The Science of Premonitions

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

Posted in , Jul 29, 2014

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.

More recently, Dr. Daryl Bem’s experiments at Cornell University showed that when students were asked to guess which of two places an object would appear, they chose correctly more than half the time, which defies probability. He concluded that on some level, the students could sense the future.

His findings are controversial, but consistent with Radin’s. Some people will not allow that these things exist no matter what. I would say if you don’t want to believe in premonitions, make sure you don’t have one.

Do premonitions mean our future is set? What about free will?
Scientific evidence suggests that we face a probabilistic universe, one that is not fixed. The arguments about free will don’t pose any problems to people who experience premonitions.

If you were to ask that mother who foresaw the falling chandelier whether or not she had any choice, she would look at you like you were nuts. Of course she had a choice. Her husband tried to persuade her it was only a dream, but she chose to take her child out of harm’s way.

Your latest book, One Mind, argues that we are all connected by a single consciousness.
The implications of parapsychological research are that there are no boundaries between minds. Even between species. You may have heard of this, an elephant-rescue worker in Africa devoted his life to saving elephants, and he died.

Several days later, this herd of elephants, from miles and miles away, arrived at his house, where the funeral was being held, at the precise hour it began. Something is going on.

The Nobel-winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger said that the “multiplicity of minds is only apparent, in truth there is only one mind.” That’s hardly a mystic talking, it’s one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century.

If you could predict the future in every detail, would you want to?
No, no! I would select a few things, of course–which way the stock market was going to move. However, I think mystery adds to the zest of life. I think precognitions intrude into our awareness to help us stay alive, because so many have to do with im-pending danger.

I would love to stay open to those kinds of moments. But I still delight in the mystery.

How did you arrive at the "one consciousness" hypothesis that you present in One Mind?
The first nudge was back in my late teens, I stumbled on to a series of essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson was the first person I know who stood up strongly for the idea of a common unitary consciousness. And he did so without equivocation.

That just stunned me; I’ve never heard anyone talk like that. Parapsychological research has provided evidence for clairvoyance and telepathy and precognition.

And when you begin to think through the implications of that I think you build up a picture that our minds aren’t locked into the present, they aren’t locked into specific locations.

The great spiritual thinkers have described their most elevated moments as ones which they sense that they are one with everything that there is. This is the fundamental substrate of the spiritual experience, the sense of oneness and unity with everything; even the divine.

If we are all connected by one consciousness, what does that mean for humanity?
There is a spiritual payoff for humankind. Our future depends on the realization that we’re united and connected with all life and the planet itself, and that we’re willing to change our behavior in order to preserve it.

I think that the opposite of that is the individual-based epidemic of greed and selfishness that has threatened to destroy this world. I’m fond of the novelist Alice Walker’s comment that “anything we love can be saved.” We love the things we feel united and connected with, as a mother loves a child.

That’s how all of us need to relate to one another, and every living thing. There are examples of how shared consciousness leads to kindness and compassion, even among different species...

An example I love from your book is when these sperm whales got stranded on the beach…
That happened in March 2008. A mother and her calf stranded themselves in shallow waters off Mahia Beach in New Zealand. For an hour and a half, rescuers failed to return them to the water. The whales were disoriented and kept getting stuck on the sandbar.

Rescuers thought they would have to euthanize them to keep them from suffering a prolonged death. Then this bottlenose dolphin appeared out of nowhere, approached the whales, and led them along the beach to a channel that led out into the open sea, to safety.

The idea that we are all connected isn’t just a spiritual concept or a bunch of hippies talking.

Nobel physicist Erwin Schrodinger and physicist David Bohm also argued that there is only one mind. Schrodinger said, “Their multiplicity of minds is only apparent, in truth there is only one mind.”

Bohm essentially said the same thing, “Inseparable quantum interconnectedness of the whole universe is the fundamental reality, and that relatively independent behaving parts are merely particular and contingent forms within this whole.”

These two particular people come from the most precise science humans have ever devised, Quantum Physics. And wound up at the same place, in respect to the nature of human consciousness.

What can science do to help us understand more about these phenomena?
I would simply say to a skeptical scientist, one way to resolve the debate is simply to do good science. Don’t filter it, don’t obstruct it, be open to wherever it leads.

Max Planck, the Godfather of the Quantum Revolution said that science changes funeral by funeral. And by that he meant there will be people who never come around to the new views, it will take the next generation to move forward.

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