This weekend, I hope to visit Oslo for the first time, as an invited speaker for a conference to celebrate the centenary of the Norsk Parapsykologisk Selskap (I think that roughly translates as Norwegian Parapsychological Society.) Other speakers include Dr Dean Radin from the USA, Prof Etzel Cardena & Prof Adrian Parker from Sweden, Dr Walter von Lucadou from Germany, Prof Erlendur Haraldsson from Iceland, and also from the UK Prof Chris Roe.
The conference was organised by Jon Mannsåker (pictured), and has 9 presentations in English and three in Norwegian. Jon also edits the journal Parapsykologiske Notiser, and all speakers were asked to provide brief written versions of their talks to be translated into Norwegian for the August 2017 issue. Jon asked me to speak on the topic of precognition, and my title is Precognition: From Life to Lab.
For more information about the Norwegian Parapsykologisk Selskap Centenary conference, including programme, speaker bios and abstracts, click here.
In case you may be interested, here is the written version of my presentation, for publication in Parapsykologiske Notiser.
Precognition: From Life to Lab
Caroline Watt, Koestler Parapsychology Unit, University of Edinburgh
Precognition is the apparent ability to predict unexpected future events, and precognitive dreams are among the most commonly reported seemingly paranormal experiences (Gurney, Myers & Podmore, 1886; Green, 1960; Moore, 2005; Rhine, 1954; van de Castle, 1977). Typically, in a precognitive experience, a person has some kind of impression, and later that is followed by an event that seems to confirm or match the earlier impression. For example, you dream about your brother being injured, and a few days later he crashes his car and is taken to hospital. We will take three different approaches to look at these experiences.
First, we consider research into the phenomenology or characteristics of seemingly precognitive experiences in daily life. Here, it seems that the method of enquiry may influence what is found, and it’s important to distinguish between retrospective and prospective precognitive experiences. Retrospective experiences are typically reported after the confirming event has occurred – for instance, it is only after a confirming event happens that you realise that your earlier dream was seemingly precognitive. Case collections and survey research contain mostly this kind of precognitive experience. Researchers such as L.E. Rhine (1954; pictured) and Ian Stevenson (1960; pictured) have suggested on the basis of case collections and surveys that precognitive dreams are typically vivid and intense experiences often concerning negative events such as illness, injury or war.
For example, Stevenson recounts a precognition of the sinking of the Titanic. A New York woman had a vivid dream on the night of the sinking, so striking that she woke her husband to tell him about it: “I just saw mother in a crowded lifeboat rocking in the ocean swell” (Stevenson, 1960, p 157). The woman didn’t know her mother was on the ship. Her mother had boarded at Southampton, and had intended to surprise her daughter. Fortunately, she had indeed been saved by a lifeboat and eventually made it safely to New York.
Alternatively, prospective precognitive experiences can be collected through postal studies, diary studies, and dream registries. Here, people make daily recordings of their dreams before any confirming events have occurred. Later, if a confirming event occurs, they record a description of that.
Interestingly, researchers such as Friederike Schriever (1987; pictured) and Watt et al. (2015) have found that using this method seemingly precognitive dreams are not more vivid than regular dreams, and often concern mundane life events. This observation about how different dream collection methods obtain different findings has been independently confirmed by researchers studying the psychology of regular (rather than precognitive) dreams (Schredl & Doll, 1998). Perhaps because vivid dreams are more memorable than dreams about mundane events, case collections may misrepresent the frequency with which this type of vivid precognitive experience occurs (Watt et al., 2015).
Real life precognitive dream experiences are quite common, however it is possible that many of these experiences may be attributable to normal rather than paranormal factors. So it is worth considering research into the kinds of psychological factors that may inflate the likelihood of people experiencing seemingly precognitive dreams in real life. Studies suggest that a propensity to detect correspondences is associated with a greater frequency of precognitive dream experiences (Watt, et al., 2014). This might be because more creative people are more psychic, or it might be that people who believe in the paranormal are more motivated to see a match between a dream and later events, so allow for more ‘fuzzy’ matches to count as precognitive. Also, our work shows that dreams that are confirmed by later events are much more memorable than dreams that are not confirmed by later events (Watt et al., 2014). This means that we more easily forget dreams that are not confirmed. Most people dream several times each night, even though they may forget most of their dreams if they are not used to keeping a dream diary.
Challenges of real world research
So, real life precognitive experiences can be striking and memorable, but it is difficult to draw firm conclusions about whether these are truly paranormal events. Another challenge that researchers face is that they cannot easily estimate the likelihood of a chance coincidence between a dream and later events, especially if we allow some fuzziness over what counts as a match. Also, people may not even be aware that their behaviour has been influenced by precognition, so cases of this type may be unreported. Let’s look at one notable observational study that did attempt to quantify the effects of unconscious precognition on people’s behaviour.
In the 1950s, W. E. Cox attempted to observe if there was any dip in passenger numbers on the days that a train was involved in an accident, compared to passenger numbers the same journey on preceding days and weeks. Cox (1956) did indeed find a tendency for passenger numbers to be lower on trains that crashed – something Cox attributed to ‘subliminal precognition’, though in fact some of the passengers may have dreamt about the impending doom and consciously decided to avoid the journey. However it’s difficult to be sure that the dropped passenger numbers were due to conscious or unconscious precognition. For instance, another external factor such as bad weather might have both deterred passengers from travelling as well as contributing to a train wreck.
