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Aberfan is a small village in south Wales. In the 1960s, many of those living there worked at a nearby colliery that had been built to exploit the large amount of high-quality coal in the area. Although some of the waste from the mining operation had been stored underground, much of it had been piled on the steep hillsides surrounding the village. Throughout October 1966 heavy rain lashed down on the area and seeped into the porous sandstone of the hills. Unfortunately, no one realised that the water was then flowing into several hidden springs and slowly transforming the pit waste into soft slurry.
Just after nine o'clock on the morning of 21 October, the side of the hill subsided and half a million tonnes of debris started to move rapidly towards the village. Although some of the material came to a halt on the lower parts of the hill, much of it slid into Aberfan and smashed into the village school. A handful of children were pulled out alive during the first hour or so of the rescue effort, but no other survivors emerged. One hundred and thirty-nine schoolchildren and five teachers lost their lives in the tragedy.
Psychiatrist John Barker visited the village the day after the landslide. Barker had a longstanding interest in the paranormal and wondered whether the extreme nature of events in Aberfan might have caused large numbers of people to experience a premonition about the tragedy. To find out, Barker arranged for a newspaper to ask any readers who thought they had foreseen the Aberfan disaster to get in touch. He received 60 letters from across England and Wales, with over half of the respondents claiming that their apparent premonition had come to them during a dream.
One of the most striking experiences was submitted by the parents of a 10-year-old child who perished in the tragedy. The day before the landslide their daughter described dreaming about trying to go to school, but said that there was "no school there" because "something black had come down all over it". In another example, Mrs MH, a 54-year-old woman from Barnstaple, said that the night before the tragedy she had dreamed that a group of children were trapped in a rectangular room. In her dream, the end of the room was blocked by several wooden bars and the children were trying to climb over the bars. Another respondent, Mrs GE from Sidcup, said that a week before the landslide she had dreamed about a group of screaming children being covered by an avalanche of coal, and two months before the tragedy Mrs SB from London had dreamed about a school on a hillside, an avalanche and children losing their lives. And so the list went on.
Believing that you have seen the future in a dream is surprisingly common, with recent surveys suggesting that around a third of the population experience this phenomenon at some point in their lives. Abraham Lincoln reportedly dreamed about an assassination two weeks before being shot dead, Mark Twain described a dream in which he saw his brother's corpse lying in a coffin just a few weeks before he was killed in an explosion, and Charles Dickens dreamed of a woman dressed in red called Miss Napier shortly before being visited by a girl wearing a red shawl and introducing herself as Miss Napier.
What could explain these remarkable events? Are people really getting a glimpse of things to come? Is it possible to see tomorrow today? It is only in the past century or so that researchers have managed to solve the puzzle.
In the 1950s the pioneering US psychologist Eugene Aserinsky helped pave the way for a new science of dreaming. He showed that waking up a person after they have spent some time in the REM state is very likely to result in them reporting a dream. The decades of work that followed have yielded many important insights. Almost everyone dreams in colour. Although some dreams are bizarre, many involve everyday chores such as doing the washing-up, filling in tax forms, or vacuuming. If you creep up on someone who is dreaming and quietly play some music, shine a light on their face or spray them with water, they are very likely to incorporate the stimuli into their dreams. However, perhaps the most important revelation was that you have many more dreams than you might think.
Let’s take a closer look at the numbers associated with these seemingly supernatural experiences. First, let’s select a random person from Britain and call him Brian.
Next, let’s make a few assumptions about Brian. Let’s assume Brian dreams each night of his life from age 15 to 75. There are 365 days in each year, so those 60 years of dreaming will ensure Brian experiences 21,900 nights of dreams.
Let’s also assume an event like the Aberfan disaster will happen only once in each generation, and randomly assign it to any one day. Now, let’s assume Brian will remember dreaming about the type of terrible events associated with such a tragedy only once in his entire life.
The chances of Brian having his ‘disaster’ dream the night before the actual tragedy is about a massive 22,000 to one.
However, here comes the sneaky bit. In the Sixties, there were around 45 million people in Britain, and we would expect one person in every 22,000, or roughly 2,000 people, to have this amazing experience in each generation.
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