'And so it begins,' tweets psychologist Richard Wiseman. He means the publicity campaign for his new book Paranormality: Why we see what isn't there, which is out on March 4 and which I wrote about here. The Guardian magazine section ran some excerpts yesterday: a big one on precognitive dreams, plus smaller ones on seeing patterns and out-of-body experiences. Let's have a look to see what he says about dreams.
Wiseman starts with the Aberfan mining disaster of October 1966, when a small mountain of coal slurry collapsed onto a Welsh school, killing 139 children and five teachers. This tragic incident impressed itself on the national psyche, and some 30 people subsequently reported having dreamed of the event before it occurred. He then points out that precognitive dreams are commonly experienced, at least once by a third of the population, according to recent surveys. He also mentions some well-known celebrity examples, for instance Abraham Lincoln foretelling his own assassination.
However since we dream about four times a night, an explanation rather readily offers itself, he goes on. Let's suppose over a period of three nights you have a variety of jumbled up dreams: auditioning for a part in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, chatting to your favourite rock star Eric Chuggers while driving along a country lane, swerving to avoid a purple frog and crashing into a tree, falling into a vat of ice-cream, and so on. After waking on the third morning you turn on the radio and are shocked to hear that Chuggers has been killed in a car crash. Naturally you connect it with the dream about him - all the other dreams are forgotten.
It doesn't stop there, he adds: the creative imagination may get to work to create a whole edifice of meaning.
Because dreams tend to be somewhat surreal they have the potential to be twisted to match the events that actually transpired. In reality, Chuggers was not driving along a country lane, did not hit a tree and the accident didn't involve a giant purple frog. However, a country lane is similar to a city road, and a lamp-post looks a bit like a tree. And what about the giant purple frog? Well, maybe that symbolised something unexpected, such as the car that drifted on to the wrong side of the road. Or maybe it turns out that Chuggers was on hallucinogenic drugs and so might have thought that the oncoming car was indeed a giant purple frog. Or maybe Chuggers's next album was going to have a frog on the cover. Or maybe Chuggers was wearing a purple shirt at the time of the collision. You get the point. Provided that you are creative and want to believe that you have a psychic link with the recently deceased Mr Chuggers, the possibilities for matches are limited only by your imagination.
The rest of the extract mainly covers mainly the familiar 'chance coincidence' argument, the fact that since disasters (air crashes, earthquakes, exploding volcanoes, etc), happen somewhere in the world on a regular basis, and since billions of people are dreaming billions of dreams, it would be quite surprising if they didn't sometimes match up.
It's hard to argue with this as far as it goes. The Aberfan claims attracted a good deal of attention, but are vulnerable on a number of grounds and perhaps not worth placing too much emphasis on as evidence of precognition. To be fair, the psychiatrist John Barker who carried out the investigation and published his report in the Society for Psychical Research's Journal - Wiseman's source - makes this point himself. Where there is no record of a dream having been dreamed before the event that it apparently prophesies he can argue that it was selected from lots of other unconnected dreams, or distorted to make the match a better fit. Where there is such a record, which applies to 21 instances in the Aberfan data, this is harder to do. However, for these cases one can invoke the 'chance coincidence' argument, that the match between the dream and the event was real, but purely fortuitous.
I don't think that seemingly precognitive dreams are necessarily good evidence, but unlike Wiseman I'm prepared to take seriously the possibility of them being real. That's because I have come to accept that ESP is real, on a variety of grounds, backed by evidence from a large variety of sources.
I'd point out two things that are rather glaringly absent from Wiseman's analysis: the high degree of specific detail that can often be present, both in the dream and the event it appears to precognize, and any reference to credible scientific research that appears to verify anecdotal claims.
Taking the first point, I'm impressed by the high degree of specificity that can occur. A dream of an aircrash, matched with an actual aircrash the dreamer hears about the following day, is not interesting at all. However a dream in which the dreamer is impressed by an odd red and green symbol, overlaid on a scene of fire and destruction, is potentially interesting if this symbol turns out to be the airline logo on the side of a broken fuselage which the dreamer sees in a newspaper photo the following day. This is what I associate with such claims, and where several such details are involved it puts some strain on the chance-coincidence explanation theory.
