“But I Survived”: Dream Premonitions And Survivor’s Guilt

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Eric Wargo1 
1Independent Researcher, Author 

Introduction: In most scientific as well as popular literature on ESP phenomena, Psi is reasonably presumed to serve an adaptive function for the individual (e.g., Carpenter, 2012). It is therefore most intuitive to think of premonitions (i.e., precognitive dreams and visions that seem to foreshadow a later death or disaster) as relating to some psychic radar ideally helping the individual avoid dangers or avert catastrophes imperiling others in their family or community.  

However, while accounts of threat-avoidance following on dream premonitions do exist (e.g., Dossey, 2009), seemingly far more prevalent in the literature (e.g., Krohn & Kripal, 2018) and in personal accounts collected by the author (Wargo, 2021) are premonitions that are not recognized as such until after disaster or tragedy strikes, as well as premonitions that are too imprecise or symbolic ever to be usable for threat avoidance. Indeed, the experience of guilt following a calamity that had seemingly been foreshadowed in a dream is such a common experience that it may even be the most important adverse mental-health consequence of precognition. 

Argument: I offer an alternative hypothesis about precognition in general and premonitions in particular—one that helps account for why, if precognition orients toward the individual’s survival, premonitory dreams so often focus on tragic outcomes that in reality cannot be avoided. Precognition does reflect an unconscious survival orientation, I argue, but its conscious manifestations, such as in dreams, are not radar-like warnings about future avoidable outcomes; they are instead conscious thoughts about the dreamer’s own survival, displaced backward in time from the aftermath of future traumatic brushes with death. Instead of psychic radar, premonitions may really be a preemptive part of a working-through process in processing future traumas.  

In one respect, this argument harkens back to the insights of Victorian psychical researcher Frederick W. H. Myers, who theorized that dream premonitions reflect occult interpersonal connection, the reception of a telepathic signal from another person in crisis (Kripal, 2010). I argue that the signal is indeed one of crisis, but that the connection is intrapersonal, coming from the individual’s own future—a “psychic” (but really probably quantum-neurobiological) connection to the future traumatized and perhaps guilt-wracked self. 

Rationale: That precognition may reflect the individual’s own temporally displaced thoughts and emotions derives support from the large body of research on presentiment in parapsychology (Mossbridge et al., 2012), and evidence from a range of emerging research areas also lend it credence. Those areas include quantum computing (Rubino et al., 2017), quantum biology (McFadden & Al-Khalili, 2014), and the neuroscience of dreaming and memory formation (Llewellyn, 2013). Additional indirect support for the hypothesis that dream premonitions are anticipatory of traumatic experiences and guilt comes from the psychoanalytic theory of trauma  (e.g. Freud, 1984a; Žižek, 1989), as well as from structural linguistics (Saussure, 1983), which insists upon the essentially contrastive nature of signification (cf. Freud, 1984b): The highly salient existential signal from one’s future surviving self, “I’m still alive,” can only be carried by information that somebody else, perhaps a loved one or friend or even an anonymous victim of a calamity in the news, was not so lucky. But such a signal comes at an emotional cost. 

Through close examination of premonitory dream accounts and the circumstances surrounding them, including Samuel Clemens’ famous dream of his brother Henry’s death (Twain, 2010) among others, I will show that survivor’s guilt is a common theme in premonitions and a likely key to understanding these baffling phenomena. 

Carpenter, James C. (2012). First Sight. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc. 

Dossey, Larry. (2009). The Power of Premonitions. New York: Dutton. 

Freud, Sigmund. (1984a). “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” In Strachey, J., ed., On Metapsychology. London: Penguin. 

Freud, Sigmund. (1984b). “Negation.” In Strachey, J., ed., On Metapsychology. London: Penguin. 

Kripal, Jeffrey J. (2010). Authors of the Impossible. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. 

Krohn, Elizabeth Greenfield; Kripal, Jeffrey J. (2018). Changed in a Flash. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Press. 

Llewellyn, Sue. (2013). “Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On? Elaborative Encoding, the Ancient Art of Memory, and the Hippocampus.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 36:589-607. 

McFadden, Johnjoe; Al-Khalili, Jim. (2014). Life on the Edge. New York: Crown Publishers. 

Mossbridge, Julia; Tressoldi, Patrizio; Utts, Jessica. (2012). “Predictive Physiological Anticipation Preceding Seemingly Unpredictable Stimuli: A Meta-Analysis.” Frontiers in Psychology 3(390):1-18. 

Rubino, Giulia; et al. (2017, March 24). “Experimental Verification of an Indefinite Causal Order.” Science Advances e1602589. 

Saussure, Ferdinand de (1983): Course in General Linguistics (trans. Roy Harris). London: Duckworth 

Twain, Mark. (2010). The Autobiography of Mark Twain Volume 1. Berkeley, CA: The University of California Press. 

Wargo, Eric (2021). Precognitive Dreamwork and the Long Self. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions. 

Žižek, Slavoj. (1989). The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso. 


Eric Wargo
Eric Wargo

Eric Wargo has a Ph.D. in anthropology from Emory University and works as a professional science writer and editor in Washington, D.C. He is the author of the books Time Loops (Anomalist Books, 2018) and Precognitive Dreamwork and the Long Self (2021, Inner Traditions). In his spare time, he writes about science fiction, consciousness, and parapsychology at his popular blog, The Nightshirt.

“But I Survived”: Dream Premonitions And Survivor’s Guilt


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