Perhaps the most famous dream prediction comes from the Bible. Pharaoh dreams of standing by the Nile. Seven sleek, fat cows emerge from the river, followed by seven scrawny, ugly cows that eat the plump, succulent ones.
But what does it mean?
There’s a pattern, isn’t there? Good is followed and overwhelmed by bad. And seven comes into it. Pharaoh summons Joseph, who interprets the dream – seven years of abundance will be followed by seven years of famine. The input is valuable. Now Pharaoh can anticipate and conserve for the bad years. But if Pharaoh can predict, why doesn’t he just dream of seven plentiful years and seven starvation years? What’s with the cannibalistic cows? Do these cows represent an associative pattern in Pharaoh’s experience? And how would identifying a pattern enable prediction, anyway?
It has to do with the way the brain works; it doesn’t passively receive information about the external world but, rather, actively interprets that information and looks for patterns in it. If everything were random, there would be no patterns, and prediction would be impossible.
You can predict only by discerning a pattern in your experience (or knowledge, which is a sub-set of your experience). Are there regularities or sequences in events? Do some events generally occur with others? If there are associative patterns in events, they can be used to help predict what will happen next.
Some patterns are deterministic and logical. For example, day follows night. Day and night are, therefore, associated as a sequence in the human mind, and we can predict that day will occur after night. Another example: traffic is worst at commuter times, and heavy traffic is associated with commuting. This isn’t an association determined by natural law but, without human intervention to stagger commuter times or alter traffic flows, you can still predict the bad traffic around 8am.
Some patterns are much less obvious. We call them ‘probabilistic’ because they are based on events that have a tendency only to co-occur, so we cannot be as confident in predicting them. Predicting the behaviour of living beings, human and animal, is a probabilistic task. Based on their past behaviour, you know it is likely that they will do certain things but you don’t know for sure. Their behaviour is not random but neither is it determined. Living beings can always surprise you.
For example, I am a research academic with limited teaching hours. Most of my time is spent writing papers at home. It is not easy to predict when I will go into the university. The most obvious logical predictor is if I have teaching, but I will swap teaching if I have a research engagement. Another predictor is a booked meeting, but if an urgent research deadline looms I will skip the meeting. So although being at the university has a tendency to co-occur (and be associated) with teaching and meetings, it is by no means determined by them.
A less obvious predictor is an invitation to have coffee with an interesting colleague. If I am scheduled to teach and attend a meeting and also have the chance to join a colleague for coffee, it is very likely that I’ll be on campus – but it is still only a probability, albeit a strong one. On the other hand, I could be at the university just to have coffee with a colleague or because I am moving from one office to another, though these are much less likely to co-occur. That said, having coffee with a colleague on the same day I am moving office are probabilistic predictors of me being at the university.
What has all this got to do with dreaming?
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