Daytime TV: States of mind

Can dreams predict the future - or even influence it? Gary Day watches a personal investigation

October 28, 2010

Credit: Miles Cole

Amy Hardie dreamed that she would die when she was 48 (True Stories: Dangerous Dreams, More 4, Tuesday 19 October, 10pm). To the viewer it looked as if she had already gone to heaven. She lived in a rambling house set in 5,000 acres of countryside with her three children and a husband, Pete, whom she "couldn't wait to be alone with". In the foreground were fields, in the distance forests. A dog called Dylan, a horse called George and a cat who preferred to remain anonymous rounded off this idyllic existence.

And then film-maker Amy had her first dream. George, appearing through what looked like the kind of interference you used to get on a badly tuned television, asked if Amy was filming. When isn't she? "I am going to fall to the left," he said. Amy woke, hands shaking. She rushed outside to the paddock where George lay, dead. He had fallen on his right side, which just goes to show that dreams differ from life only in the detail.

Who wouldn't be shocked to find their dream had come true? As a maker of science films, Amy was initially sceptical of her experience of extrasensory perception. "I like to go under the surface," she said, "to find out how things really work." But Amy's next dream seemed to defy all rational explanation. It featured Arthur, her first husband, who had died of cancer some years back. He spoke to her in Spanish. "You are not going to like what I have to say," he said, "but you are going to die when you are 48. I thought you'd like to know." He vanished before she had time to thank him.

Amy, whose 48th year was just beginning, asked Pete for an explanation. As a psychotherapist, he would know what was happening. He didn't. Amy wandered into a field with her camera. Humans "are good at leaping to conclusions on the basis of insufficient evidence", she said. "That's how we've survived as a species. We guess the tiger behind the waving grass." Amy's talents as a film-maker were displayed here by a shot of the anonymous cat leaping on an anonymous bird.

Did Pete have any more thoughts on the matter? No. Amy pressed him. He stared blankly. "Oh my God!" he said suddenly. "Oh my God! What if a boulder dropped on you?" "A boulder?" snorted Amy. "All right then, a meteorite," said Pete. Let's hope that ploy, trying to make Amy's fears seem so absurd that she would laugh at them, is more successful with his patients than it was with his wife.

Amy turned to Irving Weissman from Stanford University for enlightenment. This was his opportunity to tell a story that he had been wanting to tell for ages. The gist of it was that he had learned a dance in his sleep that he couldn't do when he was awake. It was all to impress a girl whom he never saw again. Maybe he had the wrong dream. The only thing that Amy carried away from this encounter was that, during sleep, the brain is flooded with acetylcholine, a chemical that promotes learning. So if students nod off in my lectures in future, I shan't bother waking them.

"What happens when we die?" Amy asked one of her daughters, who was savagely combing the hair of one of her dolls. "I'm not really that dead," she said, "so I'm not really sure." "The children aren't used to death," said Amy, although their mother's constant mention of the subject was making it more familiar by the day. Amy recalled her own mother dying. "I ran across the room and opened a window."

In the third dream, Amy died. She fell off a horse. The screen went blank. I spent 20 minutes on the phone to Virgin Media before realising that this was meant to convey death. Amy started coughing. Hospital tests showed her lungs silting up. Could dreams really have this kind of predictive power? Pete said it was too "scary" to think about. A sheet drying on the line flapped in the wind.

Neuroscientist Mark Solms explained that the same electronic connections are made in the brain whether we imagine something or actually do it, a notion that would have come as a great relief to Hamlet. Mark's words gave Amy the inspiration to visit a shaman who helped her revisit her second dream and change its outcome. Her conclusion was that she would "always be here".

One Under (More 4, Wednesday 20 October, 8.30pm), a documentary about suicides on the railway, showed the opposite. When we are gone, we are gone. If we are lucky, we have videos of the departed. Debbie, whose husband threw himself in front of a train, wished she had more films of this "lovely man". They won't have that problem in Amy's house.

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