Can we put our dreams to work for us? Yes, says Deirdre Barrett, a leading expert on how dreams can inspire creativity and help solve problems. Barrett, an assistant professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, has been studying dreams for almost 40 years. The author of “The Committee of Sleep: How Artists, Scientists, and Athletes Use Dreams for Creative Problem-solving—and How You Can, Too,” Barrett’s current projects include an examination of the dreams of prisoners of war and another of prominent novelists. Drawing on her latest research, she shares her thoughts on the role dreams play in our lives and the potential they have to help us dig for clues in our unconscious minds to the many puzzles and mysteries of life:
Q. Dreams have been studied, used and analyzed for various purposes by multiple cultures for centuries. What is your understanding of the role they play in our lives and in our minds today?
Barrett: I believe that the function of dreams is that they are essentially thinking —in a different biochemical state — that our brains are still active in sleep. So we’re still working on all the same problems and sometimes reach a solution that’s different than when we think about it awake. However, in Western society most people don’t pay too much attention to their dreams. We’re not taught to put emphasis on our dreams. And I think that in tribal cultures that more explicitly look to their dreams that they probably get more frequent dream guidance. But I think that even in Western culture, where most people are basically ignoring it, once in a while a dream just gets someone’s attention with a sort of — wow, here’s a very different take on this issue or this problem than you’ve had so far.
Q. A large part of your research has focused on using dreams to solve problems or dilemmas. One method you focus on is known as “dream incubation.” Can you explain what that means?
Barrett: It’s a term borrowed from the ancient Greeks, who would have people sleep in dream temples, where usually they were trying to have a dream to provide a medical diagnosis or even physical healing during the dream. But modern psychologists use that term to mean any sort of formal ritual we do to try and influence our dreams or request things of our dreaming minds.
Q. Are there specific kinds of problems that are more easily solved than others using dream incubation?
Barrett: There are basically two categories of problems that the nature of the dreaming brain seems better at. One category is anything that benefits from being visualized, where a vivid 3-D visualization of it is helpful. So artists get the most inspiration, visual artists, of the creative arts — more so than writers, who get it more so than musicians. Also within the sciences, when the problem is the structure of a chemical molecule, or someone is trying to develop a computer circuit to do something, or there’s really a 3-D layout. Architects seem to get a lot of help from their dreams. So anything where being able to vividly, visually see something that doesn’t exist yet –we’re just better about that in our dreaming mind than we are in our waking mind.
Another category related to emotional problems, where a person’s typical, characteristic way of approaching things is kind of ingrained and set and they would veto ways of doing things differently as “no, no, that’s not who I am.” Our usual defensive style and character quirks relax during dreams. So “think outside the box” is the second category where dreams are likely to make a breakthrough.
Q. You have acknowledged that there are still many mysteries surrounding dreams, what they are telling us and how their messages are sent from the unconscious to the conscious mind. What role does the brain play in all of this?
Barrett: My best guess is that some of what look like problem-solving dreams, that some of them seem to actually be solving the problem in the course of the dreams, especially the visual-spatial ones, where you kind of see the artist coming up with the inspiration that they are going to paint or sculpt, or you see the inventor of a device actually getting the circuit just right as the dream unfolds. Especially for the visual-spatial ones, the nature of the dreaming brain is solving the problem by having our secondary cortex more active than it is even than when we’re awake.
But there are other problems where it looks like from the start of the dream that some entity in the dream is trying to tell the dreamer the answer to something that they’ve been wondering about and that the purpose of the dream is more to communicate something the dreamer has not been listening to while awake or has not consciously paid attention to. Sometimes things that we solved awake in some unconscious part of our mind are being communicated during the dream, and that probably owes more to the fact that the prefrontal area of the brain is so much less active, that we’re not censoring ourselves, there’s no part of us screaming “no, no, don’t say that, don’t think that way.”
Q. Among your latest projects is an analysis of three 20th century novelists — Graham Greene, William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac — and the connection between their dreams and their fiction. What were your general findings?
Barrett: Probably the strongest finding — but hardly the most surprising one — is how much more creative and unusual their dreams look in so many ways compared to young men of pretty much the same era. These writers had more imaginary characters, more characters who morphed into someone else in the course of the dreams. We actually had predicted they’d have more what the scale calls “distorted settings,” and they didn’t. But they had many more exotic and unfamiliar settings. The ones who did not explicitly censor sexual interaction out of their published reports had more sex, but Graham Greene, who was known to have had a really wild sex life, types in his preface [to “A World of my Own: A Dream Diary,” Viking, 1994] that the only censorship he did was of any content that might embarrass someone else. And there is not a sex dream in Graham Greene’s published dreams. However there are tons in Kerouac’s, and a fair amount in Burroughs’s.
Q. If you were able to have the dream life of one of them, who would it be and why?
Barrett: William Burroughs. His dreams are so much more surreal, the way there were constantly spirits and entities and everybody was transparent and they’d be a person one minute and one of his cats another. And his cats would say all these wise things to him. So he just had the sort of richest, most interesting dream life maybe for the dreams themselves, but what he did with it in his fiction may actually not have been as much as the way Greene used it. And then Kerouac is so hard to compare because Kerouac is often called a novelist, but he was barely disguising autobiographical material and not pretending he wasn’t. So when he had a dream it was just there with the rest of the account from that day, in a way that’s a little bit different than the other writers. He is his own protagonist in all his books.
Q. For mere mortals, what if someone tries dream incubation — which you usually recommend practicing for at least a week — and finds that no solution appears to be offered by a dream?
Barrett: I would answer that question somewhat differently for different subgroups for which it didn’t work. If somebody is already someone who recalls a lot of their dreams, they do this incubation and they are recalling dreams that seem to have nothing to do with the question, at first I would encourage them to find ways to rephrase it that may be more emotionally salient, or get more vivid, more visual imagery in there that will connect with their dreaming mind. If it just isn’t happening for those people, I think the idea is that their dreaming mind is more concerned with other issues for some reason of its own and maybe they should be listening simply to what their natural dreams are targeting and speaking to them about.
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