Interviewing Prof. Deirdre L. Barrett (The Science of Dreams)

author and teacher at Harvard Medical School, is widely known for her clinical work on dreams and her contributions to creativity and objective problem solving.

She has interviewed many modern artists and scientists on the use of their dreams, and has documented stories that happened to subsidised Nobel laureates and MacArthur geniuses whose ideas originated in dreams.

In her clinical research, she also confirms that we can learn new skills in our dreams, and find solutions to our problems, as well as through hypnosis.

Prof. Barrett has written several successful books for the general public, some of which include the titles The Pregnant Man and Other Tales From a Hypnotherapist’s CouchThe Committee of Sleep, Waistland and Supernormal Stimuli.

She is also the editor of two academic books, The New Science of Dreaming and Trauma and Dreams.

For as long as humanity has dreamt, we have felt a justified curiosity and fascination about the nature of our dreams: why we have them, what they mean or if even they mean anything at all, what they tells us about the nature of our own existence, whether we can control them… etc. This fascination has naturally fuelled many literary and film works, a famous one being Inception (2010) which directed our attention to some aspects of the science involved in attaining the understanding we long for.

So, I was wondering how much we actually know, via science (as the method of inquiry) and its applied clinical observation, and whether those conclusions match the intuition or metaphysical ideas that we all may have about the subject, either totally, partially or not at all.

By the way, you probably already know this, but, ’Inception’, although introducing many elements of fantasy, for the benefit of entertainment, is based on some of said scientific research, although the scientific term for inception is incubation.

An accomplished researcher, celebrated author, and respected faculty member, PROF. DEIRDRE L. BARRETT is also the Editor in Chief of the journal Dreaming: The Journal of the Association for the Study of Dreams and a Consulting Editor for Imagination, Cognition, and Personality along with The International Journal for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis. I am very grateful for her willingness to take time from her very busy schedule in order to freely share some of her vast knowledge on the science of dreams.

SRM: Professor Barrett, thank you very much for taking the time to participate in this interview.

Is there a scientific and clinical consensus on the mechanism and purpose of dreams or is there still a lot of ground to cover and discover in this particular area of study?

As brain imaging techniques have advanced, there is a rapidly growing body of knowledge of what the brain is doing during dreaming in terms of brain waves, changes in the group of biochemicals known as “neurotransmitters,”  and which areas of the brain are more and less active compared to the waking state. So there is a good consensus on what the physiological mechanisms of dreaming are. However, there is still huge disagreement about their meaning or purpose. Some theories have posited that dreams have one function—wish fulfilment, threat simulation, memory consolidation—or no function at all.

I believe that dreams are simply thinking in a very different biochemical state. We’re still focused on the same things as when we’re awake—worries, hopes, and fantasies.  The major concerns of dreaming are obviously our personal issues–childhood slights, current moods, and how we get along with significant others.  However, objective and professional concerns also show up in our dreams, and sometimes find useful new direction there. We’d never ask what one thing waking thought is for, it’s obviously for a huge range of purposes. I think the same is true for dreams.

SRM: You are widely known for your interviews with successful artists and geniuses, some of them Nobel Prizes, spurred by that theory. Could you, please, tell us a bit about how often these personalities used their dreams or practiced lucid dreaming and what were perceptible common factors amongst them, if any?

PROF. DEIRDRE L. BARRETT: The frequency of using dreams in one’s work varies by discipline. Well over half the visual artists I asked about this said they sometimes used their dreams in their work. Just under half of novelists, playwrights, poets, and film professionals do. It’s higher in sciences which involve inventing devices than ones which deal with abstract relationships. But help from dreams occurs occasionally in every field, even music or math, even though these areas are rare in dream.

During dreams, the visual cortex is more active, verbal areas of the brain less so, and the prefrontal cortex, which makes fine judgments about appropriateness, is greatly damped down in activity. This is very likely why research on problem solving in dreams finds that problems which benefit from vivid visualization or from abandoning conventional wisdom and “thinking outside the box” are the ones likeliest to be solved by a dream. Most of them either had their problem solving dreams spontaneously, or had simply told themselves they wanted to dream about the problem.  Only a few developed techniques for “lucid dreaming”—knowing they were dreaming while dreaming—to solve problems.

SRM: Which one would you say is the technique that both proves most effective and is easier to master, when applying it in our daily lives: incubation, lucid dreaming or hypnosis? What are each best at solving, by the way?

PROF. DEIRDRE L. BARRETT: Incubation is the technique which is easiest to master. In one weeklong study I did with college students incubating dreams about homework and other objective problems, half dreamed about the problem and a fourth solved them. They were practicing a very simple version of dream incubation for a few minutes at bedtime only.

Dream incubation is a very effective way for most people to get inspiration, guidance or problem solving from their unconscious mind. It takes much more time and effort for most people to learn to become lucid in their dreams. And hypnotizability varies greatly between people—for some, it’s a great way to learn to change problematic behaviors, control pain, or solve other problems, but for others it is only modestly effective and, for this later group, it’s useful mainly for relaxation, stress reduction, or reinforcement of habit change which one is achieving mainly by some other means.

SRM: Who are hypnotizable and not hypnotizable individuals? What are the characteristics of these groups?

