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Precognitive Dreams

Precognitive dreams occur but what are we to make of them?

Here is a so-called precognitive dream reported in Van de Castle, R.L (1994); Our dreaming mind; Ballantine, New York; p 406-407.

"Walter Franklin Prince, a psychologist and Episcopal minister, ... dreamed that he had in his hand a small paper, with an order printed in red ink for the execution of the bearer, a slender woman with blond hair about thirty-five years old. The woman appeared to have brought the execution order to Dr. Prince voluntarily and indicated he willingness to die, if only he would hold her hand. After he examined the execution order, the lights went out and it was dark. Prince could not determine how the woman was put to death, but her soon felt her hand grip his and knew that the deed was being carried out. Then he felt one of his hands on the hair of her head, which was loose and severed from her body, and he felt the moisture of her blood. The fingers of his other hand were caught in the woman's mouth, which opened and shut several times. Prince was horrified at the thought of the severed but living head. Then the dream faded.

Two days alter, the local newspaper, The Evening Telegram, carried an article how a Mrs. Sara Hand, at approximately 11:15 on the night of November 28, had deliberately placed her head in front of the wheels of a train that had stopped in a Long Island Rail Road Station, so that the wheels would pass over her neck and decapitate her when it started. Near the body was a new butcher knife and cleaver, which Hand had apparently intended to use for her self-decreed "execution" before deciding to lay across the railroad tracks. In her handbag nearby, a letter was found with this message:

Please stop all trains immediately. My head is on the track and will be run over by those steam engines and will prevent me from providing my condition ... My head is alive and can see and talk, and I must get it to prove my case to the law. No one believed me when I said I would never die and when my head was chopped off I would still be alive. Everyone laughed and said I was crazy, so now I have proved this terrible life to all.

Please have all the trains stopped to save my head from being cut in fragments. I need it to talk to prove my condition and have the doctor arrested for this terrible life he put me in..."

What are we to make of such dreams?

Quantum effects in physics have been used by new agers and others to argue for all kinds of silly things concerning consciousness and human behavior, but it has to be said that at least these folks have tried to come to grips with philosophical issues of this science. Quantum information theory in particular, which sees the basic constituents of physical reality as bits of information, carries huge philosophical implications for psychology because the Mind is essentially an information processing system. Yet I can find no mainstream psychology reviews of quantum information theory at all. Even a cursory understanding of this new science suggests that the mind simply cannot be understood in terms of the old mechanical materialist dogmas that holds so many psychologists in thrall and unable to see facts that present themselves before their very eyes. We need to, as the philosopher Daniel Dennett (himself enthralled by mechanical materialism and speaking about religion rather than his favored ‘materialist' convictions) said in another context, ‘Break the Spell' of the materialist dogma. One of these dogmas is that the future cannot influence the present or past. But we have data to the contrary. While there have been dozens of conferences in physics on the nature of time and such mind-bending effects as retrocausality, psychology has completely missed the boat in this respect.

Two streams of research in psychology, however, have been conducting pilot studies into time anomalies. One concerns precognition in the lab and the other concerns precognition in dreams. Daryl Bem, perhaps the most creative of the scientists investigating precognition ran some classic affective priming paradigms but modified them slightly in order to examine a subject's responses to priming stimuli before the prime even occurs. In a standard priming set-up, affectively positive or negative words appear on a computer screen and then positive or negative pictures appear briefly and the subject has to hit a button as quickly as possible to indicate whether the picture is pleasant or unpleasant. Generally what happens is that if the positive picture comes after the positive word reaction times (RTs) are faster. RTs are also faster if a negative picture comes after a negative word and so forth. These are called congruent conditions. Bem modified this procedure by presenting the picture, then asked for responses from subjects as to whether the picture is pleasant or unpleasant and only then did he present the actual prime (negative or positive word). When the prime word was congruent with the original picture stimulus Bem still got priming effects! It should be noted that Bem presented nine carefully designed and controlled experiments to rule out potential confounding factors in these retroactive priming effects. Like any other biologic capacity, people are expected to vary in their ability to perform precognitive tasks and Bem found evidence of this in his studies. Participants who scored above the midpoint on a scale of stimulus seeking achieved a mean effect size of 0.43 on precog tasks. That effect size is not huge but it is respectable. I urge the reader to see Joachim Krueger's post on these experiments, as well.

Bem did not address the issue of precognitive effects associated with dreams but people interested in dreams have noted these effects for millennia. Surveys show that upwards 50% of the general population reports that they experienced at least one recent precognitive dream. A precognitive dream is defined as a dream that exhibits knowledge about the future that the dreamer could not have obtained via nay normal channels.

The most extensive studies on precognition in dreams were carried out by the research group at the Maimonides hospital in New York (Ullman, Krippner, & Vaughan, 1989). In these studies, a ‘sender' attempted to send images to a ‘receiver' who slept in another room and whose sleep was recorded with standard EEG leads. When the sleeper entered REM he was awakened and reported whatever he was dreaming. Independent judges blind to the purpose and procedures of the experiment then took the dreams and judged if they contained any of the images sent by the sender. The experiments were monitored by independent observers and professional magicians to make sure that there was no possible leakage occurring between the experimenters, the sender or receiver. Subsequent analyses of hit rates yielded highly significant results. Dream images very frequently contained images sent by the sender. Further studies in other labs involved the dreamer attempting to dream about a target that would be randomly selected once he awoke. Once again hit rates were far beyond chance levels. Despite these exciting results some labs have failed to replicate the highly significant hit rates while other Labs have replicated the basic findings. Differences in replication may be due to many factors. Psi may not exist at all. Or it may be that you are much more likely to get significant hit rates if you use participants with high Psi abilities like the high stimulus seekers in Bem's studies.


Bem, D. L. (2011). Feeling the future: Experimental evidence for anomalous retroactive influences on cognition and affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 407-425.

Ullman, M., Krippner, S., & Vaughan, A. (1989). Dream telepathy: Experiments in nocturnal ESP (2nd ed.). Jefferson, NC US: McFarland & Co.

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