Why a Psychiatrist Collected Premonitions

[chimes ringing]

[ominous music]

If someone had, like, a very vivid dream

that something was gonna go terribly wrong,

a plane crash, an avalanche, a death,

how would you convey that information?

[muffled voices whispering]

I was reading these books of prophecies

and premonitions, these collections that tell you

kind of creepy stories of, you know,

a girl says I’m gonna die at four o’clock next Tuesday

and then sits in the chair

and dies at four o’clock next Tuesday.

And I kept coming across little mentions

of this thing called the British Premonitions Bureau,

an experiment in the 1960s to collect these dreams

and misgivings and forebodings

to predict and prevent disasters.

[ominous liquid music]

The story really begins in October 1966,

with a terrible disaster in a mining village

in South Wales called Aberfan.

[thunder crashes]

A huge heap of coal waste had been massed

on the hillside above the village,

and there had been weeks of heavy rain,

and it shifted, and it slid down the hillside

and crashed into this village,

including a junior school where 116 children were killed,

[siren blares]

and 18 houses in the village were destroyed.

[crowd shouting]

It was kind of this enormous natural disaster,

and among the people that came to the village

the following day was a psychiatrist called John Barker.

John Barker worked at a large mental hospital

and Barker’s this fascinating character.

On the one hand, he’s this classically trained doctor.

He’d been to Cambridge,

he’d been to St. George’s Medical School,

he’d published in The Lancet,

and alongside his psychiatric practice,

he also had this lifelong interest in the paranormal.

He came up with the idea of something called

pre-disaster syndrome, the feeling of suffocation,

feeling of kind of dread, or sort of borderline depression,

when something bad was about to happen.

[crowd shouting]

And in the sort of chaotic first reports

coming out of Aberfan, Barker started to hear

of these strange things, of people having portents,

or hunches, or bad feelings that this was gonna happen.

Some of these premonitions were really quite specific.

There was a story of a little girl,

who really didn’t want to go to school that morning

because she had a dream that her school

wasn’t there anymore, had been covered in black.

[soft music]

And her mother said, Oh, don’t be so silly, go to school.

And she died.

Barker was kind of stirred by this,

and he came up with the idea of,

what if I tried to collect all the premonitions

that there were of Aberfan across the country.

So he contacted the Evening Standard newspaper

in London, Peter Fairley.

And a week later, Fairley put this appeal in the newspaper.

[machinery clanking]

[coin clinking]

They got 76 replies over the next couple of weeks.

And on the strength of those Aberfan predictions,

Barker and Fairley together came up with this idea

of a Premonitions Bureau to collect

dreams and bad feelings from the British public

on any subject, and then to kind of test those hunches

against disasters that might happen over the following year.

What they tried to do that hadn’t been done before

was to collect premonitions before the event.

[telephone ringing]

The way it worked is you would call the Evening Standard,

you’d be put through to Fairley or to his assistant,

and they would log the premonition on a special form

that they designed.

And they had a date stamp.

[stamp thudding]

And they categorized the premonitions

into different categories like air disasters,

or the royal family, or space,

these things coming in and trying to match people’s dreams

against events that were happening around the world.

[quiet ominous music]

They started the experiment in January 1967,

they got 20 in the first 48 hours,

and most of the things that came in were a little vague,

but within a few months, it became clear

that there were some contributors

who had a pretty good hit rate.

There were two contributors,

a man called Alan Hencher, who was a switchboard operator

for the post office, and a woman called Kathleen Middleton,

who was a piano teacher in Henfield in north London.

They both had premonitions of the Aberfan disaster

which was how Barker became aware of them.

So both experienced physical symptoms

along with their premonitions.

Hencher complained of a dull headache

that would grow and grow and grow,

like a steel band across his head

that would only be relieved when the disaster happened.

Middleton seemed to have a variety of ways

that she experienced a premonition.

She had dreams, she had these choking sensations,

she would see a blaze of lights.

She also claimed to see numbers or letters

or names of places would also appear to her.

So, within a few months of the Bureau being set up,

things took a strange turn.

In April of that year, the Bureau had, if you like,

its first significant hit,

where Alan Hencher seemed to very accurately predict

a plane crash in the Mediterranean.

He predicted in March that an airliner would crash

with 123 or 124 people on board in the mountains

over the Mediterranean.

Exactly 30 days later, an airliner crashed in Cyprus.

[typewriter clicking]

[ominous music]

And the next day, Hencher called Barker

in the middle of the night and said,

I’ve been worried about you all day,

and Barker said Why?

And Hencher told him that his life was in danger,

and that he should watch out,

and Barker said, Do you think I might meet

with some kind of fatal accident?

And Hencher said, Yes.

He’d thought deeply about what happens when someone

gives you a troubling prophecy of your own future,

and suddenly, he’s presented with his own one.

By the summer, both Hencher and Middleton

were warning Barker that his life was in danger.

She wrote to the Premonitions Bureau saying,

I think this could signify a death,

I’ve been in a trance all day.

And then Barker had a stroke, had a brain hemorrhage

three weeks later.

The rational explanation for premonitions

is that they’re just coincidences.

There are things like the law of large numbers,

which is why someone wins the lottery every week.

It seems impossible, but someone does it every week,

and that’s ’cause we’ve a large enough population,

these chances are not so high.

It’s quite a frightening idea,

to live a life in which chance is so powerful.

It’s extremely human to make connections

between events that aren’t necessarily there,

or to find meaning where there isn’t any.

And it also helps us to make sense of our lives.

[newspaper rustling]

But the subject of premonitions,

it’s one of these things that nearly everyone

has experienced, or knows that they’ve experienced.

Well, I obviously got my hair cut for this video.

A guy called Antony cuts my hair,

and I was telling him this story,

and, straightaway, this unbelievable story of him

going to a medium and, when he went in,

the medium just started goin’ like this.

Just started tapping his jaw.

And later that day, Antony cracked that tooth.

And it just started [fingers snap]

firing around the barbershop,

everyone telling their stories of premonitions

and other kinds of paranormal incidents.

It’s on the edge of science, it’s on the edge of religion,

it’s on the edge of our understanding.

It’s dangerous for that reason.

It’s threatening for that reason.

And I think that Barker was desperately trying

to approach it as a medical problem,

even while at the same time, he could see

that it was more than that.

[pen scratching]

[ominous music]

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