I Dream of Monty: Sleeping for Science

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Dream Telepathy: Experiments in Nocturnal ESP by Montague Ullman, et al (1973)

At first, I thought I had stumbled onto the book that would finally reveal to me the methodology for replicating my favorite movie, Inception, in real life. No longer would I be shackled to the boring reality of my teeth falling out onto a test I wasn't prepared for. With this book, I would have the tools necessary to enter other people's psyches, build crazy mazes, and do sick flips and stunts in zero-gravity.

However, I was sorely disappointed to find that this wasn’t the case. But as quickly as it came, this letdown faded just as fast, as I was intrigued to learn more about this book’s real history.

Apparently, Montague Ullman was a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and most interestingly, a parapsychologist, the same job title Bill Murray had in Ghostbusters.

In the early 1960s, Ullman founded the Dream Laboratory (which sounds like a whimsical place founded by Willy Wonka) at Maimonides Medical Center in New York, where he and his colleagues conducted many experiments on ESP.

His most famous experiment consisted of one volunteer sleeping in the lab while a second volunteer, a supposed telepath in a separate room, would view a painting from a sealed envelope and do their best to psychically send the image to the sleeper.


According to Ullman, these experiments were definitive proof of the existence of dream telepathy. However, as any science wiz will tell you, experiments, especially ones with claims this monumental, need to be repeatable to be considered legitimate and sadly, Ullman's target-picture experiments has never been successfully replicated by third parties. 

C.E.M. Hansel, a renowned psychologist and famous skeptic who was well-known for debunking claims of the supernatural, pointed out an essential flaw in Ullman's method. The main problem with how the experiments were carried out lied in the fact that a researcher would be present both when the telepath was viewing the image, and also when the sleeper was woken up and asked what image they got. This agent would know what image the telepath saw, and so when the sleeper started guessing, the agent might subconsciously change their body language and facial expressions in approval or disappointment of each guess, which the sleeper would then subconsciously pick up on, essentially leading the guess.

To be clear, nobody in this equation has any malicious intent, or an active desire to sabotage the experiment. Both the agent and the sleeper are unaware of the fact that they are leading each other, but as social creatures, we humans pick up on minor changes in expression and react accordingly. Even if we don't consciously think about the way a person is standing, or the way their eyebrows move, our brain notices this and adjust our own state of mind to compensate for an imbalance or double down on a desirable result. The truth is written all over our faces.


Dr. Lightman would be proud.

Hansel suggested that the experiment could be better handled if the only person in this setup who knew the image was the telepath, and this way the agent wouldn't know if the sleeper's guesses were right or wrong until they checked later, removing the possibility of the agent unintentionally leading the sleeper.

And sadly, when this experiment was redone by other researchers, correcting for Ullman's error, the number of correct guesses dropped significantly, to the point where the results were indistinguishable from chance.

So, sadly, I hang my head in disappointment that I will not in fact have the opportunity to simultaneously do battle with the mental projections of my billionaire mark, as well as my own demons and ex-girlfriends any time soon. 

For now, I'll have to settle for probing the minds of others through the text and celluloid creations they create. That's good enough for me.


If you enjoyed this and want to support this blog, you can watch my favorite movie of all time, or you can read one of these awesome books that pits science fiction against science. I feel like each of the authors give crazy ideas a fair shake, even when they are ultimately skeptical, which makes for a fun read. Find them all in the links below!