In thinking about how to carry out my Dunne-inspired experiment with precognitive dreams, I’m bothered by two things.
First, there is no control group. Anyone with sufficiently sharp pattern-recognition instincts will be able to find apparent connections between events even when the events are completely unrelated and the similarities are mere coincidence. What we want to know is not whether we can find connections between dreams and future events, but whether we can find significantly more such connections than would be expected by chance — and to know how many chance connections to expect, we need a control.
But what could that control possibly be? Other dreams of mine can’t be used as a control, because the hypothesis is that any of my dreams may have a non-chance connection with any of the events in my life, past or future. One possible control would be to have two dreamers do the experiment together and see whether dreamer A’s dreams match future events in dreamer A’s life more often than dreamer B’s dreams do. This won’t really work, either, though, since naturally my dreams, more so than anyone else’s, will tend to be about the kinds of things that are in my life (sugar gliders, English classes, etc.), making even chance matches more likely.
Even if a suitable control group could be found, experimenter bias would be an inescapable problem. All the pattern recognition is done by the dreamer, who knows which events are from his own dreams and which are from the control group, and he may subconsciously try harder to find links in the one case than in the other.
As far as I can see, there is no solution to these problems. The experiment will simply have to be done without a proper control.
The second thing that bothers me is that deciding whether a particular dream event is meaningfully connected with a particular real-life event requires a subjective judgment call, again leaving the door wide open for subconscious bias.
I think I have a partial solution for this one — not perfect, but probably the best that can be expected given the circumstances. The fact that only one person has any access to the relevant data — dreams and personal experiences — makes it impossible to devise anything like a proper double-blind experiment, but we can get as close as we can.
Here’s what I propose to do: For each dream I log, I will try to come up with and record as many connections as possible with both pre-dream and post-dream waking-life events. Then I will type up an account of the dream and append, in randomized order, accounts of each of the relevant waking-life events. However, each of these events will be described as having occurred prior to the dream. If I write, “Three days before the dream, . . .,” what follows might (for all the reader knows) really be an account of something that happened three days before the dream, but it could just as well be a description of an event which occurred three days after the dream. (The actual temporal distance of the event from the dream — a day, three days, a week, etc. — will be given, but always as if in the past rather than the future.) Also, for each event, I will provide some indication of how commonly events of that sort occur in my life.
I will then send these reports to a few third parties for evaluation. (Since people who are privy to the actual details of my life would be disqualified, I will probably recruit these people online.) Each evaluator will read the account of the dream and the events and will give each event a rating between 0 (no real connection; almost certainly just a coincidence) and 3 (so obviously tied to the dream that I would be astonished to hear that the dream had come first). Averaging the various evaluators’ ratings for each event, I can get some semblance of an objective measurement of which events are closely connected to the dream and which are not. If future events get high ratings about as often as past events do, I would consider that to be evidence of precognition.
This methodology is obviously far from ideal, but it’s the best I can come up with given the slippery and subjective nature of the subject matter. If anyone has any suggestions for improvement, please leave a comment.
As an example of how this would work, here are two more real-life events which I consider to be possibly connected with the snake dream recounted in this post (read it now if you haven’t already, or reread it to refresh your memory). Rate the events in the comments, and after I have a few ratings I will reveal whether each of them happened before or after the dream.
Event A: About a week before the dream, I was playing with the three-year-old daughter of a friend. (Her mother pays me to do this for half an hour every week, and to speak to her in English while we play.) We were playing with salt dough and sculpting various things. I tried to get her to make different things — bowls, snowmen, etc. — but she was only interested in making two things again and again: eggs and worms. Often she would give me a big worm and tell me to “make it a snake” by sculpting a head to put on it. (Cf. the worm/snake in the dream, which looked as if it were made of dough.) As I said, I play with this girl regularly, but this was the first time we used dough or clay together; aside from this, I haven’t sculpted anything in a very long time.
Event B: About a week before the dream, I went to feed my mealworms and found that nearly half of them were dead (probably from overheating, since there was a sudden heat wave at that time). Live mealworms are a golden-brown color, but when they die they quickly turn black (cf. the little black worms in the dream). I usually find a few dead mealworms in the dish every day, but this was the first time I’d ever seen so many of them die at once.
For good measure, here are two more dreams, each with a connected waking-life event:
Dream C: I dreamed that I was about to go outside, but when I opened the door I saw a huge Diatryma stalking about just beyond the front porch. (A Diatryma is a huge flightless prehistoric predatory bird, something like a cross between a secretary bird and a T-rex. They are often depicted eating the dog-sized ancestors of horses. The bird is called Gastornis now, but I still think of it as Diatryma.) I quickly closed the door and went back inside. I went back several times and looked out the glass door, but every time the Diatryma was still there, and I was afraid to go out.
Event C: The day before the dream, I was tutoring a grad student in her living room, and her 9-year-old son was also there, drawing pictures on scrap paper on the coffee table. He showed me one of his pictures and explained it to me. It was “a picture of birds,” but the birds had no wings and were shown walking on the ground. They were not ostriches, though, but round-bodied birds with short necks. One of them was chasing some kind of small quadruped. When I asked him what it was, he said it was a horse.
Dream D: I dreamed that I was teaching a large English class, including one of my real-life students (I’ll call her Joan). I had just started the class, when loud music started to come from my bag. I searched through the bag and found a little travel-size alarm clock (just like one I owned years ago, before I had a cell phone), which was making the noise. I tried to turn it off but couldn’t. Finally I took out the batteries. I started the class again, but someone came in and told me I had to go to a training program right away. I apologized to the students and walked out of the class.
Event D: I was teaching a small group of Taiwanese English teachers, including “Joan.” I had just started the class when I got a text message on my phone, which made an audible beep. I checked it and found that there was an emergency at home and that I had to leave right away. I apologized to the students and walked out of the class.
Please leave a comment rating the four events as described.