The Science of Prophetic Dreams
Historic Accounts of Prophetic Dreams
A precognition is a vision that a person has about the future that can be conceived from visual or auditory hallucinations, a vague feeling that something is not quite right, or through a dream. The concept of being able to see the future has existed in the minds of mankind since the earliest of days. Dreams about future events, or prophetic dreams, are a phenomenon that still fascinate people around the world. Throughout history, people have tried to interpret dreams—many have claimed to have had a prophetic dream that came true.
During ancient times, prophetic dreams were thought to be a message from the gods or some supernatural force (Stein, 1996). One of the oldest known accounts of a prophetic dream can be found inscribed beneath the paw of the Sphinx in Egypt, which describes a dream, encountered by Pharaoh Thothmes IV (1425-1408 B.C.E.). In his dream, the sun god came to him and told him that he needed to protect the Sphinx from the impinging sand (Stein, 1996). This article will attempt to explain how most precognitions can be explained by chance happenings, hindsight biases, and self-fulfilling prophecies.
Similar accounts of dreams can be found in the Hebrew writings found within the Christian Bible. The very first book in the Bible shares the account of Jacob and his dream about a ladder which states, “Then he dreamed, and behold a ladder was set up on the earth, and its top reached to heaven; and there the angels of God were ascending and descending on it” (Genesis 28:12, The New King James Version). While the inscription of the Pharaoh’s account and the stories in the Bible do not provide evidence of a prophetic dream, it does provide a glimpse of how long mankind has been fascinated with trying to decipher dreams and their meanings.
In present-day society, precognitive dreams are thought to be a psychic ability. There are hundreds of websites that provide written accounts of people who claim to have had a prophetic dream that was followed by the actual dreamed event in real life. There are other websites that tell you how to determine if your dreams are some type of psychic premonition. Researchers have attempted to follow these accounts in hopes of making sense of them while searching for evidence to both support and oppose them. Psychical researcher, Charles Richet, believes that a premonition must have two fundamental conditions: “the fact announced must be absolutely independent of the person to whom the premonition has come” and “the announcement must be such that it cannot be ascribed to chance or sagacity” (Premonition. Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology). Evidence against precognitive dreams says that selective memory and coincidence are explanations for the phenomenon (Wu, 2011). Although there have been many research studies on this phenomenon, there is no real evidential support for precognitive dreams beyond chance encounters. However, the number of precognitive dreams that have been recorded throughout history may play a large part in why many people perceive such phenomenon as real. Unsurprisingly, these cases have likely encouraged the continued research to find the truth.
It seems that precognitive dreams could simply be explained by chance encounters. This means that the probability of an event happening as it occurred in someone’s dream is high. In an article in Sciences, Dominic Olivastro explains that the evidence for paranormal beliefs are merely statistical fallacies (1991). Fallacies are errors made by humans that can be considered misconceptions or, in this case, a mistaken belief. These fallacies are common in everyday life. For example, believing that you can write a paper in a couple of hours only to discover your time assessment was inaccurate when you have already left the writing of the paper to the last minute is a perfect example of what we call a "planning fallacy." Olivastro points out that by asking what are the chances, or odds of this happening to me, leads to a “probability illusion” that significantly increases the odds in opposition of a dream being precognitive and misrepresents the true probabilities (Olivastro, 1991).
Furthermore, Olivastro asks the question, “How often, then, can one expect precognitive dreams to occur” (Olivastro, 1991, p.54)? He then shows the probability from a one in a million chances in “…that even if each of the roughly 250 million Americans has a dream just once a night, there will be about 250 precognitive dreams a night and some 90,000 a year in the United Sates alone” (Olivastro, 1991, p. 54). That appears to be a very large number of precognitive dream probabilities, but the amount of sufficient evidence seems to be lacking. One could argue that there are plenty of opportunities to gather and provide significant evidence based on the probability of 90,000 precognitive dreams in a year and, yet, it remains a pseudoscience.
Christopher Robin Case Report
Although there is not a sufficient amount of evidence, there is one case report performed on a man known as the “dream detective,” Christopher Robinson. Mr. Robinson once worked as an undercover agent for Scotland Yard and British Intelligence. It has been reported that he was “…able to predict the occurrence of serious crimes, terrorist acts, and natural disasters through messages received while he slept” (Schwartz, 2011, p. 3). The first experimental study of his precognitive dreams was dismissed by a parapsychology journal. It was believed that the data was not completely accurate and that the results could be explained by selective attention or perceptual priming (Schwartz, 2011).
