My sleep patterns are generally pretty normal, but every so often I have a night when I absolutely can’t get to sleep. I lie awake ruminating over all manner of seemingly unconnected things, and if I do finally get to sleep, I have vivid, unsettling dreams. There is no obvious connection to a lunar cycle. An occasional sleepless night has never been enough of a problem for me to seek medical attention. Actually, these sleepless episodes are spurs to genuine creativity which counterbalances the physiological downside. Oddly enough, at these times coffee is helpful in calming down and getting to sleep, although usually it has the opposite and expected effect.
I normally get together with a group of recovering substance abusers at 7am, and there are other people in the group who have a similar pattern which seems to be synchronized – that is, if one of us mentions he or she couldn’t sleep a wink, several other people will report a similar experience. This is a group of people who generally avoid psychoactive drugs and use behavioral methods to deal with uncomfortable feelings, or have learned to live with them, as I have learned to live with lying awake at 2am obsessing over the War of 1812 and its possible relevance to the cryptogamic flora of the Galapagos Islands.
In May of 1980 I had a period of weeks of disturbed sleep and increasingly surrealistic thought processes which culminated in a total breakdown that coincided with the eruption of Mt. St. Helens. Since the surrealistic thought processes featured the correlation between catastrophic volcanic eruptions and religious prophecy, the two have remained indelibly correlated in my mind, so that when I am having an episode of sleeplessness and heightened creativity, I will say jokingly, “Mount St. Helens is about to erupt again,” or, since the Cascade volcanoes are quiet at the moment, “It must be the Cascadia subduction fault.”
Both volcanic eruptions and earthquakes give off sound waves, inaudible to the human ear but detectable to many animals somewhat in advance of the catastrophe. It’s one source of the changes in animal behavior that indigenous people in seismically active regions use as advance warning. Geologists using sensitive electronic equipment can pick up ultrasound signals that give enough advance warning of earthquakes to shut down electrical systems and get people into the safest part of buildings, and infrasound that gives hours or even days warning of an explosive volcanic eruption.
There is plenty of anecdotal and some better-documented information that people are also sensitive to sound waves generated by plate tectonic events, experiencing a feeling of restlessness or creepiness. Children are reputed to be more sensitive than adults. Some people seem to be innately more sensitive than others, and psychoactive drugs blunt the effect.
I live in a part of the world that is subject both to frequent low-level plate tectonic events and occasional catastrophic events. I seem to be able to hear earthquakes coming. Being near a volcano like South Sister, where the USGS is showing magma intrusion, gives me the creeps. When a sensitive friend can’t sleep, I suggest that Axial Seamount may be the cause. I think our disquiet is not insanity, but a detector we can’t block signaling an environmental hazard that is no longer the threat it once was.
Or is it? We are reasonably well prepared in the Pacific Northwest for magnitude 6 earthquakes and eruptions on the scale of Mt. St. Helens. The Tohoku earthquake in Japan showed how devastating a major subduction earthquake can be in the most seismically prepared industrialized nation on earth. The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 exposed vulnerabilities in technological early warning systems while revealing that a traditional culture in the Andaman Islands had some way of anticipating a grave peril which had not occurred for several generations and taking appropriate action.
There are at least two cataclysmic plate tectonic events threatening major population centers to which scientists assign a high probability in the next fifty years: failure of the Cascadia subduction fault along its entire length and a massive undersea eruption like Krakatoa only much larger on Ioto (Iwo Jima). It is doubtful whether Western Civilization presently has the memes and institutions in place to survive either.
What if a prophet is, in essence, a person who is able to hear and interpret the complex signals generated by massive geologic events years in advance of the actual event, and is seized with the overwhelming urge to warn people to take appropriate action – to stockpile food in advance of a volcanic winter or to move the infrastructure and key buildings of cities away from low lying coastal areas vulnerable to tsunamis, for example?
The adaptive advantage to having such a trait in a population subject to infrequent natural catastrophes is obvious. It is also evident that the message of the prophet is likely to suggest behavior contrary to what is working best in the immediate environment, particularly for the dominant social class, and that there will consequently be great resistance to change more or less proportional to wealth and social standing. This makes prophecy a dangerous occupation, maladaptive for individuals though necessary in the long run for the persistence of civilization.
The above analysis works whether one envisions the driving force as the laws of nature or some supernatural entity, but I fear, as a person who has seen purely scientific prophecy co-opted and bowdlerized beyond recognition, that belief in a God of some sort is necessary for the process to be effective in human cultural evolution, even in (or especially in) the perilous 21st century.