There is nothing supernatural or fanciful about this. Indeed, this ability to imagine and think about the future has given our species an enormous advantage through the course of evolutionary history. This is the best explanation for what people have traditionally called prophetic dreaming: the forward-thinking capacity of the human mind operates in both waking and dreaming.
The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung was an early advocate for this idea. He proposed a “prospective” function for dreams, in which various impressions from daily experience are brought together in the unconscious and used to envision possible aspects of the individual’s future (an idea which can be traced back to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle). In some cases, the dreaming anticipations are more prescient than what the waking mind can apprehend. Jung said that dreams provide:
An anticipation in the unconscious of future achievements, something like a preliminary exercise or sketch, or a plan roughed out in advance… The occurrence of prospective dreams cannot be denied. It would be wrong to call them prophetic, because at bottom they are no more prophetic than a medical diagnosis or a weather forecast. They are merely an anticipatory combination of probabilities which may coincide with the actual behavior of things but need not necessarily agree in every detail. Only in the latter case can we speak of ‘prophecy.’
That the prospective function of dreams is sometimes greatly superior to the combinations we can consciously foresee is not surprising, since a dream results from a fusion of subliminal elements and is thus a combination of all the perceptions, thoughts, and feelings which consciousness has not registered because of their feeble accentuation… With regard to prognosis, therefore, dreams are often in a much more favorable position than consciousness. (“General Aspects of Dream Psychology”)
Perhaps there is a transcendent capacity of the human mind at work in these dreams. Perhaps our souls are tuning into other metaphysical realities, or we are being visited by spiritual beings who share with us their knowledge of what is to come.
Whether or not these beliefs have ultimate merit, Jung’s point is valid in terms of current psychological knowledge of brain-mind functioning across the cycle of waking, sleeping, and dreaming. In dreams, we cast our imaginations toward the future and envision, as best we can, what the path ahead may bring.
Written by: Kelly Bulkeley, Ph.D Originally appeared on: Psychology Today Republished with permission