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As Tychy is presently rolling out a series on premonitory fiction, I feel obliged to let my eye wander over the article on premonitions which was posted on the Guardian website this morning. “Can Dreams Predict the Future?” is an extract from the psychologist Richard Wiseman’s forthcoming book Paranormality, which is published in March. It makes the entirely sound, if a little dispiriting, case that certain dreams are wrongly classified as premonitory due to a failure to ascertain the probability of coincidence. Wiseman argues that the average adult will experience “21,900 nights of dreams over sixty years” and that about eighty percent of these dreams will “focus on negative events,” which explains why the majority of reputed premonitory dreams anticipate disaster. Wiseman here reflects upon the average individual’s chances of receiving a premonition:

let’s assume that Brian will only remember dreaming about the type of terrible events associated with such a tragedy [as the Aberfan mining disaster] once in his entire life. The chances of Brian having his “disaster” dream the night before the actual tragedy is about a massive 22,000 to one. However, here comes the sneaky bit. In the 1960s there were around 45 million people in Britain, and we would expect one person in every 22,000, or roughly 2,000 people, to have this amazing experience in each generation.

Wiseman commences his article with a look at the psychiatrist Dr. John Barker’s project “Premonitions of the Aberfan Disaster” (1967), for which Barker had appealed to the public for any accounts of possible premonitions of the 1966 landslide which had killed 144 people in the Welsh village of Aberfan, most of them children whose school had stood directly in its path. Sixty people corresponded with Barker, and about half of their alleged premonitions were received through dreams. Wiseman is unimpressed with these prophesies because Barker was unable to prevent the dreamers from “inadvertently” twisting their dreams “to better fit the unfortunate events that transpired.” Moreover, Barker may have undertaken the most thorough scientific investigation into premonitory dreams, but as Wiseman observes, one did not need a premonition to see that depositing large amounts of mining debris on the hills above a village was massively conducive to disaster.

Wiseman mentions that “in the late 1960s researchers found that the content of our dreams is not only affected by events in our surroundings, but also often reflects whatever is worrying our minds,” and this hints, but does not adequate explore, that dreams are often intrinsically concerned with future difficulties and disasters. Foremost amongst the aforementioned researchers was Dr. Rosalind Cartwright, who attempted to redefine dreams as a sort of problem-solving mechanism. To apply her approach to Aberfan, the population may have registered a dark unease that death had reared himself a throne above their village, and whilst they slept their dreaming brains may have spun potential solutions and coping strategies to allay this disquiet. Yet this would only address mental hygiene, and after a feverish night’s work, the inhabitants of Aberfan would have awoken refreshed, their minds swept clean of anxiety about the looming disaster, and with any premonitory alarms happily forgotten.

Intruding into supernatural affairs, Wiseman’s scientific explanations seem as unwelcome as health-and-safety guidance at a circus. Wiseman’s article fortifies a rationalist congregation with the assurance that premonitions are mathematically explicable, but those on the ground or in the field could not be expected to compute the likelihood of their experiences. It was quite natural for people to pick out particularly lucid skeins of meaning from their impressions of the Aberfan disaster, because such things affirmed that a vaguely organised power was administering over questions of life and death, and that human suffering and failure were contained within a greater and more consequential narrative. Likewise in Wiseman’s theoretical example, it would be virtually inhuman for the distressed fan of Eric Chuggers to stoically dismiss his premonitory dream of the rock star’s demise, however statistically explicable, because this coincidence could not fail to strike him as enormously potent and uncanny.

Tychy has never experienced a premonitory dream, but then all of my dreams seem to involve me traipsing around Tesco. Any article on the Guardian website is only a preface to the comments section, where the fun really begins, but the comments related to Wiseman’s article provide only a modest banquet of inconsequential premonitory dreams. One man reports a premonition of a minor car accident; another describes a “heck of a coincidence” in which he dreamed that a cousin had been jailed on the same night that his sister spent a night in the cells; another relates that after experimenting with “hardcore” Buddhist meditation, “you got trailers on stimuli you were about to encounter”; whilst MRogers tells some fine tall tales: “My great aunt woke during the night and saw her dead sister by her bedside beckoning her. She got up and walked to the door and saw there was a fire in the sitting room.”

Wiseman’s superficially rationalist approach is unable to establish a complete or multidimensional understanding of premonitory dreams. For example, Wiseman merely defines premonitions as “glimpses of things to come,” but in our culture, the premonition often amounts to a lot more than this. It is not so much a warning, as a sort of joke, which taunts the visionary with their impotence to influence the events around them and the loneliness of their individual experience in the face of a public tragedy. Indeed, as I am sure the inhabitants of Aberfan could testify, most premonitions are revealed to be premonitions only after the forewarned event has taken place, rendering them, to all practical respects, completely useless.

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