BY ADINAWA ADJAGBODJOU
I sat down with Deirdre Barrett; writer, researcher, and professor of dreams at Harvard University.
Thank you so much for joining us! I would love for you to start by introducing yourself, what you do, and why you love what you do. what really drew you in, and how you became a researcher of dreams.
I’m Deirdre Barrett. I’m a Dream Researcher at Harvard where I teach two courses on dreams. I write books about dreams. I edited the journal, Dreaming. I make dream art. So everything I do is dreams and dreams and dreams.
I’ve been fascinated with dreams from as far back as I can remember in my early childhood. I think that I had more dream recall than usual — and very dramatic, bizarre dreams — so to be fascinated in these vivid things that were happening every night seemed really obvious. I think most psychologists go into psychology and then, somewhere in graduate school, they pick a specialty. For me, it was more like, I picked dreams [first] and as I got a little older, I realized that if somebody was gonna pay me to think about dreams all the time, I needed to be a psychology major and go to graduate school in clinical psych. So that’s what I did!
Most of the dream researchers I know have unusually vivid dream lives themselves. I’ve met one [caught onto dreams later] who said that [it was] at his graduate school [where] the most charismatic professor who had the biggest research program going was [studying] dreams. He’d never thought about dreams much, but it was kind of the professor that got him into it. Otherwise, most of us, it’s our own dream life [that inspired us to go into the field.]
One of my favorite memories from that class was [when] we [visited] the medical school and got to see into someone’s head as they are falling asleep and then eventually dreaming. How do you like connecting those two worlds? The scientific — where you’re able to observe and see all these cool things happening with the brainwaves — and then what happens behind the closed eye — when you’re sort of experiencing this creative flow of this unconscious.
I mean, it’s certainly the subjective that got me interested in the whole field, but I’m [also] fascinated by the objective ways that people can study the brain in general, and dreams in particular. I have never done any research out of a conventional sleep lab like the one I took my classes through, though.
Something I think your year [missed] is the MIT Media Lab [which] studies states of consciousness [and uses] home monitoring equipment — simpler equipment that people can wear at home. I’m about to do a project monitoring the hypnagogic sleep onset stage and I’m going to have artists wear this device to sleep for a week called the Dormio (MIT-invented). The Dormio basically detects the hypnagogic state and wakes you up once you’ve had a little bit of that imagery, [doing so] three times near sleep onset [before letting] you sleep normally.
I’m going to have [these] artists [create a work] from the hypnagogic imagery they see [and] then compare it to a typical piece [from their earlier works]; characterizing not quality, but differences like color versus achromatic, realism versus surrealism, abstract versus figurative, curvy lines versus straight lines…just ways that art can differ that are not good versus bad. So I’m about to do some home monitoring, but still not in a regular sleep lab.
Our class [had] our reunion dinner in your home, which is the coolest place ever, [where] we were able to see some of the work that you’ve done and the art you’ve created. What is your process like when you are creating some of the things that I was able to see?
I’ve been making art for almost six years now and I’ve always really loved visual art, especially visual art that kind of looks like my dreams. I have pretty bad hand-eye coordination, [though,] so I was never able to sketch accurately or paint realistically. My whole adult life I’ve woken up from dreams where I wanted to portray the image I’d just seen, but it would always be an exercise in frustration — it would look like a six year old had drawn this thing! So for decades I wanted to, but didn’t.
Then I [went] to a friend’s art show that was digitally manipulated photography and, unlike most art I like, I sort of looked at it and thought, “yeah, I bet I could do that.” Then, just a couple of nights after that show, I had another one of these dreams with vivid imagery that I wanted to portray. [However, this] time I woke up and thought of looking for photos I’d already taken that were similar to the elements in it, and then I downloaded Photoshop.
I’d heard of “deep dream,” which is this program Google created. I did a lot of digital manipulation and it was the first time that something came out looking pretty much like my dream image. So I’ve been making this digital dream art ever since and it’s generally the images that just feel the most compelling and ones that I want to see again and I want to show other people again which I make. It’s not necessarily the same dreams that are the most powerful in other ways that [I would work on artistically,] interpreting and thinking about the meaning of the dream for the longest time — it’s the dreams that are already like a piece of visual art.
I find that I’m sort of similar where I prefer to capture things that are semi-made and incorporate them in a way that tells the story I want to tell rather than trying to draw something completely freehand. Shifting back to the ways in which you’re able to learn more about yourself through what you experienced in a dream state, what is the importance of connecting to [our] subconscious, [through either] writing in dream journals or through art what [one is] experiencing in a dream state?
