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Deirdre Barrett is a Harvard psychologist and world-renowned dream specialist. Her latest book, The Committee of Sleep, shows how some of the most creative people use their dreams for creative problem solving.
Her book includes examples of artists Salvador Dali and Jasper Johns, architect Lucy Davis, filmmakers like Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, and Orson Wells, writers Steven King and Mary Shelly, and musicians from Beethoven to the Beatles.
Barrett suggests ways we may access solutions to our daily problems by learning to direct our dreams and paying attention to the profound insights that they offer.
Celeste: How did you get the title of your latest book, The Committee of Sleep?
Deirdre: It was from a John Steinbeck quote: "It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it."
I like the poetic sound of the phrase, and that's specifically why I used it in the title. I also liked his concept of the unconscious and sleep and dreaming as a plurality, as the word "committee" implies. The unconscious in general and the creative mind create a type of thinking that contrasts with waking thinking.
Almost any part of ourself that is not conscious by day can come through in dreams. We can access thoughts that are wiser than our usual ideas, and behaviors that are more primitive.
Celeste: Can you give us some examples of artists who used dreams to help with their work?
Deirdre: Salvador Dali is one of my favorites because he consciously courted particular kinds of dreams and wrote about techniques to capture dream imagery.
He was interested in hypnogogic dreams dreams that take place in the space between waking and dreaming when we first fall asleep. Dali developed a technique where he would fall asleep in an armchair while holding a key. When the key dropped to the floor, he would wake up and have access to the dreamlike imagery that comes at the onset of sleep. He made a number of paintings using that technique. He also had people wake him up gradually, with smells and other things that might intrude on the dream before he was fully awake.
Celeste: What about other artists?
Deirdre: Most artists' dreams don't have to be extraordinary in order to be useful. The average dream is not going to solve a problem in chemistry, but it will have useful visual imagery. So artists can be affected by their dreams without trying to influence them.
William Blake, for instance, received technical help in his dreams. This is unusual, since most artists simply paint the images in their dreams. But in Blake's case, he was actually told in a dream how to make engraving plates to improve the process of engraving.
Also, in a painting titled "Man Who Instructed Blake in Painting His Dreams," Blake sketched the dream-teacher who came to him. This supernatural art instructor had a third eye in his forehead.
Celeste: What writers have unique stories to tell about the influence dreams have had on their work?
Deirdre: Robert Louis Stevenson was influenced by his dreams. He wrote an essay in which he called his dream helpers "the Brownies," which is reminiscent of Steinbeck's "committee of sleep" phrase.
Stevenson said that his books actually started out as dreams. When he had a basic outline for a novel, he'd fall asleep and the characters would be elaborated in more detail, and would take directions he hadn't considered.
He said that the two key themes of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde came from a dream in which a doctor is transformed by drinking a potion, and later is transformed without the potion.
In Stevenson's Sleep: Its Physiology, Pathology, Hygiene, and Psychology, he describes the work of the Brownies.
Who are they then? My Brownies, who do one-half my work for me while I am fast asleep, and in all human likelihood, do the rest for me as well, when I am wide awake and fondly suppose I do it for myself. For myself what I call I, my conscious ego the denizen of the pineal gland unless he has changed residence since Descartes I am sometimes tempted to suppose he is no story-teller at all... so that, by that account, the whole of my published fiction should be the single-handed product of some Brownie, some Familiar, some unseen collaborator, whom I keep locked in a back garret, while I get all the praise and he but a share... I am an excellent advisor, I pull back and cut down; and I dress the whole in the best words and sentences that I can find and make; I held the pen, too; and I do the sitting at the table which is the worst of it.
Celeste: Do you have stories about musicians who create music in their dreams?
Deirdre: There are some classic examples. Beethoven dreamed one piece. Paul McCartney dreamed "Yesterday" not the music, just the words. Some musicians say they often dream the music before they compose it.
I interviewed a Boston area composer, Shirish Korde, who says that when he is working on a piece he'll have a dream that will help him with the music. Shirish also talked about hearing music just as he wakes up.
He said that in one piece he saw a flock of birds. Their height in the sky as they were flying corresponded to musical notes. Other times, he said, he sees color, light, and tones that represent musical notes or he'll hear the music itself.
