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Can Dreams Predict the Future?

by Jimmy Leonard | Updated 11 Nov 2023

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A cartoon of scientists in a lab predicting the future.
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Okay. Calm down. We’re getting metaphysical and I can literally feel your skepticism oozing across the interweb. So let’s start with what I’m not saying. Obviously, nobody can know the future with 100% certainty. If I could, I’d be a much richer man with far fewer regrets. (Or maybe I’d regret being so rich. See, look — nobody knows.)

But we’re talking about predictions here. We predict stuff all the time. It looks like it’s going to rain this evening. I think the home team’s going to win. I doubt my boss will give me a raise. These statements aren’t random. They’re based on a particular subset of observed experiences and accepted beliefs. In other words, our brains synthesize known information to foretell something new. So since that’s a brain activity and our brains are active during the dream state, isn’t it possible that dreams would likewise contain some predictive elements?

While we have to temper our expectations about dreaming the winning lottery numbers, there is compelling scientific evidence that precognitive dreams do happen, specifically in the sense of dreams anticipating future events through an emotional framework, regardless of whether or not that prediction has any realistic reflection of the waking world. In other words, you often dream about the future, and understanding those dreams can help you prepare for stressful upcoming events or conquer your fears. What you think is going to happen is actually more important than what actually happens. Ask any sports bettor, investor, or nervous guy who still hasn’t asked his crush out on a date. Good or bad, predictions have present-day consequences. 

When it comes to your dream view of the future, here’s what you need to know.

How Dreams Predict the Future

Premonition vs. Prediction

The first is a horrible Sandra Bullock movie from the 2000s, the second is how Warren Buffet got rich. Although neither is a certain roadmap of the future, a premonition is a gut feeling that something bad is about to happen, while a prediction is a logical forecast of future events. “Logical” doesn’t necessarily mean scientific or based on any verifiable data set, but it does follow some regular train of thought. If something is predictable, we do see a regular pattern that foretells what might happen next.

Why the distinction? Dreams about the future are often both premonition and prediction, and it’s vital to know the difference. Let’s say you have a dream about your teeth falling out right before a big presentation at work. There’s likely some stress or insecurity there giving a premonition that the speech will go poorly. But some details of the dream might be predictions, too. Maybe you see your boss or your coworkers in the dream, or maybe the dream takes place in the conference room at work. Are you telling the future to say you’ll see your boss at work on Monday? Technically, yes. That kind of soft prediction is based on the statistical probability of something happening, and it’s a reasonable guess that will likely come true.

While that example may seem boring, the brain’s ability to make these inferences is actually pretty amazing. But there’s a huge margin for error, and the science behind prediction tells us why.

What Science Says About Knowing the Future

Depressing thought for the day: The universe is just random particles crashing into each other with no sense or sentience. Everything is meaningless.

Right? But even if we, at some level, know that’s true, our brains crave patterns and purpose. The basis of religion, relationships, and arguably human consciousness is that life is not meaningless. This leads to a sort of cognitive dissonance. We overemphasize the significance of certain events and we improperly estimate random occurrences. To use a really simple example — rainy days. Unless you live in the desert, rain should never surprise you. It’s a normal weather pattern and an integral part of the water cycle. But we often have inordinate emotional reactions and feel like all of our plans are upended every time a storm rolls in. “Finally! We needed this rain!” or “What an ugly day! Our plans are ruined!” or “Wow! Can you believe how hard it’s raining? Come stare out the window with me!”

When it comes to dreams, our brains are once again trying to create order out of chaos. Recent experiences mix together with long-term memories and dream signs to make sense of the randomness of that day.

A study published by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine shows that dreams both reflect memories and anticipate future events. It’s that second part that’s newer to the idea of memory processing. We’ve long known that dreams serve some function in memory storage, but researchers found that study participants were more likely to dream up scenarios involving future events the closer they got to morning. We have multiple dreams each night, so it’s possible that early dreams are processing “what just happened” and later dreams are looking ahead to “what will happen next.”

This is different than déjà vu, which is considered a misfiring in the brain that gives you a false sense of recognition of your present circumstances. In a dream about the future, you have an actual familiarity with the people and events because the scene draws inferences from recent memories.

Why is this useful? Well, much like bringing an umbrella when it’s about to rain, having some cognitive preparation for the day ahead could help you be more productive and emotionally secure. The kicker is that our predictions are usually wrong.

Selective Recall Bias

I’m not a lottery player, but I’ve talked to many people who are. They all have stories about the time that they won something. Who knows how many hundreds or thousands of scratch-off tickets went straight into the garbage — they remember the time they won.

A psychology study through the University of Edinburgh examined selective recall as a psychological factor in precognitive dream experiences. As you may have guessed, study participants were more likely to remember dreams about the future when the details predicted were correct.

Interestingly, it’s not all or nothing. The memory bias is often a selective recall. We remember the parts that fit. Consider, a late stage of REM sleep might last 45 minutes to an hour, but how often do you remember an hour’s worth of detail from your dream?

