Dreams: Perplexing, powerful…precognitive?

26 Feb

To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil
Must give us pause…
(Sorry; on this blog, quoting Hamlet is required.)

Richard Wiseman has a new book coming out next month: Paranormality: Why we see what isn’t there, which – like all intriguing books from UK authors – has me in the “where to buy it?” quandary, due to a weird disparity in pricing where books on Amazon UK are often cheaper (even after accounting for currency exchange) than the same book on Amazon US (which will likely have Americanized spellings, boo! Yes, this is the sort of thing I think about and deem important. If the author is English, why change his spellings? And then there’s the issue of some Americanized books being censored…), but might take longer to get here. I could get around that via Kindle, if I could shop from the UK Kindle store. Actually, since I haven’t read his LAST book yet, I’m not sure why I care about the shipping time…!

When Wiseman’s last book came out, I was about to visit the UK, and the book wasn’t going to be out in the States until two months after my trip; so I asked Leda to pick me up a copy and she hand-delivered it to me. Take that, artificial international distribution walls! [insert your own side rant about DVD Regions here]

But I digress.

The Guardian recently ran a lengthy excerpt from Paranormality in which Wiseman debunks the idea of precognitive dreams. Now, I’ll put out the caveat that I’m a natural-born skeptic, someone who’s never really believed in things like precognition, before I say that everything he says makes sense: the Law of Large Numbers, the human penchant for seeing patterns where there aren’t necessarily any (especially when we’re looking for a pattern), etc. One thing he doesn’t directly mention (though he hints at it when discussing having three dreams and only remembering the one that seems to predict a later event) is our ability (tendency?) to ignore evidence that doesn’t fit our theory/expectations: confirmation bias.

Now, I’ve had a few remembered dreams that I’ve jokingly claimed predicted the future:

  • There was the night before a medals competition my high school Forensics (speech) Team attended, in which I was competing with a partner. It wasn’t a narrative dream, but rather a “vision” of two silver medals with a glowing backdrop. I excitedly told most of the bus about it on the way to the competition, including my coach and my partner. After getting “gold” scores on our first two rounds, we missed the cut-off by one point on the third round. The moment my partner and I saw this, we burst out laughing; by one point, we’d assured ourselves silver medals and my dream “came true”.

Even at the time, before I’d taken any psychology courses, I wondered if I jinxed us by telling everyone about the dream. Had my revelation of the dream caused my partner and/or I to do something subconsciously to ensure we lost that one vital point?

  • I “knew” my sister would have a boy before any scans were done to confirm the baby’s sex thanks to two dreams.

In the first dream, I (the younger of the two children in our family, both female) had just moved out and my parents were experiencing Empty Nest Syndrome, so decided to adopt three boys. Why three? Your guess is as good as mine.

In the second dream, I was literally a hero, saving several people (my sister and brother-in-law included) from a James Bond-style villain’s devious death trap. As I helped people out of the trap, out came Sister, several months further along in her pregnancy than she was in real life. I asked, “Are you okay? And how is he?”, the second question referring to her baby, to which Sister replied, “He‘s fine,” confirming my dream self’s pronoun usage.

I told the family about both of these dreams when they happened, and sure enough, Sister later had a scan confirming Nephew was a boy. So on the one hand, I wonder if there was something in her “energy” or chemical output (pheromones?), something I picked up on a level other than consciously. On the other hand, given confirmation bias, I wonder if I’d still remember the dreams 12 years later if they’d “predicted” a girl. For that matter, did I have any dreams about a niece that I forgot, only remembering the nephew dreams for some unknown reason? And heck, it’s probably confirmation bias to say that first dream had anything to do with Nephew, since I can’t now remember anything specifically about the dream that led me to believe that.

  • And then there was the dream where the boy I had a crush on was across the street and I was hiding behind cars, praying he wouldn’t see me, because I’d somehow forgotten to put on a stitch of clothing that day. …No, wait, that one never came true, thank goodness! Nor did several other completely bizarre dreams over the years, from Santa Claus being a serial killer to my parents (both pastors in real life) killing my friends and me in various inventive ways, trying to create vampires.

My favorite dreams are the ones where my rational mind breaks in and starts doing commentary. In the middle of some bizarre event, I’ll “hear” a voice from a part of my mind not involved in the dream saying something like, “Oh, come on! This is ridiculous! Can we wake up now? … How ’bout now?” There was one near-nightmare about having trouble getting to my Californian community college for the first day of the term (the trains were running late and I couldn’t figure out what train I needed, anyway) during which my rational mind piped up with “Um, HELLO?! There AREN’T any trains. We’ll be driving, remember? This is stupid.”