PROF. DEIRDRE L. BARRETT: It’s a continuum, not sharply defined groups. Characteristics which predict being hypnotizable are essentially trance-like experiences of everyday life: having had an imaginary playmate as a child, daydreaming a lot, and a knack for blocking out real sensory stimuli such that someone may have to call your name very loudly to get your attention when you are absorbed in a good novel.  High hypnotizables find images trigger physical sensations -they may shiver at a film about the arctic even though the theater is warm.

There are two subtypes of people who are the most hypnotizable. One group are the “fantasizers”: they report frequent and vivid daydreams which they remember in detail and often report their imaginations were every bit as vivid as reality. Their earliest memories are often of ages 2 and earlier. The other group “dissociaters” tended to have amnestic experiences easily. They report “daydreaming” a lot also, but by that term they mean that they know their mind wanders as they may be called on in class or at work and have no idea what’s been going on, but they also have no idea where it has been—just “off somewhere.”  They often have first memories which are latter than most people age 8 or beyond.

SRM: Do you believe that astral projection is only one class of lucid dreams or, on the contrary, do you perhaps believe that clear differences can be established between both experiences?

PROF. DEIRDRE L. BARRETT: I think that the two experiences are related and that at least most experiences of astral projection occur during dreaming sleep (few may occur in a waking trance or even be seizure-related).

People experiencing astral projection are usually aware they have a physical body sleeping in the bed. However, they often see that sleeping body from the other one or they may experience a sense of both their traveling “astral” body and their physical body simultaneously. Lucid dreamers are usually fully in just the dream world experientially, they just know it is a dream, and if they bother to think it through (most don’t), they realize they must have a physical body asleep in bed, but they don’t usually experience the real, physical body.

SRM: What elements in the movie I mentioned in my introduction, ‘Inception’, would you say that are speculative, for dramatic effect?

PROF. DEIRDRE L. BARRETT: Being able to influence someone else’s dream with the drug devices is speculative. We can potentially influence other people’s dreams with pre-sleep suggestions and even with sensory stimuli and whispered words once the dream is underway. But these techniques are imprecise and uncertain. There is no way we are going to share a dream or specify someone else’s dream with anything like the precision the film depicts, that’s clearly for dramatic effect.

SRM: So, what specific elements in ‘Inception’ are actually based on scientific and clinical data?

PROF. DEIRDRE L. BARRETT: There are three main premises in ‘Inception’ which are accurate and which call people’s attention to aspects of dreaming of which they might not have been aware:

1) Dream control—influencing the content of your dreams as opposed to influencing other people’s dreams, which as we’ve just discussed, is greatly exaggerated in the film. But it is possible to influence your dreams by dream incubation. The simple version is if you want to dream about a particular person, or topic or problem, you should think about the topic once you are in bed, and form an image of that topic—because dreams are so very visual, and let it be the last thing in your mind before falling asleep. Equally important, don’t jump out of bed when you wake up; almost half of dream content is lost if you get distracted. Lie there and reflect on your dream, or better yet, write it down.

2) Lucid dreaming—many people have occasionally had a dream in which they knew they were dreaming, but you can greatly increase the odds of this happening with a similar bedtime dream incubation combined with periodic daytime reality checks: of whether you are dreaming—a habit which will eventually carry over into your dreams.

3) The occurrence of dreams within dreams—this really happens, and like with Inception, they can even embed as a dream within-a-dream-within a dream . . . or chains of one false awakening after another. False awakenings like the ones depicted in ‘Inception’ also occur but you don’t necessarily always have a dream-within-a-dream precede a false awakening symmetrically as they depict —either can happen alone.

SRM: Talking about becoming aware… your book Supernormal Stimuli is based on evolutionary psychology. What are the main conclusions reached on it?

PROF. DEIRDRE L. BARRETT: Animal ethologist and Nobel Lauriate Niko Tinbergen coined the term “supernormal stimuli” to describe imitations that appeal to primitive instincts and exert a stronger pull than the real thing. In Tinbergen’s research, song birds abandon their pale blue eggs dappled with gray to hop on black polka-dot Day-Glo blue plaster eggs so large they constantly slide off and have to hop back on. Biologists have constructed supernormal stimuli for all basic animal instincts —comically unrealistic dummies which an animal will try to mate with or fight with in preference to a real individual if color, shape or markings push their buttons.

In my book I applied this concept to explain most areas of modern human woe. Animals encounter supernormal stimuli mostly when an experimenter builds them. We make our own, from candy to pornography, from stuffed animals to atomic bombs. Most modern problems, from war and grossly unfair distribution of wealth to inane television and our obesity epidemic, can be explained by this phenomenon. We’ve reversed the relationship between instinct and object to manufacture a glut of things which gratify our basic desires with often-dangerous results

SRM: What would we need to do in order to regain our stimuli’s balance? Is there a possibility to regain balance without eliminating the causes for supernormal stimuli?

PROF. DEIRDRE L. BARRETT: Humans have one stupendous advantage over the bird on the egg —a giant brain. This gives us the unique ability to exercise self-control and override instincts that lead us astray. We are actually quite good at resisting ones we recognize as abnormal, most people know shooting heroine would feel good but resist doing it. Once we recognize how supernormal stimuli operate and learn to identify them readily, we can craft new approaches to modern predicaments.

SRM: It’s within our power, that’s for sure. Thank you again, Professor, for sharing your wealth of knowledge and expertise on this subject, it’s been extremely interesting and very informative.


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