Last week I transcribed most of my most recent dream journal into my digital archive of journals. Partway through the transcription, I crossed the 530,000 word barrier for all of the transcribed journals combined. As it stands now, there are 28 journals, a little over 530,000 words, 3,150 records (exactly), and an uncounted number of illustrations (it is no less than the 800 I've scanned, but that only covers the first few years). One might excuse me for thinking that is a lot of material, but then it covers almost 22 years. The amazing thing is that, even with a nearly seven year break in the middle of the record keeping, I still average one record every three nights. That's a lot of dreams!
I'm thinking about this because of our dear Mr. Wiseman, whose book I am still reading. In it, he briefly describes an old notion we've all heard before: that dreams sometimes appear to be paranormal because we have so many dreams and we have so many daily experiences that it is inevitable that they will line up from time-to-time, even the extremely unusual items. While I don't doubt that one could break down the events of any person's life into literally millions of incidents or more, when it comes to dreams, my records tell me this cannot be done with them. Wiseman mentions 21,900 dreams in a person's 60-year lifetime, which is about 7,300 for the number of years I have recorded. This is only a little over double what I actually have, so it isn't bad estimate. He then compares millions of real-world events with these thousands of dreams, like two giant tumblers in a slot machine, where any combination is just as likely as any other because both wheels are simultaneously available and each must stop on something. Eventually, as the argument goes, there likely will be a match.
In the example just given, the stationary tumbler represents a single dream. The moving tumbler represents the many events of life. The example gets a bit more complicated though, because there isn't just one stationary dream tumbler, but as he claims, millions of them because there are millions of people dreaming at any given time. With millions of stationary events constantly being evaluated against an ever-growing number of real-world events that also number in the millions, it is easy to see why Wiseman is so sure that precognitive dreams only seem that way because of the large numbers involved. To be fair, Wiseman is far from the only person to believe this. It is a commonly held theory likely to be encountered in almost any conversation with skeptics on this subject. It does, however, have some flaws.
Thanks to dream journals kept by myself and others, it is easy to see that many assumptions about dreams are simply wrong on a numerical basis. In my records, which are about as extensive as they get as dream journals go, I have a grand total of 3,150 records. Each record contains an average of four dream scenes with an average of 5 clearly distinct items described in each. This is a total potential of 63,000 items that can be matched randomly with millions of real world events. However, there is a catch: in real precognitive dreams, the individual items are related to each other, so you will get dreams where in (for example) record X there are 6 scenes. In scene B there are seven items. Five of the items are an exact match, one is questionable, and the seventh cannot be checked. This is typical, but it can be much more extreme.
In dream record 59 from journal 3, there are 30 items that are individually described. Of these, 7 are discrepant but consistent with the event all 30 items are plausibly connected to: the 9/11 attacks that occurred about eleven years later. This is the largest number of veridical items I am aware of from my journals, though I have only checked the first three journals at this level of detail so far. The point is that the figure of 63,000 potentially veridical separate possibilities is too large. It makes more sense to look at the individual scenes, because this is how they are grouped in the journal and for verification later. Single items are not considered verified unless they match other items as well, so we can reduce the pool of possibilities to the number of scenes rather than of items. This brings the total number of possibilities down to 12,600.
Some records contain multiple scenes that relate to the same later event. This isn't always true though, so I am comfortable leaving the number of possibilities--over 22 years time, at 12,600. Now consider that with each verified dream, that number is diminished because the verified dream is no longer a member of the pool of possibilities. In dream journal 3, out of a total 80 records, 43 contain at least one verified scene, and many have several verified scenes. That is over half the total number of records eliminated. As a rule, if I ever run across a dream that appears relevant to more than one event, it counts as "unverifiable" and is eliminated as well as being counted as "not verified".If we then remove the eliminated dreams, both because they are verified or because they cannot be verified, from the total pool of possibilities, we are left with about 6,300 records. That isn't much when considering that 6,300 possible scene matches translates to about 1,500 records.
More importantly, what of the content of those dreams? The way skeptics portray them, it's as if there are an endless array of possibility against an endless variety from daily life. Is this true? My records say otherwise. For instance, a common theme in skeptic argumentation is that we tend to selectively remember the matches, and forget about the misses. My journal gives proof to that lie. As of October 3, 1999, the name "Sara Ewing" appears once in my journal, in the context of a family member dying of illness. Although I hadn't seen or heard from my friend Dayton Ewing or his mother Sara for over twenty years at the time of the dream, I later learned that she died of cancer in the same month as the dream. In other words, I know for a fact that I am not "forgetting about" the misses. I know exactly how many mentions there are because I not only have my original hand-written documents, but the digital word-for-word transcriptions of them that I made later. These transcribed journals are very easy to search for things like this. What they demonstrate over and over again is that the endless variety of options described by skeptics do not exist.
So, there are not thousands of possibilities in a person's dreaming life, and as demonstrated by the Sara Ewing example (and hundreds of others), many unique real world events have only one matching counterpart in the journal and no "misses" that have been conveniently ignored. This effectively reduces the range of options on the dream side to exactly one for each dream--not tens of thousands, but one. Now look at the number of real-world events they could match and that is a truly huge number. This is where you get such figures as a "one in a billion chance", because that is what it is. It is not closer to the 1:1 odds skeptics would give on the basis that there are equal numbers on either side. But then, let's forget about the numbers for a minute. The dreams aren't numbers, and the content isn't a pile of numbers either. The records describe specific real world situations. Why would I dream of the spirit of the mother of my best friend from childhood? I hadn't dreamed of her before, and then in 1999, about 20 years since I'd last heard from the family, I have my first dream of Sara and she's telling me that someone in the family has died of an illness. At about the same time, it turns she has died of an illness. Does that sound random? Or does it sound like the spirit of a woman who died wanted to communicate the fact of her death to me?
Numbers can be interesting, but they are far from telling the full story.
Some interesting links about Wiseman and his friends at CSIcop for those who are interested:
Chris Carter's critique of Richard Wiseman's methods You'll have to scroll down to Chris Carter's name to get the PDF, but it is a good read.
An article on Wiseman's "hero" (as stated in "Paranormality"), Martin Gardner and his flawed research (if there was any research at all.)
Brian Josephson comments on Ray Hyman and the Natasha Demkina case