JW Dunne, a pioneering aeronautical engineer, has several examples of this type in his 1930s best-seller An Experiment With Time, in which he described the process as he himself experienced it. For example he has a nightmare of being on an island which is about to blow up, and desperately trying to warn the French authorities that four thousand people will die unless they start an evacuation. The next time he sees a paper it carries headlines about a volcano eruption in Martinique, with the loss of 40,000 lives. He remarks that he initially read the headline number as 4000, which gives him the clue that the dream is precognizing his experience, not the event itself. The actual number of dead was quite different to both his idea and the one in the news report.
Dunne got friends to experiment, recording their dreams as soon as they woke up and being alert to anything that might match up with real world experiences in the following two days. These are usually trivial, but detailed enough to be noteworthy.
One woman dreamed of walking up a path and coming upon a gate, when a man passed on the other side, driving three brown cows in front of him and holding a stick over them in a peculiar fashion 'like a fishing rod'. While waiting for a train the following day she walked up to the end of the platform which gave onto a road, barred by a gate similar to the one she had seen in the dream. At that moment the scene she had dreamed about took place: three cows passed by on the other side, driven by a man holding his stick just as she had visualized it.
Another example: Dunne's cousin dreamed of meeting a German woman dressed in a black skirt, with a black-and-white striped blouse, and her hair scraped back in a bun at the back of her head. They were in a public garden. She suspected the woman of being a spy. Two days later she visits a country house, where she is told about an odd person staying there who is suspected of being a German spy. In the hotel grounds (that look like a public garden), she shortly afterwards meets the woman, who is dressed in a black skirt, with a black-and-white striped blouse, and her hair scraped back in a bun.
If it's true that these dreams were recorded before the experience of the matching event, I don't see how either of Wiseman's arguments could apply. It might indeed be the case that the dreamers had had other dreams that didn't match with anything that subsequently occurred. But if the time-lapse is merely a day or two then so what? And the odds of matches like this happening by chance are surely off the scale.
Then there's the scientific research. This tends to be a variation of experimental approaches aimed at finding evidence of ESP. In this case, instead of the target being selected before the experiment, in order to demonstrate telepathy or clairvoyance, it is selected afterwards. At the time the subject is recording his or her impressions, the target does not yet exist.
In the 1969 Maimonides series of ESP dream experiments, the subject sleeper, Malcolm Bessent, was woken at intervals one night and his dream impressions recorded. These revolved around a hospital building, a patient escaping and doctors in white coats arguing. A target word corridor was then selected by means of a elaborate protocol involving random number tables, by someone not involved with the dream side of the experiment. An image suggested by this word was then selected, a picture by Van Gogh Hospital Corridor at St. Remy. Bessant was then subjected to an 'experience' suggested by the image.
Judges subsequently matched the imagery Bessent described upon being woken with the word corridor, chosen from a total of eight target words. Five nights out of eight were similarly direct hits. The odds against are 5000-1, meaning that more than 5000 such experiments would have to be carried out before a similar coincidence could be expected.
These and other similar experiments are vulnerable to criticism, from psi-researchers as well as from sceptics. The sense is not that precognition has been proved or conclusively demonstrated, but that there are indications it might be real, and that these indications are worth continuing to investigate.
So where does all this leave Richard Wiseman's book? As I mentioned when I first heard about it, I wondered whether he would focus mainly on psychological generalisations or write also about his own debunking activity. I guessed the former, that he'd want to be positive and upbeat, stressing the achievement of science in unravelling the mystery, but without getting into arguments. That would seem to be the case, at least in this excerpt.
Yet it's an oddly distorted picture, achieved by glossing over or ignoring credible data that contradicts his argument. Precognitive dreaming could be illusory: it's an open question. The really interesting illusion being created here, I'd say, is the perception that such things have been explained away by the pitiless scrutiny of science, and therefore merit no particular attention.