Celeste: Do some architects get their ideas from dreaming?
Deirdre: Yes. Some architects dream that they are at a blackboard, working on a blueprint.
Lucy Davis, chief architect at a major firm in North Carolina, says that most of her major design innovations come from dreams. In her dream, she walks through the finished building as though she's remembering things. She'll say, "Oh yes, I decided to put the staircase over there so it wouldn't conflict with the curved windows that I want to use..." That sort of thing.
Davis says that her dreams address areas where she's been stuck. In her dreams she'll notice how she compromised, or she'll discover a solution that she hadn't thought of. Sometimes the solutions are very realistic and other times they are metaphors.
Celeste: Do you think Davis used a particular technique to dream this way?
Deirdre: No, it started happening spontaneously, though now she's come to expect it. She doesn't do any formal incubation. If she's stuck on a problem, she'll say to herself, "I'll probably dream about that tonight," or "I want to dream about that tonight." For her, solutions come rather easily in dreams.
In college, she majored in music and was going to be a composer. When she was writing music, she heard musical compositions in her sleep. As she moved into architecture, her creativity shifted and she started dreaming about architecture.
Celeste: Do you have a favorite story regarding the dreams of scientists and inventors?
Deirdre: Paul Horowitz, who is here at Harvard, designed radio telescopes and had some fascinating dreams that helped him in this area. These telescopes are huge dishes that cover a couple of miles of hillsides in the Andes not the kind of telescope that you hold up to your eye.
He said that about every two weeks he was stuck on a problem, like how to assemble a group of lenses or how to build a computer chip that would control some part of the mechanism. These were serious problems, and every time he was stuck he'd have a dream.
His dreams always took the same form. He'd find himself watching a man who was working on the same problem that he himself was dealing with during the day. The man would have a bunch of little lenses in front of him, or he'd be busy building a computer chip. Horowitz's dreams also featured a narrator who verbally described the problems. Then the narrator would describe the best solution while simultaneously Paul would look over the man's shoulder and watch as he assembled the mechanism.
His dreams had crystal-clear verbal and visual instructions. He doesn't do anything to incubate dreams, but he's come to expect them. He keeps a pad by his bed and writes the dreams down.
Celeste: What about the dreams of political leaders? In your book, you speak of the impact dreams had on Gandhi.
Deirdre: In India, people are raised with the idea that dreams are a great source of practical advice. The story of Gandhi is very dramatic because it had such an influence on the world.
After World War I, India expected more freedom from British rule. Instead, the British started to crack down on India's civil liberties movement. They passed the Rowlatt Acts in 1919, which were suppressive of civil liberties. Gandhi argued against them in the legislative chamber, but despite his efforts they were they passed.
The night after reading of the final passage of the Rowlatt Acts, Ghandi had a dream in which he called for a general "hartal" a religious ceremony that includes fasting and celebrating in the street. In the dream, he understood that the celebration in the street could be disruptive to ordinary economic business activity.
He listened to his dream and held a series of fasts and non-violent spiritual protests in the street. In a little over a decade, Ghandi's non-violent movement against British rule finally culminated in freedom for India. And he really solved the most basic component of what he was going to do in this dream.
Celeste: Where do you think this wisdom comes from?
Deirdre: In the case of Gandhi, it's definitely a higher wisdom within himself, or a part of himself that was able to be more optimistic, even though his conscious self was crushed by the passing of the Acts.
I tend to think that our individual minds have all sorts of capacities that are not fully realized in our conscious mind or in logical reasoning, and that those capacities come through in these kinds of dreams.
Celeste: Are there particular qualities in these people that you've mentioned that make them want to pay attention to their dreams?
Deirdre: Yes and no. I think that useful dreams happen more often in cultures that emphasize the importance of dreams and in people who are respectful of their dreams.
On the other hand, in examples, people say that they'd never before given thought to their dreams or bothered to remember them. But then, suddenly, they were hit by a dream that offered a wonderful solution to a problem.
Obviously, these kinds of dreams have to be more clear-cut and concrete than most dreams are. But someone who is listening attentively to their dreams may get help from a metaphoric kind of dream that needs to be interpreted for the message to be understood.
