THE BLOG

As a Dream Predicts Lottery Win, and Malaysian Airlines Passenger Posts Eerily Prophetic Picture - Can Dream and Visions Foretell the Future?

22/07/2014 11:00 BST | Updated 20/09/2014 10:59 BST

The UK press has reported that a judge recently ordered a restaurant owner to split half of a million pound lottery prize with his waiter, because of a dream foretelling the future.

The boss of a Turkish restaurant in York, England, bought the winning lottery ticket following a vivid dream experienced by his superstitious employee, predicting the win.

Judge Mark Gosnell's ruling followed a protracted legal dispute between the two men as to whom the prize money belonged to. The Judge's final decision, that the jackpot had to be split by the boss with his waiter, partly turned on a premonition.

It is reported that the waiter dreamt that he was holding a large bundle of cash and standing in front of him was his boss. Being a strong believer in the power of such visions, the dreamer interpreted this to mean that he and his boss would scoop the lottery.

The following day the waiter apparently "pestered" his boss for hours, before the restaurant owner finally agreed to enter the EuroMllions draw.

The judge examined CCTV footage from the restaurant which showed the two men filling in the winning ticket, and ruled in the waiter's favour, accepting the dream explanation was "plausible".

While anecdotal reports of dreams predicting the future abound, Parapsychologists are interested in scientifically testing whether foretelling the future might be possible.

For example, a paper entitled, 'An ostensible precognition of the Arab surprise attack on the Day of Atonement, 1973', published in 1986 by Gilad Livneh, in the 'Journal of the Society for Psychical Research', presented just such a compelling case. A letter to Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir, was discussed in which a woman reports her vision about an Arab attack, two weeks before the actual event took place.

While accurate prophecy was a plausible explanation, however, the author also conceded that chance coincidence could not be ruled out, due to the inconsistency of certain details between the dream, and the actual event itself.

Caroline Watt, Natalie Ashley, Jack Gillett, Megan Halewood and Rebecca Hanson from the Department of Psychology, University of Edinburgh, have just published one of the most recent systematic studies on prophetic dreams.

These authors report surveys showing that around one quarter of the population believes in the ability to foretell the future, while about one third report 'precognitive' experiences (precognitive means literally fore-knowing).

The authors also point out the scientific and public importance should some dreams indeed turn out to be reliably prophetic. For example, if such precognitive dreams contain trustworthy information, it might be possible to warn of forthcoming disasters, or even to prevent them from occurring.

This has particular resonance right now given a Dutch passenger feared dead, is recently reported to have posted a photo of the Malaysian Airlines Jet he was boarding, destined to crash in the Ukraine, with the message: "if we disappear, this is what the plane looks like".

Caroline Watt, Rebecca Hanson and colleagues point out that following the Aberfan disaster the British Premonitions Bureau was set up in London, and in the USA the Central Premonitions Registry was established. Both appear to have faltered partly due to an insufficient number of predictions that could be related to specific incidents.

Linking an incident which has now happened with a prior dream could merely be a tendency to see patterns facilitated by the benefit of hindsight.

In another past study reported by the authors of the latest research, participants were asked to document their dreams upon awakening, and then to mail a copy to the researcher. The dreamers were asked to notify the investigator if they noticed any events occurring that corresponded to their dreams. In one series, it was judged that only two out of 265 dreams (over an 8-week period) appeared 'moderately' prophetic.

Caroline Watt, Rebecca Hanson and colleagues' current paper, entitled 'Psychological factors in precognitive dream experiences: The role of paranormal belief, selective recall and propensity to find correspondences', investigated the part of selective recall in prophetic dream experiences. Participants read two diaries, one purporting to be a dream diary, and one claiming to be a diary of incidents in the dreamer's life. The events either confirmed or disconfirmed the reported visions.

A significantly greater number of confirmed than disconfirmed dream-event pairs were recalled by participants taking part in the experiment, possibly indicating a human tendency to see connections over unconnected happenings.

The authors argue that their research, published in the 'International Journal of Dream Research' in April 2014, explain the seeming coincidence between dreams and events that can be interpreted as prophetic.

Two possible psychological mechanisms - selective recall and propensity to find correspondences seem to lead us to experience many more dreams apparently foretelling the future, than may genuinely exist.

These explain the discrepancy between the dearth of scientific support for prophetic dreams, compared with the rather frequently reported experience in the general population, of having dreamed about a seemingly unpredictable future event.

Psychologists Gergo Hadlaczky and Joakim Westerlund from Stockholm University have published a study in 2011 which argues that how surprised you are by coincidences could predict how likely you are to end up believing in phenomena such as parapsychology and the supernatural.

The study entitled 'Sensitivity to coincidences and paranormal belief' and published in the journal, 'Perceptual and Motor Skills' exposed participants to artificial coincidences, who were asked to provide remarkability ratings. Those who were more surprised, when experiencing coincidences, tend towards higher paranormal belief (beliefs such as in telepathy etc).

The most obvious explanation for many coincidences is 'just chance'. Tending to be more surprised by coincidence suggests a tendency to reject the 'it's just chance' account. For example, there will be some who put it down to just chance that two Malaysian Airlines Jets should suffer catastrophe in a short space of time. Others will be much more surprised.

It's possible that a tendency to be more shocked by coincidence simply betrays poor probability reasoning. But it could also have positive survival value in an evolutionary sense. Being more paranoid may mean seeing patterns in what others assume are random events.

Being more astonished by coincidence, could have made you more vigilant for threat in our ancestral environment, more paranoid, and therefore more able to detect and defend against predators in our ancestral past. We could be genetically wired up to be surprised by coincidence.

But paranoia and surprise by chance is only helpful if it leads to an actual action that then produces a positive outcome. The passenger reported to have posted the prophetic internet message about the Malaysian Airlines Jet due to be flying over Ukraine, apparently still did board the plane.

The recent lottery-winner case appears an excellent example of a kind of quasi-scientific proof that dreams can foretell the future, because the person who had the dream then engaged in an action the next day as a direct result - persuading his boss to buy a lottery ticket.

Yet if the waiter in the most recent legal judgement ruling was so convinced by his prophetic dream - why did he not take more precautions to safeguard his claim to the win?

Why did he not foresee that sharing the ticket purchase with his boss was going to lead to a protracted legal battle?

Depending on how you interpret it, this could become an example of how dreams or visions don't really predict the future.