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Photo: © Athi Mara Magadi
Larry Dossey, MD, is a former internist and chief of staff of Medical City Dallas Hospital and the former co-chair of the Panel on Mind/Body Interventions, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, National Institutes of Health. He is the executive editor of Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing and the author of nine other books on the role of consciousness and spirituality in healing, including the New York Times bestseller Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine. Dr. Dossey lives in Santa Fe with his wife, author Barbara Montgomery Dossey.
Q. Why did you write this book?
I actually tried not to write it. I largely ignored this stuff for years, but this didn’t work very well. My own experiences of premonitions grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.
During my first year in medical practice as an internist, I had a dream premonition that shook me up and made me realize the world worked differently than I had been taught.
Briefly, I dreamed about a detailed event in the life of the young son of one of my physician colleagues. It turned out to be so accurate it scared me. There was no way I could have known about the event ahead of time. Then patients of mine began telling me about their own premonitions. Even my physician colleagues would occasionally open up and share their premonitions with me. So I decided this was a well-kept secret in medicine that needed telling.
The time is right for this book because science has come onto the premonitions scene. There are now hundreds of experiments that confirm premonitions, which have been replicated by researchers all over the world.
So there’s a new story to tell. It’s no longer only about people’s experiences, but it’s also about science.
Many people still think this stuff is just mumbo-jumbo and that there’s no science to back it up. It’s the “everybody knows” argument—“everybody knows” you can’t see the future, so proof of premonitions cannot possibly exist. That’s wrong. We now know we can see the future, because that’s what careful scientific studies show.
Q. You talk about “evidence” for premonition. But isn’t the evidence just anecdotes and people’s stories?
This field used to be only about stories, but that’s changed. There’s now a science of premonitions. For the first time in history, we can now use “premonition” and “science” in the same sentence.
Take the “presentiment” experiments that have been pioneered by consciousness researcher Dean Radin. Briefly, a person sits in from of a computer, which will make a random selection from a large collection of images that are of two types — calming or violent. Calming images may be a lovely scene from nature; violent images deal with death, carnage, grisly autopsies, and so on. The subject has some physiological function being measured, such as the electrical conductivity of the skin or the diameter of the pupil. The bodily function begins to change several seconds before the image is randomly selected by the computer and shown on the screen. Here’s the shocker: the physiological change occurs to a greater degree if the image to be shown is violent in nature. How is this possible? How does the body know which image is going to be shown in the future?
Dozens of these studies have been done by various researchers. They show that we have a built-in, unconscious ability to know the future. Somehow the body knows before our awareness kicks in.
Another type of experiment is called “remote viewing,” in which people can consciously know highly detailed information up to a week before it happens. These studies were pioneered at Stanford Research Institute and have been replicated at Princeton University and elsewhere.
Q. Why are premonitions usually about unpleasant things? Why don’t we have premonitions about winning the lottery, the right stocks to pick, or when to bail out of the stock market?
Most researchers believe premonitions are trying to do us a favor. They are mainly about survival. If you know that something life-threatening is approaching, you have a chance to avoid it. This would increase your chance of staying alive and reproducing — our evolutionary imperative. That’s probably why premonitions are often about threats to our existence, why they have become built into our biology, and why probably everyone has a premonition sense to some degree.
Knowing the future can help you have a future. Premonitions are often about survival. They warn us of future dangers — health problems, impending accidents, disasters, and so on.
For example, research shows that people often avoid riding on trains the day they crash, compared to normal days. On days of the crash, the vacancy rate on the train is unusually high.
This type of premonition is usually unconscious. People don’t say, “The train is going to crash. I’m cancelling my reservation.” They usually report a vague sense that something is wrong or does not feel right, and they find some reason to change their plans.
The vacancy rate on the four planes that crashed on 9-11 was around 80 percent. This suggests that lots of people found some reason not to travel on those planes that day. (We don’t know for certain what this means, however, because the airlines won’t release vacancy rates for travel on the same flights for the preceding months, so there’s no way to know for sure how unusual these high vacancy rates actually were.)
But perhaps the main way premonitions affect our lives is by giving us a different way of thinking about our own consciousness, our own mind. In the book, I discuss experiments in which conscious can operate both into the future and into the past. This suggests that time does not limit what our consciousness can do.
This raises the possibility that our consciousness is timeless. This opens up the possibility of immortality and the survival of some aspect of our consciousness following death.
Q. If premonitions are largely unconscious, how can we make use of them?
Premonitions don’t have to be a detailed snapshot of the future, of which we’re fully aware, to be helpful. They can be just a hunch or a gut feeling that we act on without consciously knowing why.
Some researchers believe unconscious premonitions are the most valuable kind. If we unconsciously know something is going to happen, we can react without processing this information by thinking about it. Thinking takes time. In dangerous situations we need to act quickly, immediately, without wasting time through reason and intellectual analysis.