Mr. Robinson’s case caught the attention of Gary Schwartz, Ph.D., where a new experiment was conducted in the hopes of preventing any type error during the data collection. While Schwartz’s results show a large amount of evidence siding with Mr. Robinson, there were a couple points made that could have affected the outcome of this study. The study consisted of an experimenter visiting 10 different places, 10 days in a row, but would not know where he was going until the day of. Mr. Robinson kept a dream journal for 10 consecutive days. Each day, the experimenter would go to the room of Mr. Robinson where he would read, in front of a camera, what he wrote in his dream journal from the night before about the places Mr. Robinson would visit that day. The first problem is found when Mr. Robinson is the only one with the dream journal and had the opportunity to make any changes to his journal after he may have experienced perceptual priming within their conversations. The second problem arises when, the majority of Mr. Robinson’s dreams were symbols that he had to decipher, which he had learned to do after many years of experience. However, Mr. Robinson would state things like, “holes, lots of holes” or “basin empty of water” (Schwartz, 2011, p. 11). While this article attempts to make the claim for true empirical evidence, it seems to show some sort of confirmation bias where the experimenter knew what to look for through the fragmented phrases he was given about the place he would be visiting that day.
Another type of bias, that could explain why most people believe their dreams are precognitive, is hindsight bias. Hindsight bias is “…the tendency for the knowledge of an outcome to bias impressions of the inevitability or foreseeability of that outcome; in other instances, hindsight bias is defined as the tendency for outcome knowledge to bias memory for previous prediction outcomes” (Calvillo, 2013). When one dreams, it is often hard to remember everything in the dream, especially, after more than a few days. It is possible that, after some catastrophic or traumatic event occurs, one could try to recall a dream from their memory and claim that, in hindsight, they had a precognitive dream about the event. One study proposes “…that there are three separate components to hindsight bias: inevitability, foreseeability, and memory distortions” (Calvillo, 2013, p. 965). The inevitability would coincide with the probability of an event occurring after a precognitive dream of said event because it is more likely that the event would eventually happen by chance. According to Bender’s five criteria for investigative dreams, the foreseeability of an event occurring from a perceived precognitive dream would need to be told or recorded before fulfillment, include enough detail so that chance fulfillment is unlikely, exclusion from the possibility of interference from true knowledge, and the exclusion of self-fulfilling prophecies (Schwartz, 2011). With all the above things to consider, the chances of revealing significant evidence for precognitive dreams is very slim. In retrospect, anyone could claim that they knew something was going to happen.
The self-fulfilling prophecy is another concept that may help explain why some dreams may present themselves as being precognitive. A self-fulfilling prophecy is a belief that comes true, but because one directly or indirectly causes itself to become true. It has been found, through naturalistic experimental conditions, that the existence of self-fulfilling prophecies has been repeatedly supported (Madon, Jussim, & Eccles, 1997). Relating to precognitive dreams, one might dream of being a doctor as a child and then directly make that dream come true when they grow up. One may also have strong negative feelings about a certain individual, which may later lead to a dream that the individual was rude the next time they met. When the event occurred in real life, one would presume they knew it was going to happen. In addition, it could have been an indirect affect as to how, the one having the strong negative feelings, behaved when the event occurred because one’s expectation, of seeing a particular outcome, changes one’s behavior.
This article does not attempt to deny the existence of dream premonitions, but it does shed some light on why phenomenons like this are considered pseudoscience. While only a few concepts are demonstrated here, there are many others that can be considered. By using critical thinking, one can determine what other factors may be contributing to the belief in such phenomenon. In the words of Albert Einstein, “The important thing is not to stop questioning” (Schwartz, 2011, p. 3).
My Experience With Prophetic Dreams
I chose this topic for my psuedoscience class because I have had many of my own encounters with prophetic dreams. They started while I was a young child, but I did not know how to cope with my experiences because my church was teaching me that it was a sin and fell in the realms of psychics. As I grew older, I found that many of my family members had their own gifts. Eventually, I began telling people about my dreams if it involved them in any way. The dream would happen exactly the way I said it would within a week of me having my dream. I don't have them as often now, but I wanted to be able to think critically about my experiences by doing the research for this paper. I found that 95% of my dreams can be considered a true prophetic dream and I have witnesses that can confirm specific premonitions.
Calvillo, D. (2013). Rapid recollection of foresight judgments increase hindsight bias in memory design. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Learning Memory & Cognition, 39(3), 959-964. doi: 10.1037/a0028579
Madon, S., Jussim, L., & Eccles, J. (1977). In search of the powerful self-fulfilling prophecy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72(4), 791-809.Olivastro, D. (1991). Object lessons. Sciences, 31(2), 54-46.
"Premonition." Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. Retrieved September 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/premonition
Schwartz, G. (2011). Exploratory blinded field experiment evaluating purported precognitive dreams in a highly skilled subject: Possible spiritual mediation. The Journal of Spirituality and Paranormal Studies, 34(1), 3-20.
Stein, G. (1996). Prophetic Dreams. In The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal. (pp. 553-560). Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
Wu, W. (2011). Debunking PseudoSkeptical Arguments of Paranormal Debunkers. Retrieved from http://www.debunkingskeptics.com/Page22.htm
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