A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

reader comments: dreams

1 June 2008
I admire your work and it has helped me a lot. I wanted to relate an experience or two I have had and get your take on it, if you have the patience to read and reply.

I am myself very sceptical but on two occasions I remember I seem to have had a dream that later came true. The first one was I was at the park playing football (soccer) and my dream flashed into my mind of a ginger haired guy on my team scoring a goal (I was the goal keeper). Just before he scored I shouted to my friend who was a defender, "he is going to score now" and a few seconds later the guy scored. I wouldn't say what I saw in my dream was like a movie rerun, more like a few images split up in sequence.

The second dream I had was I was in a foreign place which I knew was foreign because I am a white man and I was walking around some town and there were brown skinned people around. I seemed to find a restaurant and there were fancy waterfalls everywhere around it. About 2 weeks later I found myself doing a day trip to Spain by plane to buy cheap cigarettes (i live in London). I had totally forgotten about this dream but as I was walking along the street in a town it flashed back to me and for some reason I said to my Mum, "i bet there is water near here" and literally 20 seconds later as we turned a street corner there was a river flowing through the town. We crossed a bridge and walked along the river bank and sat down to eat.

Now, this second dream experience might have mundane explanations - I could have unconsciously picked up clues from overhearing my parents arranging the trip and therefore dreamed of coloured people and it just so happens that the water and restaurant were coincidences. However, when I say the dream "flashed" back into my mind I mean that literally. I had a total dream recall, not just certain parts of the dream and the weird way it all came back and the fact I was able to make a prediction (water) was very strange indeed. But as I said, this could just be coincidence.

I'm very much interested in the way the unconscious processes information and relays it to the conscious mind. I'm reminded of the book "Blink". I have also meditated in the past and had a very strange experience where images popped into my mind that were like guidance for me in terms of solutions to things in my life. I believe psychics would call this "clairvoyance" but I think it is just unconscious data processing. It happens in the hypnagogic state. This subject fascinates me perhaps more than it should but I am certain that there must be ways of tapping into this kind of knowledge to be able to use it in everyday waking life. What would you say about this experience and would you recommend any books on this?

reply: I'd be lying if I said I know what was going on in your brain when you had your "flashbacks" of previous dreams. I couldn't even say that you were actually having flashbacks of dreams. For all I know, your brain occasionally produces perceptions that you take to be memories when they are actually waking dreams or hallucinations. What fascinates me is the way different people interpret their experiences. Some of us instinctively interpret our experiences as signs of divine intervention or of  paranormal events. Others find more mundane explanations. You seem to be willing to explore various possibilities, which is the first step in understanding anything.

Experiences can be framed in many different ways and how we tend to frame them is determined by our beliefs. For example, I just read a blurb for tonight's (June 12, 2008) "Larry King Live" program that says: Psychic kids - some see dead people, others have a sixth sense! Plus, John Edward and Char Margolis. It's gonna be a great show. They're predicting it! What do YOU want to ask them? If I were to watch this program I would frame my perceptions according to my skepticism regarding psychic phenomena and psychic ability, and my contempt for John Edward, who I consider a con man. I have as much desire to contact my dead loved ones as the next person has, but I won't let that desire drive me to be uncritical of what is going on when people claim to be in contact with the so-called spirits of dead people. So, if I had your experiences, I wouldn't interpret them as dreams coming true or clairvoyance. For example, many of us have the experience of a sudden understanding of things, either of things that have already happened or of things that will be done in the future. Solutions to problems or clarifying insights to things that have bothered or bewildered us, suddenly appear in our consciousness. Some forms of meditation do seem to clear the mind of clutter and are seen as ways of letting insights rise from the unconscious mind. Something similar can happen while reading a line in a book, seeing a picture or painting, or overhearing a snippet of a conversation. In such cases, there are clearly some unconscious processes going on, but I would hesitate to say that there is an unconscious holding tank for insights that seep to the top under certain circumstances.

If I were a serious researcher into such phenomena I would not read things like Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams. I would read books like Daniel Schacter's Searching for Memory or The Seven Sins of Memory. I would search out the work of scientists studying implicit memory, rather than those offering speculations about the unconscious mind.