Hypothetically, let’s say you had a dream that you were marooned on a desert island then found a treasure chest full of fireworks then rode one of the rockets to the moon where you found a 24-hour diner and your best friend had reserved you a table. Maybe in the morning, you mostly remember late-night breakfast with my friend on the moon, but then a week later your friend texts you and asks if you want to grab lunch. Now you think, “OMG, I dreamt this would happen!”

Well, sort of. You dreamt about a different meal, and it was on the moon, plus the whole desert island thing. None of that happened in real life, but you may have the sense that you just knew your friend was going to text you. From a probability standpoint, thinking “my friend might text me,” is a tame prediction, but we can get worked up into thinking it was some exceptional precognitive moment.

Personally, I’ll say this. I keep a pretty detailed dream journal. There have been many times that I was convinced a real-life event was something I dreamed of, but when I go back to recent journal entries, I can’t find the exact scene anywhere. Maybe a small detail is the same, but it’s always a big leap to say I correctly predicted the future.

Famous Examples of Predictive Dreams

Not that this stops the stories! Part of our fascination with dreams predicting the future is that there are so many anecdotes of it happening.

Renowned Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung famously wrote about a dream he had of a flood covering Europe and the water turning to blood — the year before World War I. Author Mark Twain claimed to have dreamt about his brother’s funeral hours before the brother died in an explosion on the steamboat Pennsylvania. According to sources, Abraham Lincoln dreamed of his own death days before that fateful evening inside Ford’s Theatre.

But let’s be skeptical for a moment. Europe was a mess in 1913, and the so-called Balkan powder keg was enough to make any worldly person anxious. It’s common to dream about death, whether a family member’s or your own, and most of the time nothing comes of it. In Lincoln’s case, he was President of the United States during the Civil War. My goodness, can you imagine how many times that guy probably had stress-induced “somebody died” dreams?

Although interesting to think about, these stories harm our conception of precognitive dreams. We think it’s something supernatural or a bad omen. Now people of faith will argue that revelations or inspiration can happen in dreams, which I’m not here to dispute, but that conversation distracts from the normal, memory-processing aspect of anticipatory dreams, and it’s in that ordinary experience that we can reap psychological benefits.

The Emotional Impact of Precognitive Dreams

Anticipatory anxiety is one of the most common types of stress. As humans, we are afraid of uncertainty, and so, by definition, we are afraid of the future. Even if you don’t feel it in your waking life, you may have some latent anxiety related to an upcoming life change, period of uncertainty, or societal moment of crisis.

For example, it’s well-documented that pregnant women have frequent nightmares. But this makes sense. Not only is pregnancy a time of hormonal upheaval, it’s also scary. I write this as a man but also a father — there’s a lot that can go wrong in pregnancy, and it’s totally understandable to have anxiety about it, especially if you’re the one who will be in labor.

So when you do have a dream about the future, instead of focusing on the specifics of what happened, consider how it made you feel. There, you’ll find better clues about what your mind is trying to tell you.

How To Interpret a Dream About the Future

About a month before my grandpa died, I had a dream that I was at his funeral. Did I foretell a tragedy? In waking life, we all knew that Grandpa wasn’t doing well and didn’t have much time left, so it wasn’t a stretch to think a funeral was in the near future. Interestingly, the details were about me. My suit was too big, I was supposed to make a speech but wasn’t prepared — things like that.

This was my brain saying, “Hey, I know this is coming. How am I going to cope?” What’s it going to be like? How am I going to handle it?  Grief starts with shock and denial, and so I was in that phase preemptively, thinking that scenario couldn’t be right. For me, a dream like this is a litmus test. It shows that I have some emotional processing to do, and it may benefit me to talk with someone in my waking life.

The next time you have a dream about the future, see if you can identify the emotions behind it. Likely, the dream content is less about the future and more about how you’re processing emotions right now.

It’s important to remember that while dreams can predict the future in a limited sense, this is not some kind of binding divination. My grandpa’s actual funeral was a beautiful service honoring his life, and my suit fit just fine.

Try It: Emotional Dream Intelligence

If you keep a dream journal, start making separate notes about what happened and how it made you feel. They aren’t always connected in obvious ways. For instance, you might have a dream about three-headed monsters but feel confident and victorious, as if you were a mighty hero protecting the realm. Or, you might have a simple dream about misplacing your car keys but feel distraught and angry, way out of proportion to how the scenario would affect you in your waking life.

This practice can shift how you understand your dreams. Instead of making noun statements, such as “I’ve been having lots of dreams about monsters” or verb statements such as “I had a dream about losing my keys,” you can make adjective statements. “I had multiple dreams this week about being angry.” By viewing it this way, you might discover threads between your dream events and waking life that you never realized before.

Jimmy Leonard

Jimmy Leonard

Jimmy is a marketing content strategist and copywriter who moonlights as the editor of Sueño Labs. He dreamt that someone would read this article, and now here you are. Spooky, isn't it?

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