The Identity Problem

One of the most frequently asked questions I get (and that most dreamers ask themselves upon having a Visitation Dream) is “was it really Grandma?”

This is difficult to answer, for obvious reasons, however, the question opens up some fascinating avenues of inquiry, if addressed seriously, and respectfully.

Parapsychology has wrestled with “The Identity Problem” for centuries. Simply put, “how do I know that the alleged spirit is really who/what they claim to be? How can this be accurately determined?”

While early psychical researchers were very concerned with this, the concern over identity mostly manifested itself in the debate between the survival and telepahty/super-psi camps. In other words, was it actually the deceased person communicating via the medium, or was the medium “picking up” a telepathic impression at best, or committing fraud at worst? Even in the days before Google and the Internet, it was still considerably easy to learn background information about one’s clients.

Some “proofs” of identity were knowledge based. For instance, Harry Houdini had arranged for a certain code word that would identify his deceased self to his widow. Unfortunately, what at first appeared to be After Death Communication (ADC) from a dead Houdini was later exposed to be fraud by someone who had learned the code word. Psychical researcher Frederic W.H. Myers (author of Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death) was said to have communicated after his death via “cross-correspondences,” snippets of messages delivered to a several different mediums, which when combined, seemed to indicate knowledge of esoteric subjects dear to Myers (and unknown to the mediums).

Proving identity in what might be an Incorporeal Personal Agency (IPA) is inherently difficult. Yet, upon reflection, “proving” the identity of the living is NO LESS DIFFICULT when one begins to attempt it. This is what Robert Somner, Humphry Osmond, and Lucille Pancyr determined in their paper Problems of Recognition and Identity (1960). One anecdote they relate involves early Society for Psychical Research member Sir Oliver Lodge, who had asked his children to provide a list of questions that -if answered in the affirmative- would satisfy them that he was their father.


“One by one the questions came forward. To his amazement, Sir Oliver Lodge found that he could not answer a single one. What the children considered important and evidential had no place in his recollections. So he turned to them in mock despair, and said, ‘that settles it, I’m not your father’” (p. 99)


In their study, Somner, et al, sought to learn how people established their own personal identity, in order to construct models of recognition and communication. Among their many findings was that “there was a difference between a person’s attempt to prove his identity while he is physically present and when he is not present” (p. 115).

In many respects, this may be due to what Somner and his co-researchers call “social props,” such as driver’s licenses, passports, etc. “Society, by establishing these props, makes it unnecessary for a person to devote much time to proving his identity” (p. 116). While Somner, Osmond, and Pancyr’s article is philosophically fascinating, and asks a number of very important questions into the nature of identity, it is regretfully only a series of pilot studies that leaves more questions than answers.

Philosopher and parapsychologist Stephen Braude returns to the question of identity in his article Personal Identity and Postmortem Survival (2005). Braude cites the work of Terence Penelhum, who


“has suggested that because bodily continuity would be broken in any genuine case of postmortem survival, it becomes “optional” whether we say that premortem and postmortem individuals are identical. Prior to that decision, it is neither true nor false that those individuals are identical. And in that case, it is up for us to decide whether to identify them on the basis of some kind of psychological continuity” (p. 247).


It is entirely fair to suggest that death is a traumatic event. Many spiritual traditions that recognize the possibility of survival suggest that what survives is a significantly different version of us. While I can not remain intellectually honest and claim any definitive “proof” of survival, I bring these two articles into the discussion as the identity questions are inherent in Visitation Dreams. “Grandma was there with me in the dream,” and “even though I knew she was dead, I knew it was her,” are often the types of narratives that emerge in Visitation Dream reports. As Braude notes, the identity problem is both metaphysical and epistemological (p. 226). Respectively, “what makes me, me?” and “how do I know you are you?” These are simple, yet enormous questions in both dreaming and waking.

I will leave off with this question: Is it possible that our antagonistic questioning of the “reality” of the person in our dreams – while useful and practical in terms of the phenomenon of Visitation Dreams – is also betraying our own inherent cultural biases against the meaningfulness of dreams and dreaming?

Until next time…


Braude, S. (2005). Personal Identity and Postmortem Survival. Social Philosophy & Policy 22(2): 226-249.

Somner, R. Osmond, H. and Pancyr, L. (1960). Problems of Recognition and Identity. International Journal of Parapsychology 2(3): 99-119.

Further Reading:

Myers, F.W.H. (2001). Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death. Charlottesville: Hampton Roads.

Penulhum, T. (1970). Survival and Disembodied Existence. London: Routledge and Kegan.



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August 7th, 2012 by kkovelant

What is a Visitation Dream?

