Many years ago I awoke in the dead of night in a cold sweat, with the certain knowledge that a close relative had suddenly died. […] In fact, the relative is alive and well […]. However, suppose the relative had in fact died that night. You would have had a difficult time convincing me that it was merely coincidence. But it is easy to calculate that if each American has such a premonitory experience a few times in his lifetime, the actuarial statistics alone will produce a few apparent precognitive events somewhere in America each year. We can calculate that this must occur fairly frequently, but to the rare person who dreams of disaster, followed rapidly by its realization, it is uncanny and awesome. Such a coincidence must happen to someone every few months, but those who experience a correct precognition understandably resist its explanation by coincidence.
After my experience I did not write a letter to an institute of parapsychology relating a compelling predictive dream which was not borne out by reality. That is not a memorable letter. But had the death I dreamt actually occurred, such a letter would have been marked down as evidence for precognition. The hits are recorded, the misses are not.
Thus Carl Sagan in his 1979 book Broca’s Brain.
On Sunday evening while puttering around the kitchen I experienced a strong urge to listen to Space Oddity, which I did. I had no idea that David Bowie was even ill, much less had just died. It was a profoundly weird feeling when I saw the headline the next morning.
I realized though two things. First, Carl Sagan’s words above came back to me. Thousands of people around the world must be listening to old David Bowie albums on any particular night; one of those nights is going to be the night he died. I should not resist the explanation of coincidence. Particularly when David Bowie was on my mind already, having seen ads the day before for his new album.
Second, I realized that my brain was already creating revisionist history. The actual sequence of events was that I had “Riders on the Storm” stuck in my head for no good reason. I was looking through my music collection to see if I had any old Doors albums, I did not, and I thought hey, what else have I got in my collection from the late 1960s or early 1970’s that I haven’t listened to in a while? Ah, how about Space Oddity?
All of which is to say first, RIP David Bowie. Second, for the late Carl Sagan I am hereby recording this as a miss. Third, brains are weird. And I think I’ll put on the Philip Glass version of Low. A good one to program by, that one.
I’ll save you some time. When you’re looking for a good Doors album, just stop. There are none. Pick out any Jimi Hendrix album instead. It will be quicker and more satisfying.
Great post and excellent Sagan quote. That one is actually new to me, and I really like it.
It’s astounding how many people in the same position would never stop to think of the countless times they have listened to a song by an artist who had not recently, unknowingly passed.
Shared experience here. Not two days before news of Bowie’s death, I had heard (for the first time) a version of Under Pressure that had the music removed, leaving only the a-capella vocals of Freddy Mercury and David Bowie.
Coincidence? Yes, that’s why we have that word in our language.
Any post relating Carl Sagan, David Bowie and programming goes straight on the awesome list. Fantastic stuff!
I spilled tooth paste on my Motörhead shirt (that I wear only in rare cases) the day Lemmy died.
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Yes I agree that there must be a certain number of coincidences every day distributed such that there are a few extreme coincidences; but when considering dreams there is another factor that must be considered which is memory modification (consistent with your third quote Brains are Weird) where you thought you dreamed something yesterday (eg a death or of listening to a Bowie album) and in fact you recall the dream vividly when the dream actually did not happen. This concept of course extends to memories of events while awake, eg court witnesses. Anyway it reminds me of the time I met Bowie and his body guards at a media event following a concert, Duran Duran was there too but was overshadowed by Bowie.
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Nietzsche recounts an interesting story in one of his books and ended up calling it “cause-creating consciousness”. Not exactly the same mechanism as you describe but related to a similar desire to invest random events with a causation. One morning he lay in bed and was woken by a dream in which he witnessed a battle where someone fired a cannon. The dream woke him and he found that a friend had thrown a stone against his window to wake him. Reflecting on it he realised that his brain/ego had post-facto constructed a scenario that explained the noise that it had heard. It almost instantaneously produced a story that explained the noise thus inverting the events, that is, the noise in the dream came at the end of scenario that could only have been suggested by the noise itself.
Nietzsche generalised from this that much of what we decide and experience is occurring unconsciously but it is good for us to have the illusion that we decided to do it. I see in this “cause-creating consciousness” a similar impulse as the desire to find uncanny coincidences – there must be a controlling force behind the randomness and I am somehow part of it.
I recall a similar anecdote from one of Feynman’s books. IIRC, he was in his dorm room when he heard the phone ring. Immediately he knew that it was news of his relative’s death. The call was for someone else.