Controlled laboratory studies
For these reasons, researchers who want to evaluate the precognition hypothesis scientifically have typically moved to the laboratory setting. In laboratory studies, researchers can eliminate or control for many normal factors that may ‘contaminate’ real life precognition experiences, including psychological factors and chance coincidence. They can also quantify the outcome of the studies which makes it easier to compare the results of different studies using similar methods.
In the final section of the talk, we consider this controlled laboratory research. First, we look at the method used to conduct experiments on dream precognition. Perhaps surprisingly given the prevalence of real-life precognitive dream experiences, there are relatively few controlled lab studies on this topic. The first and best-known studies were conducted by Stanley Krippner and Montague Ullman at the Maimonides sleep laboratory in New York, working with the special participant (pictured) Malcolm Bessent (Ullman, Krippner & Vaughan, 1973).
Bessent would sleep with electrodes to detect when he was dreaming, and would be awoken to give dream reports during the night. The next morning, Bessent would be shown the randomly selected target for instance as a slideshow with soundtrack. His task was to dream about the target experience he would have upon awakening. An independent judge would then compare the dream reports with the target and some decoy targets, to judge the degree of similarity between each. Krippner and Ullman found strong positive effects in their studies. A recent review comparing the Maimonides studies with later studies has found that the later studies show near zero effects on average (Storm et al., under review; Watt, 2014; Watt & Valášek, 2015; Watt, Wiseman & Vuillaume, 2015). There are several differences between the Maimonides studies and the later ones. The Maimonides studies used a special participant, a sleep laboratory method where participants were woken during the night to report their dreams, and had poorer methodological quality (Storm et al., under review). Most of the post-Maimonides studies were conducted with unselected participants who slept in their own homes, and therefore were recalling their dreams in the morning rather than providing reports during the night. The more recent studies were also given higher quality ratings (Storm et al., under review). Controlled studies that directly compare possible moderating variables are needed to help researchers home in on the best method for studying dream precognition in the laboratory. The Maimonides researchers also conducted dream telepathy research, and you can read about all of their work in a popular book (Ullman, Krippner & Vaughan, 1973).
Dream ESP studies are quite time consuming to conduct (one night per trial) and need special equipment, and from the 1970s researchers generally turned to a simpler method for inducing a dream-like state known as the Ganzfeld. This work is evaluated in the paper presented by Adrian Parker.
Although relatively few studies have been conducted with dream precognition, a large number of waking state precognition studies have been conducted. These have used so-called ‘forced choice’ methods, where the participant is asked to anticipate which of a small set of future outcomes will occur (e.g. which one of four lights will randomly illuminate – the picture shows Helmut Schmidt using such a device). These methods are quite different from real-life manifestations of precognition, but have the advantage of rapid and automatic testing and scoring. This allows for a large number of trials, giving greater statistical power and the ability to detect small effects.
This substantial body of research was reviewed by Charles Honorton (pictured) and Diane Ferrari (1989). Honorton and Ferrari combined the results of 309 studies conducted between 1935 and 1987 using widely different outcome measures, for instance animal studies are included where the response is necessarily a simple behavioural measure such as moving away from a future aversive stimulus. The reviewers concluded that there is a small but robust effect in these studies, where participants are able to correctly predict the future event to a greater than chance degree. Honorton and Ferrari were also able to identify conditions associated with better scoring, that might suggest recommendations for future studies.
Small effects can still be important effects, and we encourage further study of this fascinating experience, particularly using controlled methods that more closely approximate the conditions of real life precognition experiences.
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Green, C. E. (1960). Report on enquiry into spontaneous cases. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 53, 97–161.
Honorton, C. & Ferrari, D. C. (1989). ‘Future-telling”. A meta-analysis of forced-choice precognition experiments 1935-1987. Journal of Parapsychology, 53, 281-308. Available from Dean Radin’s website.
Moore, D. (2005) Three in four Americans believe in paranormal. WWW Gallup news report accessed 18th Feb 2013: http://www.gallup.com/poll/16915/three-four-americans-believe-paranormal.aspx.
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Storm, L., Sherwood, S., Roe, C., Tressoldi, P., Rock, A., & di Risio, L. (under review). On the Correspondence between Dream Content and Target Material under Laboratory Conditions: A Meta-Analysis of Dream-ESP Studies, 1966-2016.
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Van de Castle, R. L. (1977). Sleep and dreams. In B. B. Wolman (Ed.), Handbook of parapsychology (pp. 473-499). Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
Watt, C. (2014). Precognitive dreaming: Investigating anomalous cognition and psychological factors. Journal of Parapsychology, 78, 115-125.
Watt, C., Ashley, N., Gillett, J., Halewood, M. & Hanson, R. (2014). Psychological factors in precognitive dream experiences: The role of paranormal belief, selective recall and propensity to find correspondences. International Journal of Dream Research, 7, 1-8.
Watt, C., & Valášek, M. (2015). Postscript to Watt (2014) on precognitive dreaming: Investigating anomalous cognition and psychological factors. Journal of Parapsychology, 79, 105-107.
Watt, C., Valášek, M., Cawthron, S. & Almanza, A. (2015). In the eye of the beholder: Uncovering the characteristics of prospectively reported spontaneous precognitive dreams. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 79, 18-33.
Watt, C., Wiseman, R. & Vuillaume, L. (2015). Dream precognition and sensory incorporation: A controlled sleep laboratory study. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 22, 172-190.