It appears possible that people can intentionally dream details about the personal problems of an unknown individual, simply by examining a picture of the target and then “incubating” or planning to dream about that individual’s problems.
Distinguished cognitive scientist Carlyle Smith, a very careful and rigorist experimentalist who is a Lifetime Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology at Trent University in Canada, presented the data in a recent paper (Smith, 2013; "Can healthy, young adults uncover personal details of unknown target individuals in their dreams?"1). Smith was and is a driving force in the revolutionary transformation in our understanding of how sleep can facilitate memory consolidation. The design of his experiments on dream “telepathy” were similarly well designed, and so need to be taken seriously.
Experiment 1 was a pilot study focused on the development of experimental materials, procedures and dream coding techniques. I will focus here on experiment 2, in which 66 students were asked to dream about the life problems of a target individual whom none knew. (Neither did Smith himself.) Participants simply viewed the photo and then attempted to dream about the problems of that individual. They were told that the person's problems could be health-related, emotional, financial, or any number of other concerns. (Another 56 students followed the same procedure, but the photo that they examined was of a fictitious face generated by a computer.)
Smith obtained the photo of the target individual from a friend who verified her actual problem before the experiment began. The individual was a middle-aged woman with multiple problems: She had multiple sclerosis, especially in her hands, requiring frequent medication to reduce the pain. She was also the primary caregiver for her mother, who was in the final stages of lung cancer. She had recently lost her husband to an industrial mishap—he was accidentally crushed by a front-end loader, and in the process, a limb was severed. The woman was also involved in a very serious car accident.
To discover whether his subjects could dream about any of this woman’s problems simply by examining a photo of her, Smith coded several types of elements in the dreams of participants both before they attempted to dream about the woman (pre-incubation), and after (post-incubation). The dream categories that were scored included:
The study found that the proportions of dream elements referring to all these categories combined was significantly larger for subjects post-incubation than at the baseline pre-incubation level. The most-mentioned categories in post-incubation dreams were limb problems, breathing problems, and car/driving problems.
Why Did It Work?
Were these striking results due to chance—a sort of indiscriminate elevation of all kinds of “problems” in the post-incubation dreams? Probably not. In the control group, there was no such elevation in post-incubation dreams. Nor did unrelated high-profile problems like cancer, heart disease, or mental illness appear in any substantial way in the subjects' dreams.
Here's one striking example of a post-incubation dream from a subject in the experimental group:
"[W]oman has crippled hands and can’t open the pill bottle. The right arm does not work and there is a lot of pain. Her hands are all crippled and rolled almost into fists.”
While these results are indeed striking and intriguing, the crucial comparison is between the frequency of “hits” in subjects' post-incubation dreams and the baseline frequency of the generic versions of these “hits" in dreams? In other words, how often do limbs, car crashes and breathing problems occur in dreams at all? Do these post-incubation “hits” rise above those baseline frequencies? Smith tracked baseline frequencies for these topics in his subject's pre-incubation dreams but still found a significant rise in the proportion of hits in post-incubation dreams.
It is reasonable to conclude that Smith has identified something more here than just a statistical artifact.
Lets say that some sort of dream telepathy is real—and that dreams are more sensitive signal detection devices than our daytime mental states. What could account for this sensitivity? Smith mentions a few possibilities: He notes that correlated brain signals between two isolated individuals has been documented using functional magnetic imaging. Striking instances of apparent dream telepathy and similar brain activity patterns has been noted between twins in particular.
Whatever the mechanism, tests of the reality of dream telepathy should continue apace. Use of huge dream communities, like those at dreamboard.com and dreamscloud.com, http://www.dreamscloud.com/] should be enlisted. If hits continue to rise to above chance levels, as in Smith’s studies, imagine if one had 200,000 dreamers attempting to dream the details of a pictured individual's problems? Thousands to millions of dreamers might be enlisted to dream about possible practical solutions to the target's problems.
Then we might then really begin to understand the power of dreams!
1 Explore 2013; 9:17-25