We haven’t really nailed down what dreams are all about and there are still differing theories. In the explanation that Freud promoted, dreams are a way to see into our subconscious desires, thoughts and motivations. This is where we get the idea that the things in dreams (manifest content) are really symbols for the latent, or hidden, content.
Other theories view dreaming as a way the brain generates new ideas and creativity. This explains how people wake up with a poem or the solution to a complex problem.
A more everyday variation on this theory is another that posits that dreams are the way we process the day’s information. In sleep and dreaming, we categorize, prune away and store memories.
However, none of these explain the persistent idea that dreams, at least sometimes, seem to predict or foreshadow future events. The three theories first mentioned all deal with the past, whether it be the past 48 hours, or our childhood years ago.
If you have ever had a dream that later turned out to be “true” or prophetic, you probably have some belief in precognitive dreams.
J. W. Dunne, a British engineer and amateur philosopher, proposed that the way we believe we experience time as linear was an illusion. Human consciousness fools us into believing that, when in fact past, present and future were continuous in a higher-dimensional reality. We have imposed this sequential time mental perception of time as a way to understand it.
He wrote about what he called “serial time” is a series of books beginning with An Experiment with Time (1928) , The Serial Universe (1934), The New Immortality (1938), Nothing Dies (1940) and Intrusions? (1955).
As the years passed, he connected “serialism” to psychology, parapsychology, theology, relativity and quantum mechanics. Several famous novelists were fans of his theories, including James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and Aldous Huxley.
Vladimir Nabokov was another novelist who was taken with the Dunne’s idea that serial time allowed for dreams to “predict” a future we had already experienced. It also explained the déjà vu phenomenon.
In a recently published collection titled Insomniac Dreams,, we can see an experiment in time that Nabokov conducted himself.
Every morning for about three months, he would write down immediately upon awakening what he could recall of his dreams. Then the following days, he paid careful attention to anything that seemed to do with the recorded dream. This dream journal was recorded on index cards, which has also been his compositional method when he wrote Lolita.
He is surely not the only dream journaler who has believed that dreams are not just fragments of past impressions, but are both past and future events. Dunne said this was possible in his serial view of time because time then is not unidirectional but recursive.
Dunne would also say that the only way to observe the predictive nature o dreams is to pay careful attention to the content of dreams, as Nabokov and journaling do, and the events that follow in waking life.
Nabokov finds some instances of prophecy in his recorded dreams, but nothing I would consider extraordinary despite his idea that when you are confronted with predicted outcomes that might be explained as coincidences multiple times, you cease to believe they are coincidences and believe they “form the living organism of a new truth.”
I am more in the coincidence school of belief about the predictive aspects of dreams, and that they are given more weight when we pay closer attention, as Nabokov did.
Perhaps, I should do my own experiment paying closer attention to the followup days and dream self-reflection. Though lately, I have not had any dreams to record as they seem to disappear before I even wake up with my dream journal beside me. What’s that all about?