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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