In the book, I discuss an event in which an entire group of church members were late for choir practice one weekday night at a little church in Beatrice, Nebraska. The church exploded, and would almost certainly have killed them had they been there. The odd thing is that none of them had any conscious premonition that the explosion would occur, but they stayed away nonetheless. Being late was an unconscious behavior, and it saved their life.
This sort of behavior is very common among mothers. They often have “just a feeling” their baby is headed for trouble, and they act on this impression without knowing why. The term “mother wit,” once very common, captured this idea.
Q. How can we know when to take a premonition seriously?
If the premonition is about your health or if it involves images of death, it’s wise to take it seriously. You might not get a second chance.
If the premonition is extremely vivid — if it seems “realer than real” — take it seriously.
A cardiologist I know had a vivid dream that a patient of his had a stroke while he was doing a cardiac catheterization, which was scheduled for the next day. He wondered whether he should cancel the study, but he told himself that dreams mean nothing and pressed ahead. The next day, while actually doing the catheterization, his patient had a stroke in precisely the same pattern he dreamed. It shook him up and completely shifted his attitude about premonitions. Now he takes them seriously.
People can become very skilled in knowing when to take a premonition to heart. They develop a refined sense over time. Practice makes perfect.
Q. Can we learn to have premonitions? Can we cultivate them?
Yes. The main thing is not to try too hard. Premonitions usually come unbidden. They largely “do” us; we don’t “do” them.
So the trick is to invite them, not compel them, into your life. First, simply realize that these experiences are extremely common, and that it’s likely that you will experience them.
Second, keep a dream journal, because premonitions occur most frequently during dreams. Record your dreams as soon as possible on waking. Most people find that premonitions become more frequent when they do this.
Third, learn to quiet your body and mind. Sit down, shut up, be quiet, and pay attention. Some people call this meditation; others simply call it “getting quiet.” Research shows that skilled meditators perform better on premonition experiments than just about anyone. Meditation opens a door to premonitions and helps us notice them when they occur.
Q. Do premonitions work in business settings?
Researchers have tested CEOs of successful corporations for their ability to see the future, such predicting a string of numbers they will be shown later. The CEOs who are good at this are usually those who are also highly successful in running their corporations. In other words, their precognitive ability correlates with their corporate success. CEOs who did not have this ability tend to have mediocre success rates in their corporations. So business success and premonition ability seem to go hand in hand.
In one study, experimenters were able to predict in advance the most successful corporate balance sheets by how well the CEOs did on tests that measured their ability to predict the future, such as a string of numbers they’d be shown later. This ability was not dependent on reason or logic or inference. You can’t “reason” and “analyze” what a randomly chosen string of numbers is going to be.
Interestingly, these CEOs were shy about owning their premonition sense. They didn’t call their abilities premonitions, but good “business sense.” The polite word for premonitions in business is “business intuition.” There’s a growth industry in teaching business intuition. Google “business intuition” and you’ll come up with nearly a half million hits.
Q. Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking argues that we can know something is going to happen and make accurate snap decisions without knowing why. What do you think of that?
I love the examples Gladwell uses. Many of them are what I’m calling premonitions— firemen who leave a room in a burning building before it collapses, without knowing why they are doing so; George Soros’s predicting world markets without rationally knowing why; Vic Braden, the famous tennis coach, who can predict double faults with extreme accuracy without a clue about how he does it.
Gladwell regards this kind of knowing as a big fat mystery. He says we should “accept the mysterious nature of our snap judgments….we’re better off that way”.
However, I don’t think we’re better off that way. The term “premonition” does not even appear in Gladwell’s book. There is a great deal of evidence —an entire chapter in my book—that can shed light on what Gladwell dismisses as a total mystery. Although I agree with Gladwell that there’s mystery in all this, it’s not as dense as he says. We know a lot about premonitions—their characteristics, what favors them, and what purposes they serve.
Some outstanding scientists are willing to consider premonitions as an explanation for the kind of knowing that Gladwell describes. Among them is Paul Drayson, Britain’s science minister. In discussing Gladwell’s book Blink, he says he has personally known in advance that something is going to happen. He says, “In my life there have been some things that I’ve known and I don’t know why…like a sixth sense.’” “Sixth sense” is a common term for premonitions.
Q. What’s the big lesson you hope readers will take away from The Power of Premonitions?
Premonitions are an incredible gift. Although they are an aid to our physical survival, their main contribution is in providing us with an expanded vision of who we are and what our destiny may be. They show that we’re more than a physical brain and body. Brains can’t operate outside the present or beyond the body. But our consciousness can, as premonitions show.
Premonitions reveal that we’re not slaves to the body or to the present. We can operate outside of time; something about us is timeless. The implications are quite wonderful, because they imply immortality.
Not a small contribution.
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