The Science of Premonitions

The Science of Premonitions

We talk to Dr. Larry Dossey. author, scientist and renowned expert on premonitions.

Dr. Larry Dossey gazes through a window at himself, seated in a cafe.

Amanda, a young mother in Washington State, stands with her husband in their child’s room, stunned by grief. A large chandelier above her baby’s crib has fallen, crushing the child to death. A storm rages outside, rattling the windows. The clock on the dresser reads 4:35 a.m. 

Amanda awakes. Just a dream. Outside the weather is calm. Still, she runs to the baby’s room and takes her sleeping child into her bed. Hours later, there’s a loud crash. She and her husband discover the fallen chandelier. A storm rages outside. The time on the clock–4:35 a.m. 

It’s a true story, and one Dr. Larry Dossey loves to tell. For the past 30 years, his work has explored subjects often deemed too out there by other researchers–precognitive function, shared consciousness, even ESP. But he’s no kook.

A decorated surgeon in the Vietnam War, one-time chief of staff for a Dallas hospital, an advisor to the National Institutes of Health, former executive editor of a leading peer-reviewed medical-research journal, and best-selling author of the book The Science of Premonitions , Dr. Dossey is a cutting-edge thinker on, well, mysterious ways. 

How did you become interested in these phenomena?
I was raised a Baptist, but when I went to college and fell in love with science, there was a real collision with my religious beliefs. I became an agnostic, and then a spiritual seeker. Then something happened that really shook me up.

In my first year of internal medicine practice, I had the most vivid dream. The four-year-old son of one of my medical colleagues was on a table in an exam room.

When a white-coated technician tried to give him an electroencephalography examination of his brain, the child went berserk, violently resisting any attempts to calm him. The next day, his parents told me that’s exactly how it played out.

Here’s the thing...I hadn’t even known that their child was there having a procedure! I began to pay serious attention whenever my patients reported precognitive dreams about their own illnesses. 

Can you share one of these? 
One patient in Dallas came to my office without an appointment, very upset. She said, “I need your help. I know I have ovarian cancer.” The night before, she’d had a vivid dream. She saw three little white spots on her left ovary. She just knew it was cancer.

This was a respected attorney, not in the least bit flighty, not a hypochondriac. So I did a pelvic exam, which came out normal, but to satisfy her I sent her for a sonogram. Sure enough, she had three little white spots on her left ovary.

Fortunately, they were benign cysts. Nevertheless, she knew about something in great detail that she had no business knowing. 

How do you differentiate a premonition from anxiety?
There is no way to know for certain, aside from just waiting and seeing. But five criteria can point us in the right direction. Vividness is a universal characteristic that people describe–a camera-like quality.

Another is recurrence–if these things happen over and over, hammering away at your consciousness to be recognized. Another is if the dream is associated with physical symptoms.

Fourth is that important premonitions often deal with death. If you dream about death, take it seriously, because you might not get a second chance. Finally, the fifth important indicator is having a shared dream with someone close to you. 

The New York Times reported a case where a World Trade Center fire-safety director, Lawrence Boisseau, had a dream that the towers were falling. His wife told him her dream, which was identical. They were rational people, and just said, “Isn’t this a weird coincidence.” So they ignored it.

He lost his life rescuing children from the child-care center on 9/11. 

If we identify a premonition, what should we do next?
Follow the example of a woman who lived in Minneapolis. She took the same route every day to and from work. One day, in August 2007, she had this overpowering sense that something wrong was going to happen.

This kind of feeling was new to her, but so overpowering, she took another route home. Had she not done so, she would have been in the area when the Interstate 35 bridge collapsed over the Mississippi River.

Sometimes action needs to be quick if we are to avoid danger. Simply going right instead of left could be a way to respond. 

Can anybody have a premonition? Or are some people just gifted?
Most people who do precognition research suggest that it is an inherent trait that serves a survival function. It is part of our genetic machinery that helps us stay alive. Clearly there are prodigies, people who are truly gifted in this. Back in biblical days they were called prophets.

On the other hand, there are unbalanced and dishonest people who claim all sorts of stuff. Every person with an 800 number who claims to know your future can’t be correct or trusted. 

Can we better tune ourselves to receive these messages?
A time-honored technique is to keep a diary of your dreams. Dictate into a recorder or write it down the moment you wake up. What happens is, we send a message: “Here I am, speak to me.”

Another thing is, if you look at the experiments that have been done, people who are really good at responding to events that have yet to happen almost always have some sort of meditation practice.

Meditation is terrific in helping open up the unconscious so that things that are normally kept under wraps are allowed to float into our awareness.

Critics say the study of premonitions is largely anecdotal and we only hear when they come true...
I’m in agreement that confirmation bias exists. But just because many premonitions don’t pan out, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist. The pioneer for precognitive research in the U.S., Dean Radin, confirmed the validity of these experiences about 20 years ago.

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