Oddly, although Wiseman says we’re much more likely to dream about (and thus “predict”) doom and gloom, my “predictions” were of good – or at least neutral – events. And though I remember a lot of weird dreams, I haven’t had many remembered nightmares or bad dreams over the years, or any recurring ones (though there are some I wish I could have again *winkwinknudgenudge*).

However, Wiseman’s statement makes perfect sense to me in light of Joe Griffin’s theory of dreaming; namely, that we use dreams to deal with unresolved emotions (anxieties, anticipation, anger, etc.) and wipe clean our emotional slate for the new day. If you’re anxious about a problem at work or with your marriage and your brain tries to “dream out” that anxiety, it makes sense the dream would not be fluffy kittens and unicorns (unless kittens and horned equines cause you anxiety).

A good overall point to remember is that we don’t remember the majority of the dreams we’ve had. The average person goes into the REM (or dreaming) state of sleep every 90 minutes to 2 hours every night (depressed people dream much more, leading them to feel wrung out and exhausted during the day, since they’re being robbed of the deep, restorative, slow-wave sleep between REM sessions). If you’re asleep for 8 hours, that’s four dreams a night. Which means that in my 32 years of life, I’ve had well over 46,000 dreams, but only remember a handful of them. And I’ve recalled fewer dreams since I started doing regular hypnosis, I assume because I’m sleeping better (more calmly and deeply) at night as a result. I tend to recall the dreams I have just before waking and/or ones that are particularly bizarre and/or emotional…and some that were just really, really good (like the one where a UK friend I hadn’t seen in some time, but would soon, came across a crowded room just to talk to me and say how good it was to see me; in the interests of full disclosure, I had a crush on that friend, so the dream was more meaningful to me than it sounds here) – probably because I continued to mull those good dreams over upon waking, enjoying and cementing the details in my memory. I don’t have numbers for this, but I imagine this is true for most people – it’s a fact of our biology and psychology that we remember highly emotional events better.

So for every dream I still recall, there are thousands of others that have long since passed out of my conscious memory. As Wiseman says, it’s statistically probable that over thousands of dreams, figuring in our brains’ love of patterns and confirmation bias, there’d be a few that seemed to “predict” something. And because they “came true”, they’re more unusual and thus more memorable.

Wiseman’s excerpt doesn’t go into why people want to believe they can predict the future through dreams, but I imagine it’s because of our need to believe we have some form of control over the insane and amazingly random thing we call Life. Likewise, as one of the comments on the Guardian piece points out, “Your article is explaining why I don’t have to believe in prescient dreams, not if they’re possible or not.” While I do believe there is a lot about the mind and human behavior we haven’t completely figured out yet, that and other users’ attitudes are very hostile towards the idea of science researching paranormal events, apparently because they’ve come up with evidence to debunk these things. What they don’t seem to understand is that if you want to prove an extraordinary claim, the burden of proof is in your hands, and it’s a fact that no scientifically convincing evidence has yet been produced to prove precognition, the existence of ghosts, or numerous other beliefs.

So pardon us for being skeptical. Contrary to popular opinion, scientists are some of the most open-minded people on the planet. When a scientist comes up with a hypothesis about why something is the way it is, that hypothesis has to be tested again and again; other scientists have to be able to replicate your findings, repeatedly. There’s a whole trial your hypothesis has to undergo before it’s upgraded to a theory. “Theory” has different meanings in the scientific and lay communities (note the difference in the 6th definition here), leading to lots of snide comments like “Well, evolution is only a theory” in Internet arguments. In science, a theory is not much more than a hypothesis that has yet to be disproven; but the door is open to others to try, and if someone else can – via experimentation and/or evidence that follows the rules of the scientific method – disprove it (again, repeatedly), then the scientists will (reluctantly, perhaps) change their minds. This is much more open-minded than those who cannot stomach the idea of their paranormal concepts being challenged and claim they failed the experimental evaluation because others in the room were skeptics or their planet was in the wrong house or the sun was in their eyes. As the saying goes, don’t be so open-minded your brain falls out – this has a funny way of making you closed-minded.

If you produce or find some genuinely convincing evidence that meets the requirements of the scientific method to disprove anything Wiseman says in Paranormality, I’m sure he’d love to hear it. Just don’t be surprised if he turns around and runs his own experiment. He wouldn’t be a good scientist if he didn’t.


2 Responses to “Dreams: Perplexing, powerful…precognitive?”


  1. “Paranormality” news « The Refuge from Reality - 28 February 2011

    […] on from my previous blog post spurred by Richard Wiseman’s upcoming latest book, thought I’d share the news I just […]

  2. When dreams and the waking world collide « The Refuge from Reality - 1 March 2011

    […] the one-track mind. Blame this one on Inception winning a few Oscars, including the well-deserved Visual Effects […]

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