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Richard Wiseman

Just been listening to Richard Wiseman on the Little Atoms podcast. His approach is close to what I have in mind for the Dunne project (though he is avowedly a skeptic where I have decided to take a neutral stance): whether paranormal phenomena are true or not, what’s most interesting about them is what they can tell us about ourselves – for instance how the brain works, beliefs and behaviour.

For the Dunne project it’s going to be less a psychological study into what the belief in precognition can tell us about ourselves, more a look at the functions of storytelling about precognition in our lives.


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Background research into Dunne’s family has thrown up the story of Looty, a pekingese dog presented to Queen Victoria by his father, with the message:

This little dog was found by me in the Palace of Yuan-Ming-Yuan near Pekin on 6 October 1860. It is supposed to have belonged to either the Empress or one of the ladies of the Imperial Family. It is a most affectionate and intelligent little creature – it has always been accustomed to be treated as a pet and it was with the hope that it might be looked upon as such by Her Majesty and the Royal Family that I have brought it from China.



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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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