Tuesday 31 March 2015

On the Psychology of Precognitive Dream Experience

Caroline Watt
This post is by Caroline Watt, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Edinburgh.

Almost 30 years ago, I became a founder member of the Koestler Parapsychology Unit. Based in the Psychology department of Edinburgh University, the KPU studies paranormal beliefs and experiences. Our work includes testing for psychic ability under controlled conditions, and investigating the psychology of paranormal beliefs and experiences.

For the last few years, I have been studying precognitive dreaming. The belief that one's dreams predict future events is one of the more commonly reported paranormal experiences and we have investigated psychological factors that have been proposed to lead to seemingly precognitive experiences.

We have looked at the role of memory bias in these experiences: specifically, the selective recall of matches and mismatches between dreams and subsequent events. Our participants remembered more than twice as many dreams that matched events compared to dreams that did not match events. This memory bias would tend to inflate the frequency of seemingly precognitive experiences. We have also explored the idea that people who report precognitive dreams may have a propensity to identify correspondences between dreams and events. 

To test this, we randomly paired dream diary entries with world news events, and asked participants to identify correspondences between the pairs. Those with prior precognitive dream experience reported more correspondences, supporting the hypothesis. This finding may link with Peter Brugger and Christine Mohr's work on neurological mechanisms underlying paranormal beliefs and experiences, which has wider associations with schizotypy and creativity. These studies are reported in the International Journal of Dream Research. Some of our other work has investigated whether sensitivity to subtle environmental cues might lead to seemingly precognitive experiences, as described in Consciousness and Cognition.

Our research has demonstrated that several psychological factors may operate to inflate the frequency of seemingly precognitive experiences in people's lives. This does not logically entail that genuine psychic abilities don't exist, however an awareness of 'what's not psychic but looks like it' may help the public to think critically about their paranormal experiences. For instance, keeping a dream diary will reduce the effects of selective recall and make more salient the many dreams that do not 'come true'. And as Brugger and others have pointed out, the study of anomalous experiences may also help psychologists to understand normal cognitive and neurological functions.

This year, the Koestler Parapsychology Unit celebrates its 30th anniversary. Visit our website and follow us on Twitter to find out more about our work.

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