Dream Weaving Part 1 - My first post about pseudo science

The paper I want to discuss in this post was brought to my attention by a podcast I enjoy called "The Skeptics Guide to the Universe". This is a variety show that covers several different skeptical or science topics with a few staple segments. In the "News" section they either discuss some new scientific discovery, something from the general news, or articles they think deserve ridicule. In the last episode I listened to, they discussed an article published in Psychology Today, about a scientific paper (by a different author) that had been published in 2013. After I heard the discussion, the dismissive tone of the commentators, and the way in which they wrote off the study, I felt like they hadn't given the studys a fair shake (though the premise was fairly ridiculous).

Once I started reading the Psychology Today article and the original research paper, I started noticing some of the issues that arise when non-social psychologists try and look at our work. I still think that that the paper is ludicrous and poorly done but not for all of the same reasons as the people on the podcast. It was obvious after looking at both that the podcasters didn't have access to the original article and were using the vague generalizations about the methods that the Psychology Today article as actual methods as opposed to a summary of methods. The methods had problems in the study but the criticisms of the podcasters ended up being just far removed enough from what I saw as justifiable criticisms that the authors of either the article or the original research might be able to dismiss the "Rouges" as uninformed.

The article - titled "Can our dreams solve problems while we sleep" - is very short (840 words) and is an overview of 1 of 2 studies published in a paper called "Can healthy, young adults uncover personal details of unknown target individuals in their dreams?" The articles primary goal is to briefly describe the experiment and then provide some elaboration, suggesting that more similar work should be done in the past. As a critique of the research paper, the author seems to take the paper uncritically, praising the author as rigorous and ending the article with two paragraphs that begin "Lets say that some sort of dream telepathy is real" and suggest that there is something very real going on in this study. I am unconvinced by this paper, and the lack of a measurable mechanism in the paper.

I am now onto the 4th paragraph and I have not said what the paper was about. The research paper - published in a fairly low-tier journal called EXPLORE: The Journal of Science and Healing" - provides a rather detailed narrative of the process of this paper's development, which is not common in many of the articles I read. The paper's sole author is Carlyle Smith, a notable researcher on sleep. His past research appears to have primarily focused on the relationship of sleep states and the amount of sleep on memory and learning. Regardless of his past work, this paper arose directly from a course that Dr. Smith was teaching on "Dreams and Dreaming", a reasonable topic of study for a sleep researcher. A student in the class brought up the topic of the "Dream Helper Ceremony" and the instructor decided to do a pilot test in the class. The paper mentioned that this was a senior-level psychology class. From my experience in similar classes, the interests of the students often drive the class and there are sometimes not rigorous syllabi provided, so this seemed reasonable to me.

The "Dream Helper Ceremony" is essentially the idea that a group of individuals come together, hear about the life problem of an individual, and then all go to sleep, focusing their mind on the other's life problem and hopefully dreaming about said problem. The dreams are then shared with the target, who hopefully takes some value from this process. The researcher then decided to design a study that would get at one of the factors of this scenario, whether individuals can dream about the problems of others. In the dream helper ceremony description, the author suggests that the problem is discussed before dreaming, so the jump to looking at whether the content of the problem can come across a dream seems a large one to me.

The researcher provided the students in the class a picture of a person with a problem (the problem was not known to the researcher or the students) but they were told it was health-related. A subset of the students returned with a dream log that they believed represented the target (12 of 65). The researcher coded the dream logs based on a set of criteria that specifically captured elements of the target's health that would be negatively affected. This is a bit of a dubious practice because if the coder has more categories that fit the health diagnosis than other categories, they will be more likely to find matches for the health categories. The podcasters noted this problem. The researcher did weight the extent to which the health mention matched the problem of the person which helps alleviate some concern.  The researchers compared earlier dreams of the 12 with the dreams that the individuals reported as having been about the target. And, surprise, surprise, there was more language that matched the health outcomes in the second dreams. As should be obvious, the students knew that the target had a health problem so they were more likely to dream about those kinds of issues. There is also a self-selection bias because the others did not think they dreamed about the target. This could mean that only those that dreamed about health outcomes reported their dreams and are included in the sample. The researcher noticed these issues and attempted to correct them in the second study.

I'll discuss this study tomorrow.