I’m preparing to attempt to replicate J. W. Dunne’s Experiment with Time (as described by Bruce Charlton here and here), but before I do so, I want to try to set some kind of standard for what dreams can reasonably be considered precognitive. For example, here’s a dream which I had recently. Should it be considered prophetic?
I raise mealworms at home and feed them, among other things, stale bread which I keep in a plastic bag in the freezer. I dreamed that I took the bread out of the freezer to feed them and found that it was crawling with worms which had somehow survived in the freezer — not mealworms, which are rather handsome and clean-looking as larvae go, but short black maggoty things which really looked horrible. Most of them were quite small, but there was one larger one, striped with blurred bands of black, maroon, and deep blue, which was slithering through the bread with a motion similar to that of an aquatic snake. This big worm also looked like it had a strange texture, like marzipan or Play-Doh; its appearance and movements made me think of claymation.
I was disgusted by the wormy bread and just set the whole thing, bag and all, down in the wide shallow dish where I keep my mealworms. “There are worms in the bread,” I told my wife.
“You mean mealworms?”
“No, little black worms, and one big worm that looks like a snake but isn’t a snake.” The big worm, very big indeed now, was out of the bag and slithering very quickly, astonishingly quickly, around the house, head and neck raised off the ground cobra-like.
My wife said, “Actually, I think it is a snake.”
“No, it looks like a snake, but it isn’t.” As we spoke, though, it was starting to look more and more snakelike.
“I think it’s an O.A.M.,” she said.
I understood to be an abbreviation for some particular species of mamba. “A mamba. So it’s poisonous. It’s a dangerous snake.”
At this point, two very old people whom I thought of as “mom and dad” (though they didn’t look much like my actual parents or in-laws) came in, and I warned them to be careful of the snake. Ignoring me, and without saying a word, one of them (not sure which) stepped down hard on the snake’s tail, pinning it to the floor. I thought for sure the snake would turn its head back and bite, but instead its whole body straightened out like a rod, its head still up off the ground, its mouth agape in an expression of cartoonish surprise which made me think of a frilled lizard. Then the other member of the old couple stamped down on its head, killing it. The two stamps came in immediate succession — just one-two, and the snake was dead, as if efficient snake-killing were almost a reflex for them. I though to myself, “It seems cruel, but it was necessary. It was a dangerous snake.”
The day after the dream, I went to get some mealworms to feed the gliders, and I noticed that one of the worms — a big one — had escaped from the dish and was crawling around on the floor — rather quickly for a mealworm, I thought, and taking a closer look I saw that it was actually a little black venomous centipede. This was only the second time I’d encountered a centipede in Taiwan, despite having lived here for over six years. The gliders would surely attack it if they found it, their instinct being to jump on anything that looks even remotely wormlike, and a centipede bite could conceivably be fatal to such a small animal. Not wanting to take any chances, I decided to kill the thing. It had crawled under the worm stand by now, so I picked up the stand and moved it, saw the centipede scurrying around, and stepped on it, crushing it. I don’t normally step on pests, preferring to use my hands or a bug zapper, but it was moving fast and I had to get it.
In real life, as in the dream, there was a fast-moving, dangerously venomous, black worm-shaped animal which I at first thought was a worm; I found it near the mealworms; and it was killed by someone stepping on it. Many of the details are different, of course, but would you consider the dream to contain a garbled anticipation of actual events?
I’m guessing that most people would probably say no, that the similarities are too inexact to be worth noticing, that what we have here is perhaps a mildly interesting coincidence but not anything that could reasonably be considered evidence for precognition.
But suppose instead that I told you that the centipede incident had happened the day before the dream, not the day after, and offered it as evidence that dreams sometimes contain garbled memories of recent waking-life events? Would your reaction be any different?
Because that’s what really happened. I described the dream as precognitive as a thought experiment, but in fact I killed the centipede on Monday evening just before going to bed and dreamed about the worm/snake that night. When I woke up and recorded the dream, I took it for granted that of course it had been inspired by the centipede incident. In fact, most of my dreams (the ones I can remember, anyway) contain obvious references to or distortions of recent experiences, books I’ve recently read, etc. If the dream had come first and the centipede incident second, though, I doubt if I would even have noticed any connection.
This is exactly what Dr. Charlton (summarizing Mr. Dunne) describes:
Anticipate that the waking mind will resist associations between a dream and subsequent event – therefore read the dream records with care. Associations between dreams and the past will be obvious and acceptable to the mind as obviously causal; but there is an inbuilt reluctance to recognize associations with the future – to do this is more like a process of pattern recognition, and the experimenter tends to become distracted by stories and meanings. Even apparently trivial or tenuous associations need to be properly followed-up and evaluated.
So perhaps this is a reasonable question to ask yourself when evaluating a possibly precognitive dream: If the sequence were reversed — if the waking events happened first and the dream came after — how confident would you be in concluding that the dream had been influenced by memories of those events?
This post was originally going to end with the previous paragraph, but, after spending so much time thinking and writing about this dream, it occurs to me that, in addition to its obvious connections with the past, it did also contain some hints of future experiences.
On Monday afternoon, the day before the dream, I stopped by a bookstore and picked up Hemingway’s hunting memoir Green Hills of Africa, which I had never read before. I glanced at the back cover in the store but didn’t even open the book until Wednesday. I’m about halfway into it now. The plot so far consists of Hemingway, his wife, and a few friends traipsing around Africa shooting various large animals, occasionally for meat but mostly just for the hell of it. Hemingway and his wife are always called Papa and Mama, respectively, by their hunting companions, and Hemingway himself always refers to his wife as P.O.M. (for “poor old Mama”). This is interesting because of the “mom and dad” in my dream, who were clearly not my actual mom and dad, and who showed up to casually kill a large animal. The use of the abbreviation O.A.M. for the snake also seems to have anticipated my reading about P.O.M. (Actually, the excerpt on the back cover, which I read before the dream, includes a mention of P.O.M., but it gives no indication of who that is or what the letters stand for. In the dream, I didn’t know what O.A. stood for, but I assumed that the M stood for mamba — pretty close to Mama.) There is also a passage early on in Green Hills in which Hemingway vividly describes his fear and hatred of snakes.
None of this, I admit, sounds very impressively precognitive. But I ask myself, if I had read the book before having the dream, would I assume that the one had influenced the other? — and the answer is yes. If I’m going to do this experiment properly, I need to get used to thinking this way.