Daily Archives: March 26, 2013

Dream experiment postmortem

A couple of years ago I attempted to duplicate the “experiment with time” described in J. W. Dunne’s book of that title. The experiment involves keeping detailed records of one’s dreams for a period of time and noting any resemblances between dream events and waking events which occurred shortly before or shortly after the dream in question. The higher the ratio P:F (the number of past resemblances to future resemblances), the stronger the evidence that apparently precognitive dreams are mere coincidences; the lower the ratio, the stronger the evidence that dream precognition is just as real as dream retrospection.

I posted the dream records I kept during the experiment at experimentsintime.wordpress.com. Relatively few of my dreams turned out to be discernibly connected to specific past or future events, and none of the resemblances I did notice were sufficiently strong to be truly compelling. Of the 23 dreams I recorded (or 23 nights’ worth of dreams, rather; I made no attempt to separate a given night’s dreaming into distinct dreams), 8 exhibited resemblances to specific past events (6 weak, 2 moderate), and 5 resembled specific future events (3 weak, 2 moderate). Thus my experiment would seem to be consistent with Dunne’s thesis that dreams are constructed from a roughly equal mixture of past and future components. (If all future resemblances were coincidental, we would expect past resemblances to outnumber them by at least an order of magnitude). However, the small number of resemblances noted, together with their overall weak quality, means that my experiment cannot be regarded as conclusive either way.

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Apparently I am not a “good” dreamer in the sense that the experiment requires. That is, the raw materials from which my dreams are constructed tend to be integrated to a degree that it becomes difficult to identify the specific experiences on which the dreams are based. Dunne touches on this in his appendix to the third edition of An Experiment with Time.

It is a commonplace of psychology . . . that most structures of the imagination are ‘integration’ — blends of several images associated with several different waking impressions. And it is accepted generally that dream-images are mostly of the same character — certainly, it is very rarely that one comes upon one of these exhibiting an unmixed, photographic resemblance to any scene of waking life. Now, the possibility of discovering in one of these composite structures an element distinctive enough to be recognizable as pertaining to a chronologically definite incident of waking life depends, mainly, upon what may be described as the coarseness of the blending. The more intricate — the more fine-grained — is the integration, the more difficult becomes its analysis. And, with practice in constructing dream-images, just as with practice in waking imagery, the integrations become more fine-grained, more beautifully blended, and, so, less easy to associate with any chronologically distinctive waking incident, past or future (p. 137, Hampton Roads reprint).

I suppose I ought to be pleased that my dreams are so “fine-grained” and “beautifully blended” — that my dreaming self exhibits a high degree of creativity (in the Einsteinian sense of knowing how to hide your sources) — but mostly I am disappointed at my inability so far to evaluate Dunne’s thesis conclusively from my own experience.

Individuals apparently vary widely in the relative “coarseness” of their dreams. In an experiment involving six Oxford students, one of the subjects recorded 21 dreams, of which 18 resembled waking incidents, 6 of those resemblances being judged “good” or strong. Another recorded 16 dreams without finding a single resemblance of any value. It is my bad fortune to be closer to the latter end of the scale.

Another factor may be the regular — not to say boring — character of my day-to-day life, which would reduce the chance that anything in a dream would resemble a distinctive waking event belonging clearly to either the future or the past. Not wanting to burden a holiday with the troublesome task of keeping daily dream records, I ignored Dunne’s advice to carry out the experiment during a break from one’s usual routine — preferably during a vacation in an unfamiliar locale — and instead conducted it during a perfectly ordinary period of time. I shall probably be going to Australia next year for the first time, and may attempt a second experiment during that trip.

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Some months after the end of my experiment, I did finally have a dream which bore a conclusively strong resemblance to a specific future event.

In my dream, I had the idea that I ought to write a book entitled Pineapples and Apple Pies. It would be an English textbook for use in Taiwan. The title was perfect because it illustrated the rules of compound formation in English: pineapple and apple pie were made up of the same two components (sic) but in a different order; also, pineapple was written as a single word with the stress on the first element, while apple pie was written as two with the stress on the second. I was delighted to have discovered two such common words which were thus related — much more natural than such strained pairs as songbird-birdsong and housecat-cathouse. As an added bonus, a pineapple was something typical of Taiwan, while an apple pie was a well-known symbol of America. (Upon waking, I naturally realized that the elements of the two compounds were not identical after all, that pine and pie were not the same.)

The day after the dream, I was teaching E., a child whom I tutor privately. At each of our sessions, he has to sign a record sheet, and, with a young child’s normal love of nonsense, he often writes a random word or two (often ghost or pig) on the paper after signing his name. This time, the random “word” he wrote was — applepine. When I said, “Applepine? What’s that?” he said, “You know, like pineapple but the other way!” Of course I had never in my life encountered the “word” applepine before, and the odds of running into it by chance the day after my dream are effectively zero. In fact, E.’s choice of that word is so bizarre and unaccountable that I’m almost more inclined to consider it evidence of mind-reading on his part than of precognition on mine.

Unfortunately, even this does not really count as conclusive evidence, since it occurred outside the formal experiment. The key thing is the ratio of clearly precognitive dreams to clearly retrospective ones, and I wasn’t keeping any records of the latter at the time. However, it did serve to keep me interested in the question, and I shall probably conduct further experiments in the future.

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Dunne also describes similar experiments in waking precognition, something I may try in the future, since my dreams seem to be of such poor quality, and since I have experienced some success with waking precognition in the past, before I ever encountered Dunne’s ideas. The following is taken from an email I wrote to a family member.

Here’s an experiment you can try. Go somewhere dark, roll your eyes up and to the side like people do when they’re trying to remember something, and “try to get something.” Just try to pick something up, like tuning a radio — easier done than explained. When I tried this, the first thing I “got” was the nonsense words “wudder-wudder-wudderfly” followed by a rapid succession of mental images: a green parrot viewed in profile; a short, wide, yellow tin; and something else which I no longer remember. Hours later, at work, one of my coworkers who had just come back from abroad (the Philippines, if memory serves) gave me some snack food from that country — in a package decorated with a green parrot in profile. Another colleague, a Japanese teacher, was doing some sort of cooking activity with her students and has brought some kind of Japanese bean paste or something in a yellow tin like the one I had seen. I can’t remember now what the third image was — this was years ago — but it also “came true.” (Nothing came of “wudder-wudder-wudderfly,” though.) I haven’t tried that particular exercise again — partly because I didn’t know what I was “tuning in” to and it seemed a little creepy, and partly because I didn’t want to ruin the magic by trying it again and not getting anything.

Given that, against the background of Dunne’s theories, precognition no longer seems “creepy” to me, I may try an organized experiment in waking precognition in the near future. Of course it will be impossible to calculate a ratio of precognitive to retrospective images, but if the results are sufficiently striking they may be conclusive anyway.

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Filed under Anecdotes, Dreams, Precognition / Prophecy