the background. My mind’s eye sharpened by repeated visions of a similar sort, now distinguished larger structures of varying forms. Long rows frequently rose together, all in movement, winding and turning like serpents. And see! What was that? One of the serpents seized its own tail and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes. I came awake like a flash of lightening. This time also I spent the remainder of the night working out the consequences of the hypothesis.
A remarkable discovery by dream was the periodic table. Before 1869 there were only 60 plus elements known. Around thirty elements were still undiscovered, which made it hard to classify the known ones. Dmitri Mendeleev, a Russian chemist, struggled with the problem until one night.
I saw in a dream a table where all the elements fell into places as required. Awakening I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper. Only in one place did a correction later seem necessary.
The resulting table was so accurate that it enabled prediction of the properties of elements that were yet to be discovered.
Otto Leowi had a hunch about the nature of nerve transmission in 1903, but forgot about it until a dream in 1920.
The night before Easter Sunday of that year, I awoke, turned on the light, and jotted down a few notes on a tiny slip of thin paper. Then I fell asleep again. It occurred to me at six o’ clock in the morning that during the night I had written down something important, but I was unable to decipher the scrawl. The next night, at three o’ clock the idea returned. It was the design of an experiment to determine whether or not the hypothesis of chemical transmission that I had uttered seventeen years ago was correct. I got up immediately, went to the laboratory, and performed a simple experiment on a frog heart according to the nocturnal design…If I had carefully considered it (the design) in daytime, I would undoubtedly have rejected the kind of experiment I performed…It was good fortune that at the time of the hunch I did not think but acted.
A dream also assisted the invention of the sewing machine. Elias Howe was trying to invent a lock-stitch sewing machine, but was stuck on how to thread the needle until a dream he had in 1844. He dreamt that he had been captured by dark-skinned painted savages who were taking him to a place for execution. As he shook with fear, he noticed that the spears had eye-shaped holes in their heads. He awoke excited with the idea of pointed needles with eye-shaped holes in the front.
Because people who otherwise report no psychic abilities have frequently reported paranormal dreams, looking at the neurocircuitry involved in dreaming may provide clues as to the neurocircuitry involved in the paranormal. Dreams have their source in the amygdala, hippocampus, and inferior temporal lobe. And although brainstem nuclei are involved, the amygdala may trigger the first phase of dreaming (REM or Rapid Eye Movement sleep). And thus, we see the same structures involved in dreaming as we do in mystical states. It would make sense for psychic abilities to be found here as well.