The phenomenon of the dead appearing in dreams has been recorded throughout human history. Homer uses this sort of dream as a literary device in The Iliad, Lucretius mentions them (if only to dismiss them) in Book Four of On The Nature of Things (written in about 50 B.C.E.), and, Virgil, Apuleius, and Ovid all use such dreams in their tales, as well. Such dreams were also well known in ancient Egypt, and in just about every other culture on the planet. Eventually, I will write more extensively about this.

But what is a Visitation Dream? While many dream researchers tend to categorize and sub-categorize these dreams a number of different ways, my own preference is to use a deliberately broad definition. For the purposes of this website, a Visitation Dream is defined as “any dream involving the deceased, where the dreamer has felt that the deceased was actually present in the dream with them.” This feeling can occur during the dream, and/or upon waking. Additionally, it is possible that the dreamer may not even know that the deceased person is, in fact, deceased, until later.

Why the broad definition? Let’s take a look at a few attempts to sub-classify these dreams:

In an article published in the journal Omega: The Journal of Death and Dying, dream researcher Deirdre Barrett (1992) listed four types of these dreams:

  • Deceased describing the state of death.
  • Deceased delivering messages to the living.
  • Deceased giving seeking to change the circumstances of their death.
  • Deceased giving loved ones a chance to say goodbye (p. 97).

Barrett also stresses that these categories “are not intended to be so definitive that the dreams can not be sorted usefully among other dimensions” (p. 106).

Patricia Garfield (1996), in a piece that appears in the anthology Trauma and Dreams (coincidentally) edited by Barrett, lists 11 “types” of Visitation Dreams:

  • Alive-Again Dreams (deceased appears and the survivor may or may not realize the person is actually dead).
  • Dying-Again Dreams (deceased is once more suffering symptoms that caused death).
  • Saying-Goodbye Dreams (deceased appears and bids farewell to the survivor)
  • Taking-a-Journey Dreams (deceased is usually traveling in some sort of vehicle)
  • Telephone-Call Dreams (deceased telephones the survivor).
  • Young-Well-Again Dreams (deceased appears young and healthy)
  • Approval-Disapproval Dreams (deceased severely criticizes of strongly approves of the survivor).
  • Advice-Comfort-Gift Dreams (deceased offers advice and/or comforts the survivor).
  • Passionate-Encounter Dreams (romantic or sexual).
  • Deadly-Invitation-Dreams (deceased appears to encourage the survivor to join them in death).
  • Daily-Activity-Dreams (deceased is going about daily routines, may simply just be present) (pp.188-203).

Stanley Krippner and Laura Faith (2001) describe Visitation Dreams as dreams in which “the deceased person or an entity from another reality…provide counsel or direction that the dreamer found of comfort or value” (p. 76).

Finally, T.J. Wray and Ann Back Price, in their book Grief Dreams: How They Help Us After the Death of a Loved One (2005), opt to go with four types:

  • Visitation Dreams (dreamer merely spends time with the deceased).
  • Message Dreams (dreamer receives important information from the deceased).
  • Reassurance Dreams (dreamer is comforted by the deceased).
  • Trauma Dreams (often troubling, the dreamer flashes back to the death of the deceased) (pp. 3-5).

I would like to state that none of these types is inherently counter to my own definition. In fact, I would suggest, that they’re rather contingent on it. All of these types of dreams are dependent on the deceased appearing in the dream in the first place. It is because of this that I am going deliberately broad. Additionally, I wish to remove any language suggesting that these dreams are “always” or “inherently” comforting. In most instances, they are. However, in many cultures, these dreams are not welcome.

The categorizations listed above are useful, and can provide a number of signposts to look out for (telephone calls from the dead, for instance, are actually pretty common in these dreams). I will revisit these subtypes of Visitation Dreams in future posts, and show how they turn up in various dream reports that have crossed my path over the years.

In the meantime, I welcome your feedback, and your dreams.



  • Barrett, D. (1992). Through a Glass Darkly: Images of the Dead in Dreams. Omega 24(2), 97-108.
  • Garfield, P. (1996). Dreams in Bereavement. In Barrett, D. (Ed.), Trauma and Dreams (pp. 186-211). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Krippner, S. and Faith, L. (2001). Exotic Dreams: A Cross-Cultural Study. Dreaming 11(2): 73-82.
  • Wray, T.J. and Price, A.B. (2005). Grief Dreams: How They Help Us After the Death of a Loved One. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


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August 7th, 2012 by kkovelant

Bibliography Now Online

Looking for resources additional resources about Dreams, Dreams of the Dead, and related phenomena?

I’ve posted my research bibliography. Click on the link at the top of the page to dive down the rabbit hole.

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August 7th, 2012 by kkovelant