I also noticed ages ago that you had written that you once took the Self-realization Fellowship [SRF] teachings seriously. What led you to give them up? I have been practising their Hong Sau technique of meditation for about 7 years and now I am getting states of breathlessness that last for up to 20 seconds after I exhale, and there is no effort involved or strain. I do not buy into the spiritual side of these teachings any more but I am interested in meditation and relaxation. Do you have an explanation for how I can go breathless like this? I know of people that can be breathless for minutes at a time. Combined with the hypnagogic state, which would occur after half an hour of meditation, roughly, it seems possible that an NDE type of light can be seen in the mind's eye. I have read Susan Blackmore's book and even corresponded with her by email several times, so I know the explanations for the NDE from the sceptical viewpoint.

Anyway, these are just my thoughts and experiences, and I hoped you could lend some clarity to them. I do really want to hear from you, especially as to your experience with the Yogananda teachings.



reply: It has been about 40 years since I was involved with Yoganda and SRF. I remember mostly the setting of our "services" near Balboa Park in San Diego. It was outdoors in a small Eucalyptus grove and very peaceful. Lots of chanting, a pleasant contrast to the turmoil in the streets over the Vietnam war and the indefensible denial of civil rights to millions of Americans. I was raised a Roman Catholic, but I  remember that the Berrigan Brothers seemed to be the only Catholic clergy who took a public stance against the war and against the continued inhumane treatment of African Americans. I'm sure there were others but the pope, the cardinals, the bishops, seemed peculiarly silent. So, I guess you could say that I fell into SRF on the rebound and was never going to be a life-long disciple of Yogananda.

Anyway, I enjoyed the SRF exercises and meditation but lost interest after I began my studies in philosophy at the University of California, San Diego. Until then, I too was interested in holding my breath for long periods and accepted stories of yogis who could hold their breath for days while buried alive, as well as the story of Yogananda's mahasamadhi. My belief system at that time made it easy for me to believe in many stories I now consider ridiculous propaganda. I had not yet been corrupted by the allure of critical thinking!


5 Nov 1998
Mr. Carroll, I have a small correction. You wrote "With 5.9 billion people having an average of 250 dreams each per night," I believe that, on average, people have 5 to 7 dreams per night. 

Bob Novella
The New England Skeptical Society

reply: There are typically several distinct periods during sleep when dreaming occurs. Most dreaming takes place during the four or five REM periods. If we relied on reports of dreamers to determine how many dreams per night a person has on average, the number would probably be smaller than 5. That is, I doubt if most people remember 5 to 7 dreams per night. A further difficulty in counting dreams is the fact that dreams are often so incoherent that a number of disconnected "themes" might be counted as one dream by one person, while another might count the same dream as ten or twenty distinct dreams. Since it is the "theme" rather than the exact dream that will be counted as a clairvoyant hit by those who believe in such things, I agree with Terence Hines that dreams ought to be counted by "themes" not by REM periods. I grant that the number of themes he arrives at is partly guesswork. In any case, he seems to have based his number on The Mind in Sleep: Psychology and Psychophysiobiology (Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1978) edited by A. Arkin, J. Antrobus and S. Ellman.

Hines writes: "In a single REM period, there are upwards of fifty dream 'themes'--snippets of more or less (often less) coherent 'story.' Thus, a normal individual will have at least two hundred fifty (five REM periods times fifty dream themes per period) dream themes per night." One might quibble about the exact number of dream themes on average a person has each night, but it is certainly much greater than the average number of REM periods.

17 Aug 1998
I enjoyed your recent article on dreams, and I wanted to share a story with you.

My father, the late Dr. Silas White, taught Physiological Psychology at Muhlenberg College for over twenty years. He discussed dreams and their lack of relation to the future in his class. He was frequently asked questions along the lines of, "But how can you explain that I dreamed that my brother broke his leg, and I found out the next day that he broke his leg at summer camp?" His stock response was, "How can you explain that I've dreamed dozens of times that I was walking around downtown Allentown, and I panicked when I realized I wasn't wearing any clothing, but it has never happened to me?"

Also, doesn't every graduate student dream at some point that somebody offhandedly asks them, "So, are you ready for that final in Electro Theology?" Of course, you then realize that you signed up for the class but forgot to ever go to it. I never had it until my father told me about it. Then I had it all the time.
Aaron White

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