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Dreams and Parapsychology

Dreams and Parapsychology

by G. William Domhoff University of California, Santa Cruz

Edgar Cayce

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Can dreams predict the future? Can people receive thoughts from other people during dreaming? There is a long historical association in people's minds between the everyday phenomenon of dreaming and allegedly paranormal phenomena. Parapsychologists have therefore taken an interest in the study of dreams, with the hope that dreams can be used to support their claims about extrasensory perception. But there are numerous reasons why the connection is a spurious one.

First, paranormal explanations are incompatible with the naturalistic view of the world developed in the physical sciences over the past few hundred years. Telepathy, precognition, and other paranormal hypotheses are not credible from this perspective because they do not fit with established physical science explanations, the occasional appeals to either relativity theory or quantum physics by some parapsychologists notwithstanding. Because people who adopt a scientific world view have a commitment to building on the scientific ideas currently thought to account best for natural phenomena, it is not surprising they would prefer more mundane explanations, such as coincidence, for any seeming premonitions found in dreams.

Second, there already has been an enormous expenditure of energy in the past 75-100 years to demonstrate the existence of paranormal processes in a variety of fields, but with very few positive results (Blackmore, 1996). On most research questions, such a small pay-off would lead to the abandonment of the effort because science is characterized by a continuing critique of traditional ideas and the search for new ideas. Other new hypotheses initially rejected by the current scientific consensus are either absorbed into the mainstream within 10-20 years or they fade away, so parapsychology is clearly unique in this regard (McClenon, 1984). Third, it is surprising how minor and rare the precognitions and connections are in the few dream studies that claim to have found them. Fourth, the correspondences often are not very clear or direct, which means analysts must depend on the Freudian-like assumption that dream thoughts go through transformations that make interpretations necessary..

Fifth, there has been very little success in replicating the meager findings that are reported in parapsychology in general (Blackmore, 1987,1996). This is as true in the study of the paranormal in dreams as in any other area of interest. For example, in the elaborate telepathic experiments over several years discussed by Ullman, Krippner, and Vaughan (1973), neither of the two studies with 12 participants yielded positive results. A follow-up study with the most sensitive percipient from the first study had positive results, but he became ill after a third study and could not complete the required matchings, so the overall results were inconclusive. Follow-up studies with two of the best percipients in the second study led to negative results (Van de Castle, 1977). In the end, Van de Castle was the only percipient whose successes could be sustained. Even in his case, the effect could not be replicated in another laboratory (Belvedere & Foulkes, 1971), which Van de Castle (1994) explains in terms of the cold emotional atmosphere, the lack of sending agents to choose from, the lack of time between sessions, and the very small differences among the pictures he was required to match with his dream reports.

Sixth, there are enormous statistical problems in determining the chance probabilities for the rare kinds of events and correspondences of interest to parapsychologists interested in dreams. When there does seem to be statistical significance, it may be that the statistics should not be relied upon because there is so much room for coincidence. I make these comments as a person who agrees with those skeptical quantitative psychologists who think statistics are generally overrated as to their power and precision. I therefore put great emphasis on replications in any aspect of dream research, so I am not just doubtful in the context of paranormal hypotheses. I think many past studies of everyday dream content are called into question due to their use of inappropriate statistics, and I have expended a considerable amount of effort trying to find statistics appropriate for use with the nominal level of measurement and skewed frequency distributions that characterize research on dream content. We are now in the process of abandoning statistical formulas for the new randomization strategies made possible by personal computers.

In conclusion, then, there is no good reason to believe that dreams have any relation to any type of paranormal phenomenon.


Belvedere, E. , & Foulkes, D. (1971). Telepathy and dreams: A failure to replicate. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 33, 783-789.
Blackmore, S. (1987). The elusive open mind: Ten years of negative research in parapsychology. Skeptical Inquirer, 11(3), 244-256.
Blackmore, S. (1996). In search of the light: The adventures of a parapsychologist. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
McClenon, J. (1984). Deviant science: The case of parapsychology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Ullman, M., Krippner, S., & Vaughan, A. (1973). Dream telepathy: Experiments in nocturnal ESP. New York: Penguin Books.
Van de Castle, R. (1977). Sleep and dreams. In B. Wolman (Ed.), Handbook of Parapsychology (pp. 473-499). New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.
Van de Castle, R. (1994). Our dreaming mind. New York: Ballantine Books.

Copyright G. William Domhoff
NOTE: This is an unpublished paper. If you use this article in research, please use the following citation:
Domhoff, G. W. (2000). Dreams and Parapsychology. Retrieved from the World Wide Web: http://www.dreamresearch.net/Library/domhoff_2000c.html
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