Some dreams are crystal clear. One dream may have the blueprint for a particular machine. Another may have the answer to a chemistry problem. Dreams do this for people even in cultures that denigrate dreams. The process works independent of our conditioning. But in a culture where dreams are respected, the odds are greater that a person will be helped by their dreams.
Celeste: How have nightmares influenced creative problem solving?
Deirdre: Most of these kinds of creative dreams are fairly dramatic. Maybe it's just inherently exciting or dramatic to have the solution appear, or maybe undramatic dreams with good solutions don't get remembered as easily. For whatever reasons, there's a correlation between these important, problem-solving dreams and a feeling of drama and significant emotion.
In my book, I quote Shelley's Frankenstein, where she describes the dream that inspired that classic horror story.
I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade. He sleeps but he is awakened; he opens his eyes, behold, the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtain and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.
Swift as light and cheering was the idea that broke in upon me. "I have found it! What terrified me will terrify others, and I need only describe the specter which had haunted my midnight pillow." On the morrow I announced I had thought of the story.
Nightmares are by definition dramatic and emotional dreams that wake you up, and so you remember them. In art and literature, there are a lot of works that started out as scary nightmares. Goya painted his nightmares. Steven King and Anne Rice also use their nightmares to help them with their work.
Celeste: Why do dreams seem to be more visual than auditory?
Deirdre: We don't know for sure. My guess is that in sleep we need to remain aware of threatening auditory and olfactory cues. It's dark at night, and in sleep we shut down visual stimuli anyway, so there's no harm in having visual hallucinations. Imagery can go wild in our sleep and do all sorts of creative and speculative things. It doesn't have to stay tied to sensory input at all.
But in sleep we still have to monitor the other senses for cues to real-world danger. For example, it would be maladaptive to hallucinate the smell of smoke. We would have to wake up every time we dreamed that smell, because ignoring it could be dangerous. It might be the signal of a real fire.
Celeste: In Committee of Sleep, you quote Jung as saying, "A dream is a theater in which the dreamer is himself, the scene, the player, the prompter, the author, the producer, the public, and the critic." Do you take that approach to understanding dreams? Do you believe that the characters in a dream are split-off parts of ourselves?
Deirdre: I think that dreams are multi-layered. The Jungian approach is very useful, but you may dream about your sister, for instance, and it might have something to do with your sister and how you feel about her. You might ask, "What does this sister figure represent?" and "What does this say about a real-life situation that I am having with her or with another real-life person that she reminds me of?"
Dreams can be about parts of ourselves, or they can be about the real person in the world that we're dreaming about or a play on their name.
I think that in these problem-solving dreams, some of these wise characters that present a solution represent an aspect of ourselves that may be wiser. In a dream about a chemistry problem, for instance, you might discover other personal aspects of your life that are getting worked on at the same time.
Celeste: Can you describe rules of dream incubation.
Deirdre: Here are some guidelines from my book:
This is a good starting point for the average person. These steps make it much more likely that you'll have a problem-solving dream.
- Write down the problem as a brief phrase or sentence, and place this by your bed.
- Review the problem for a few minutes just before going to bed.
- Once in bed, visualize the problem as a concrete image if it lends itself to this. Visualize yourself dreaming about the problem, awakening, and writing on the bedside note pad.
- Tell yourself you want to dream about the problem just as you are drifting off to sleep.
- Keep a pen and paper perhaps also a flashlight or pen with a lighted tip on the night table.
- Arrange objects connected to the problem on your night table... or on the wall across from your bed if they lend themselves to a poster.
- Upon awakening, lie quietly before getting out of bed. Note whether there is any trace of a recalled dream, and invite more of the dream to return if possible. Write it down.
Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D., is on the psychology faculty of Harvard Medical School. She is the author of the widely acclaimed The Pregnant Man and Other Cases from a Hypnotherapist's Couch. She is former president of the Association for the Study of Dreams and editor of the journal Dreaming, and has published numerous professional articles and chapters on dreams.
Her commentary on dreams has been featured on NBC, in Life and Self magazines, and other national venues. She has lectured on dreams in the United States, Russia, Kuwait, Israel, England, and Holland.
Deirdre Barrett lives and has her clinical practice in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
- Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.
- Analytical Psychology: Its Theory and Practice by Carl Jung.