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April 2017

Bruce Siegel's 'Dreaming the Future'

Regular readers know Bruce Siegel, who’s often commented here and in other forums. He guest posted here a few years back, about how he shifted from being a militant skeptic to a belief in psi and afterlife. Now he’s written a book about precognitive dreaming, which he’s kindly sent me, Dreaming the Future: How Our Dreams Prove Psychic Ability is Real, And Why It Matters. It’s written in the chatty accessible style that’s more common with ‘how-to’ teaching books than paranormal topics, but works rather well here. I was expecting something like Andrew Paquette’s Dreamer, containing lots of descriptions of odd dreams and startling matches with real life events and observations, and actually to some extent that’s what this is too. But what makes this book especially interesting is the forensic analysis, with a commentary aimed at persuading us that – as Bruce has come to understand it – this is a process that is going on all the time. If we start to pay attention to it, we’ll see it for ourselves. As a one-time militant skeptic, he understands the rejection mindset better than most, and confronts it head on. He wants to persuade us that there really is something going on here, ‘to help you prove the unbelievable to yourself’. He’s ‘into logic, numbers, repeatability, and controls’ and has ‘a passion for looking at the facts, however odd or unpopular, to see where they lead’.

And where many years’ worth of facts have led me is this: precognition is real. Such a large percentage of my dreams (and I’ll bet yours) point clearly and inexplicably to future events, that insisting coincidence works as an explanation is silly. How such a momentous truth can remain hidden from so many of us is one of the most compelling parts of the story, and a main theme of this book.

Having once aggressively rejected claims of psi phenomena, Bruce underwent something of a mid-life transformation, among other things paying attention to the fact that some of his dreams seemed to correlate with later events in ways that were difficult to explain. He’d seen hints of this before, but always dismissed it as the effect of coincidence. Following JW Dunne, author of An Experiment With Time, he began to record every dream he could remember, documenting those that contained unusual imagery and plot lines. Of a total of 241 recorded dreams he reckons that one in four ‘came true’, usually within hours. More specifically, 39% came true within an hour, and six took just a few minutes. This, he argues, counts against the ‘law of large numbers’ theory – that dream matches are bound to occur by pure coincidence from time to time. Typically, the match is with something he sees in the media the following day (something Dunne also experienced, for instance a dream containing details described in next day’s newspaper headlines.) In one example, he’s watching a TV news item that documents an unusual approach to the maintenance of high-voltage power lines, the engineer being lifted up to them sitting on the skids of a helicopter. This instantly made him think of a dream he’d documented earlier in the day:

It’s 7:10 AM. I just woke up from a dream with an unusual image in it. It’s this small flying machine that consists of kind of like helicopter-type blades… There’s not really much to this contraption – the blades spinning overhead and you sitting below them.. I was amazed at how close the blades were coming to like telephone poles on the side[s]… I was thinking how can he maneuver this down the center of the street without touching occasionally?’

The space constraints caused by the power lines on either side of the helicopter are represented in the dream by telegraph poles in a street. This match seems pretty convincing to him, and to me too. But he dwells heavily on the reasons we might reject such things as coincidence. By way of a ‘control’ experiment, each morning for a week he reviewed seven dreams that all came true between one and three weeks earlier, and looked out for potentially matching events. Of 49 opportunities for dreams to come true (7 dreams multiplied by 7 days) only one produced a match. For him, the phenomenon hides in plain sight. If we dream of the future night after night, why are most of us unaware of it? Obviously, we forget nearly all our dreams instantly. Bruce says that when he’s recording his dreams regularly, he may average a psychic dream per day, but when he’s not, he can go months without noticing a single one. He also points out that psychic dreams feels pretty much the same as ordinary ones. In his skeptic days, he’d assumed that psychic experiences, if real, would have a certain ‘aura’, something that made them unusually vivid and stand-out. Not all the matches are that obvious, and in some of his ‘garden-variety’ examples finding them involves effort and discussion – potentially slippery ground. If you have to go looking for them, the skeptic in all of us asks, aren’t we trying to give artificial substance to something we believe to be true – an active form of confirmation bias? On the other hand, unless we apply that sort of focused examination, it’s something we may never notice. And none of this will sway someone for whom it’s vitally important that it isn’t true. A book like this is for people who are interested and curious, and prepared to experiment, for whom its insights provide essential information. I particularly liked the chapter on what Bruce calls ‘lead-up’ dreams, a phenomenon that I’m vaguely aware of, in fact may even have experienced myself, but haven’t seen discussed head on. A famous example was described by Louis Ferdinand Alfred Maury, a nineteenth century French scholar, who dreamed a series of events set in the French revolution: he’s arrested and tried by Robespierre and other villainous prosecutors, argues with them in vain, is condemned to death, led to the scaffold in front of a huge crowd, bound to the guillotine by the executioner, then the knife falls. He wakes to find that a rod from the canopy of his bed (an old-fashioned type, obviously) has come loose and fallen onto his throat. So the physical sensation matched the dream image of being guillotined. But according to his mother, who happened to be in the room at the time, this accidental occurrence is what woke him. In that case, how could all the earlier imagery, an absolutely coherent introduction to the event, be explained? Either it was dreamed in an instant – and the events only appeared to him to be extended over time – or the dream precognised an event that was about to occur. I grew up believing – I suppose having heard expert opinion somewhere – that dreams do actually happen in a flash, not in real time according to our perception of it. Later, I understood that this idea was a myth, and dreams do run in real time. I’m actually rather hazy about the current thinking on this. But as Bruce points out, it fits with our observation of people (and dogs, for that matter) who are obviously dreaming – it appears extended over a period of minutes. So this could be a rather intriguing class of precognitive dream – one in which the precognised event occurs immediately on awakening. In sum, a rather satisfying book, and well worth getting, for anyone who wants to know more about this strange phenomenon. There's also quite a bit about it in the Psi Encyclopedia, for instance this piece by David Saunders, which includes mention of the Maimonides research in the 1960s and 70s.