In reference to my post below . . .
In Chapter 7 of Richard Wiseman’s excellent book Paranormality: Why we see what isn’t there (2011), he discusses the how our minds work when it comes to interpreting our dreams and how we can fool ourselves into believing we actually saw the future. It’s called “association.”
A similar principle applies to your memory for dreams. In the same way that the associated words helped you remember words you couldn’t instantly recall from the original list, so an event that happens to you when you are awake can trigger the memory of a dream. To discover the relationship between this effect and the gift of prophesy, let’s imagine three nights of disturbed dreaming.
On day one you go to bed after a hard day at work. You shut your eyes and slowly lose consciousness. Throughout the night you drift through the various stages of sleep and experience several dreams. At ten past seven your brain once again bursts into action and presents you with another entirely fictitious episode. For the next 20 minutes you find yourself visiting an ice cream factory, falling into a huge vat of raspberry ripple, and attempting to eat your way out. Just when you can take no more, your alarm clock sounds and you wake up with fragments of the factory and raspberry ripple ice cream drifting through your mind.
On day two the same series of events unfold. You go to bed, drift to sleep and have several dreams. At two o’clock in the morning you are right in the middle of a rather sinister dream in which you are driving along a dark country lane. Eric Chuggers, your all-time favourite rock star is sitting in the passenger seat, and the two of you are chatting easily. Suddenly a giant purple frog jumps out in front of the car, you swerve to avoid the frog but go off the road and hit a tree. However, tonight your cat feels a tad peckish and decides to come and pester you for food. As she jumps onto the bed you wake up from the dream with a vague memory of Eric Chuggers, a giant purple frog, a tree and impending death.
On the third night you again fall asleep. At four o’clock in the morning you experience a rather traumatic dream. It is a surreal affair, with you being forced to audition for the part of an Oompa-Loompa in a new film version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Although successful, you subsequently discover that the orange makeup and green hair dye used in the audition is permanent. You suddenly wake up feeling very stressed, remember the audition and spend the next 20 minutes trying to figure out the symbolic meaning of the dream. You then go back to sleep for the rest of the night.
In the morning you wake up, turn on the radio and are shocked to discover that Eric Chuggers was killed in a car accident during the night.
According to the news report, Chuggers was driving through the city, swerved to avoid another car that had drifted onto the wrong side of the road, and collided with a lamppost. Bingo. In the same way that the words ‘time’ and ‘gallop’ helped you remember the words ‘clock’ and ‘horse’, so the news report acts as a trigger, and the dream about the car accident jumps into your mind. You forget about consuming copious amounts of raspberry ripple ice cream, and the stressful Oompa-Loompa audition. Instead, you remember the one dream that appears to match events in the real world and so become convinced that you may well possess the power of prophesy.
And it doesn’t stop there. Soon after convincing yourself that you had a glimpse of the future while fast asleep, a ‘let’s make this experience as spooky as possible’ part of your mind gets to work. Because dreams tend to be somewhat surreal they have the potential to be twisted to match the events that actually transpired. In reality, Eric Chuggers was not driving along a country lane, did not hit a tree and the accident didn’t involve a giant purple frog. However, a country lane is similar to a city road, and a lamppost looks a bit like a tree. And what about the giant purple frog? Well, maybe that symbolized something unexpected, such as the car that drifted onto the wrong side of the road. Or maybe it turns out that Chuggers was on hallucinogenic drugs and so might have thought that the oncoming car was indeed a giant purple frog. Or maybe you see a photograph from the scene of the accident and discover that Chuggers’ car had a purple mascot on the dashboard. Or maybe an advertising billboard close to the accident contains an image of a giant frog. Or maybe Chuggers’ next album was going to have a frog on the cover. Or maybe Chuggers was wearing a purple shirt at the time of the collision. You get the point. Provided that you are creative and want to believe that you have a psychic link with the recently deceased Mr Chuggers, the possibilities for matches are limited only by your imagination.
[ . . . ]
In short, 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.
This theory also helps explain a rather curious feature of precognitive dreaming. Most premonitions involve a great deal of doom and gloom, with people regularly foreseeing the assassination of world leaders, attending the funeral of close friends, seeing planes falling out of the sky, and watching as countries go to war. People rarely report getting a glimpse of the future and seeing someone deliriously happy on their wedding day or being given a promotion at work. Sleep scientists have discovered that around 80 per cent of dreams are far from sweet, and instead focus on negative events. Because of this, bad news is far more likely than good news to trigger the memory of a dream, explaining why so precognitive dreams involve foreseeing death and disaster.
[ . . . ]
Of course, those who believe in paranormal matters might argue that they are convinced by instances when people tell their friends and family about a dream, or describe it in a diary, and then discover that it matches future events. Do these instances constitute a miracle of the mind?
In a word, no. Dreams often reflect our anxieties, but even when we are not anxious, the odds for dreaming about a disaster are strikingly high. Wiseman continues:
Let’s take a closer look at the numbers associated with these seemingly supernatural experiences.
First, let’s select a random person from Britain and call him Brian. Next, let’s make a few assumptions about Brian. Let’s assume that Brian dreams each night of his life from age 15 to 75. There are 365 days in each year, so those 60 years of dreaming will ensure that Brian experiences 21,900 nights of dreams. Let’s also assume that an event like the Aberfan disaster will only happen once in each generation, and randomly assign it to any one day. Now, let’s assume that Brian will only remember dreaming about the type of terrible events associated with such tragedy once in his entire life. The chances of Brian having his ‘disaster’ dream the night before the actual tragedy is about a massive 22,000 to 1. Little wonder that Brian would be surprised if it happened to him.
However, here comes the sneaky bit. When Brian is thinking about the chances of the event happening to him he is being very self-centred. In the 1960s there were around 45 million people in Britain, and this same set of events could have happened to any of them. Given that we have already calculated that the chances of any one of them having the ‘disaster’ dream one night and the tragedy happening the following day is about 22,000 to 1, we would expect 1 person in every 22,000, or roughly 2,000 people, to have this amazing experience in each generation. To say that this group’s dreams are accurate is like shooting an arrow into a field, drawing a target around it after it has landed and saying, ‘wow, what are the chances of that!’
The principle is known as the ‘Law of Large Numbers’, and states that unusual events are likely to happen when there are lots of opportunities for that event. It is exactly the same with any national lottery. The chances of any one person hitting the jackpot is millions to one, but still it happens as regular as clockwork each week because such a large number of people buy tickets.
For genuine evidence of premonitions then, the situation is even worse than we have imagined. Our example only concerned people dreaming about the Aberfan tragedy. In reality, national and international bad fortune happens on an almost daily basis. Aeroplane crashes, tsunamis, assassinations, serial killers, earthquakes, kidnappings, acts of terrorism, and so on. Given that people dream about doom and gloom more often than not, the numbers quickly stack up and acts of apparent prophesy are inevitable.
I highly recommend Wiseman’s book (only available on Kindle in the U.S. – but you can download the Kindle app for your PC or iPhone for free).
Who is Richard Wiseman? Another one of those “science fundies.”
From his web site:
Psychologist and author Prof Richard Wiseman carries out research into luck, the science of self-help, perception, belief and deception. A passionate advocate for science, Richard’s best selling books have been translated into over 30 languages, and the Independent On Sunday recently named him as one of the top 100 people who make Britain a better place to live.
Explore the site to discover more about Richard’s work and visit his daily blog on quirky psychology.
Paranormality takes a skeptical look at the paranormal and examines how seemingly supernatural phenomena reveal a great deal about your brain, beliefs, and behaviour