Can dreams predict the future? (Guardian article)

Psychologist Richard Wiseman contends that the experience of glimpsing the future in our dreams is merely an illusion.

The Guardian, 22 Feb 2011.

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.

Wiseman discusses premonitions of the Aberfan mining disaster (1966), and gives a hypothetical account of dream content coinciding with subsequent waking events to argue that such experiences are not really glimpses of the future.

Provided that you are creative and want to believe […] the possibilities for matches are limited only by your imagination.

You have lots of dreams and encounter lots of events. Most of the time the dreams are unrelated to the events, and so you forget about them. However, once in a while one of the dreams will correspond to one of the events. Once this happens, it is suddenly easy to remember the dream and convince yourself that it has magically predicted the future. In reality, it is just the laws of probability at work.

Statistics are used to demonstrate that ‘acts of apparent prophecy are inevitable’: given the number of dreamers and number of nights they sleep, the chances of a coincidence between, say, a prominent disaster and some preceding dream content are high.

Wiseman goes on to argue that people with a tendency to paranormal experience are simply good at finding patterns in the world around them.

My take: what’s interesting here is the energy that Wiseman is prepared to expend in quashing what he (and many others) would class as pseudo-science. Comments on the story included a fair few precognitive dream testimonials (which may have annoyed or amused the author), along with some rather witty remarks. Among skeptics and believers alike, this is clearly a topic that inspires.

The article is only an extract from his book, which presumably presents more detailed arguments. But does the Law of Large Numbers work quite so well when applied to personal experience as opposed to precognition of disasters, I wonder? Either way, Wiseman has a big job pitting himself against the power of pattern spotting – against those who ‘are creative and want to believe’ – as some of the story comments demonstrate nicely.



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6 responses to “Can dreams predict the future? (Guardian article)

  1. katyprice

    This response from a parapsychologist (also in the Guardian) picks up on the Large Numbers argument being less effective for more personalised experience.

  2. Lawrence Brennan

    I know this is 2 years late (!) but having had a number of experiences of Precognitive dreams recently and then read Wiseman’s article this evening the desire to comment on it is thwarted by there being nowhere to do so.

    I see several fundamental flaws in his article. The first is the picture he paints that precognitive dreams = hollywood style premonitions of major disasters, and from this he concocts his once in a lifetime filled with thousands of dreams by each of millions of people calculation. The problem is that PDs are not generally anything of the kind. They are, in my experience, never warnings and are utterly trivial. My suspicion is that those which involve foreseeing major disasters inevitably occur for no other reason than that disasters occur and are reported…so people are as likely to dream of those before the event as anything else they happen to encounter or read about in the morning paper. But it is only such attention grabbers among the constant stream of PDs that are worth a headline. And, again in my experience, PDs are “constant”…make the effort of recording your dreams and you’ll find they can happen several times a week. So the law of large numbers really doesn’t bear much relation to experience.

    His second observation is that some people are more prone to spotting patterns and making connections. This is absolutely true and I recognise myself as one of them, and see it too in adding more levels of correlation than may be justified in comparing certain dreams to certain subsequent events. However it strikes me as an argument by innuendo…it suggests that a greater propensity for spotting connections means a greater propensity for seeing things which aren’t there. But that doesn’t directly follow at all. It makes as much – indeed more – sense to suggest a greater pattern spotting ability means you are more proficient at realising the connections which do in fact exist between your dream material and subsequent events.

    Thirdly and finally, in composing his hypothetical dream sequence he suggests there is something clearly ridiculous or desperately reaching in connecting it to the equally hypothetical real events he also composes because of the differences between the dream and the event. The Purple Frog element. This is a convincing sounding yet utterly irrational argument. Dreams by their nature are always nonsensical jumbles. PDs..mine at least…have no separate quality. It makes no more sense to expect them to be literal pre-plays of the next day’s real events than it does to expect a “normal” dream to be a literal REPLAY of the previous day’s. He is – in the proper sense of the phrase – begging the question. That is his conclusion – that perceiving the future is not possible – can only be reached by starting with the premise that seeing the future is not possible!

    How so?

    Well consider if you had a dream this evening in which Peter O’Toole turned up as your window cleaner. Afterwards you scratch your head as to why on earth Peter O’Toole of all people. Then you recall in the day preceding the dream you’d caught a glimpse of Lawrence of Arabia while flicking between channels. Following Wiseman’s logic if would be tenuous and irrational to associate this pre-dream encounter with his appearance in your dream because, after all, O’Toole did not play your window cleaner in Lawrence of Arabia! Such an argument would of course be considered idiotic. But if it is, it must also be idiotic and irrational to make such an argument that there is no connection if O’Toole was not seen before the dream, but the day AFTER being interviewed on a magazine programme, which also later featured an item on streak free window cleaning. You can only reasonably treat the logic of the no connection argument as rational if you START from the point of view that of course one cannot ever perceive the future!

    • katyprice

      Hello Lawrence,

      Thanks for your comments. It is a shame the comments on Wiseman’s article are closed. I like your reverse tactic with the purple frog / window cleaner. If we didn’t have a science of dreams about the past, they would seem magical. Yes, PDs are often about very ordinary events and this is a problem for conventional approaches to evidence which start by ruling out coincidence – PD slips through that net. On the other hand there are dreamers who associate a distinct ’emotional tone’ (J.B. Priestley’s term) with PDs, separating them out from ordinary dreams. I wonder if it makes more sense, then, to focus on different kinds of dreamer rather than different kinds of dream? Just a thought.

      • KayePrice are you the named researcher in this area? Help me out here. I dream the next day multiple times per week and I have actually learned certain tendencies regarding the timing and accuracy of dreams in relation to events. Message me.

    • My God, thankyou for articulating this. You are completely correct.

  3. Dunne would take the strongest issue with Wisemann. One cannot lightly dismiss a precognitive dream which has been recounted to a second party before the actual event took place. Dunne’s dream of the Flying Scotsman tragedy, recounted in An Experiment with Time, falls into this class. He had recounted it to his sister May before the derailment took place. Such examples cannot be explained away by sophistry, only by accusations of methodical fraud. But there has never been any serious suggestion of fraud in Dunne’s case.
    The difficulty Dunne faced was in knowing which dream events foresaw the future and which replayed the past, for in his theory everything gets jumbled up. Only after the event could one cry “Aha! I dreamed that!” Dunne’s notebooks in the Science Museum archive contain many a dream that yielded nothing of interest. This oft-forgotten difficulty has brought many a hopeful study to its knees. Wisemann sets up and knocks down a succession of straw arguments without ever getting to the facts of the matter.

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