Children’s experiences on the borders of sleep

Paper presented at the 22nd International Conference of
the Society for Psychical Research. York, September 1998.


In previous studies, children aged 8-13 completed questionnaires concerning psychic experiences and altered states of consciousness. Very high incidences were reported. For example about a quarter of the children had seen UFOs or strange lights; about a third claimed to have had an out-of-body experience, or sleep paralysis or to have seen a ghost; and over half reported false awakenings and a sense of presence.

There must be some doubt about the accuracy of these figures because the children may not understand the questions or may answer them on the basis of experiences other than those intended by the researcher. Also, very little detail can be obtained from questionnaires, especially with children who are too young to write extensive accounts of their experiences. For these reasons I wished to interview a smaller group of children in some depth.

Nine boys and five girls aged 9 to 11 were interviewed at their primary school in Bristol. There were three sessions on different days. First the whole class completed the same questionnaire that was used previously. Then, with the teacher’s help, I asked for volunteers to come and talk to me in an adjacent room about their experiences. There was no shortage of volunteers and in fact some had to be disappointed as there was not enough time to talk to everyone. Most interviews lasted 15-20 minutes.

The interview was semi-structured, including the following questions; what do you think about when falling asleep and on waking in the morning, what happens if you wake up during the night, have you ever woken up and could not move, can you control your dreams, have you ever seen strange lights, or creatures or heard strange noises during the night, have you ever seen a ghost, what do you think dreams are – do you have a theory about dreams? Are there any other experiences you would like to tell me about? Each topic was explored in as much detail as seemed appropriate. If they had drawn pictures to go with their questionnaire, I asked about these too. The ethical issues involved in asking young children about such topics will be discussed.

The high incidences found from the questionnaires were backed up by these interviews, although the correspondence between questionnaire answers and interview answers was not exact. The differences will be discussed.

Several children described being able to control their dreams, or at least trying to, in one case to escape from a repeated nightmare. Several described lucid dreams, two saying that they became lucid when they realised that they could fly and that this would not be the case in waking life. One described an unpleasant confusion of waking and dreaming that sounded like a false awakening. One eleven year old boy who had lucid dreams and good dream control had tried an experiment to meet up with a friend during dreams – but in their dreams they both forgot. Other experiences included apparently precognitive dreams, ghosts, and out-of-body experiences.

These interviews provide a useful check on the validity of asking children to complete questionnaires about their experiences. They have also provided some rich and varied accounts of children’s experiences. Many of the children described in a very matter-of-fact way experiences which, if reported by adults, would be considered very unusual or strange.

I wish to thank the Perrott-Warrick for financial support.