Lots of approaches to dreams can help you appreciate them more and learn more about yourself. It’s [only been] fairly recently that I’ve been making dream art. [It] just makes the dream more vivid and it stays with me more when [my dream is] out there in the waking world as a visual image. Over time and with more dreams I’ve just done some standard interpretation techniques, the most common being a dream interview technique where you just pick out the key elements in the dream and say, “what does this element mean to me?” Then you kind of string those metaphors together to get a more symbolic version of what the dream is telling you.
I’ve also participated in all kinds of dream groups, like the Montigue-Ullman style group where you tell a dream and everybody throws out these, “if it were my dream it might mean this, this, this,” and instead of staying with the dreamer zone associations, it just bombards you with so many associations. The dreamer gets to choose from among those associations [to determine] which one is clicking for them. I’ve also done Jungian-style guided imagery where you go back into the dream and relive it as vividly as you can. I think lots of approaches to working with dreams are very helpful.
Just the act of journaling dreams [is also helpful,] although we certainly learn something from looking at [even just] one dream in depth! If you write down a hundred or more of your dreams you’ll often notice repetitive patterns like, “oh my God, that’s so [similar to] the story that I dreamed,” [whether that was] three weeks ago or three years ago depending on how long you’re keeping a journal! There’s some norms about what the most typical content dreams are, what emotions predominate in dreams — so you can just do a really simple statistical comparison of things that are different from the average. You can also look at recurring themes in your dreams.
I think that just dream sharing is really a useful enterprise, aside from whether you interpret the dream with the person you’re sharing the dream with. It’s just our unconscious speaking directly to the unconscious of the other person. Especially with the pandemic dreams that I’ve been gathering for the last one year plus. I’ve been so struck that when people start telling a dream — that’s about fear of the virus or loneliness during the lockdown, or about how overwhelming it is to homeschool a ten-year-old when you’re not a teacher — that the dream often just elicits so much more empathy. So many more, “oh, me too!” and “yes, I feel exactly that way!” The same person sharing their waking concerns would of course also get some conversation going, but the dreams just really cut to the core emotional part quicker…so I think just dream sharing is very important in and of itself.
Have you personally seen a shift in your own dreams during the pandemic?
I tended to have most of mine right at the start. I put the survey online on March 23rd [and] the first dream I had was about a week before that — as we were just starting to grab groceries and to lock down and knew what was coming — but [Covid still] wasn’t really there yet. Then I think my second big one about the pandemic was either the night before or the night after I put the survey up.
They were definitely kind of, “it’s coming,” scary dreams; but in both cases the dream seemed to show this awareness that I was more concerned about the rest of the world [as] I knew I was [kind of] in a privileged, safe position compared to other people. My first dream was in this beautiful ancient library, like [from] a private house centuries back with gold lamp light and leather-bound volumes of books and the curtains all closed so I [could] only see the one room. It was beautiful. I liked the library, but I knew there was something going on outside around the whole globe that kind of changed between being a war, a riot, or at times a plague — but a plague more like the black death, because the house and library looked from around that period in Europe. So I was in this beautiful library, safe and lovely and with all these books — a total Ivory Tower image — and then I was increasingly concerned that just on the other side of these curtains was something terrible and plague-like. I gradually became less able to focus on the library and more emotionally focused on what was outside, but I didn’t see outside.
I woke up from that and it was the first time I ever made a piece of art that was not derived from the main image I was seeing. It just felt like if I [had] made a picture of that library there was no way that the actual visual image would capture anything of what I was feeling, which was this increased horror at what was beyond it. I looked around and found an old [contemporaneous] woodcut of a plague doctor from the black plague and even though it was like a black and white line drawing, I manipulated it until it was more of a closed figure and then took a lot of images of COVID — big particles to be the ground and others kind of floating through the air. So I made this plague doctor wandering through a landscape of COVID particles as capturing the feeling of what was out there.
The second dream happened about a week later. I had to go outside with my cat (yes, I really have a cat named Morpheus), and knew that the air was toxic, [although] it wasn’t very defined how it was toxic. I was trying to put this thing over his head — it was a hood at times and then at others it was a really old-fashioned gas mask — and kept struggling. He was doing just what he [always] does when I try to give him a pill or something that’s good for him — he doesn’t think he needs it and fights with me — so I was desperately trying to get the thing over his head. I was running out of time because we really had to leave so I was very anxious until right at the end when I did get the mask down over his head. I think I had one on, [too,] but it was vague about me, and I picked him up under one arm and headed out. It wasn’t like a real happy ending, but it was like, okay, I think it’s going to be okay at the end of the dream.
[In real life,] I was switching my med school class over to being on zoom at the time. I was going to be all safe at home — I mean that’s what the administration was telling us to do — but I was teaching not the undergrad class, but this one that’s full of mostly psychiatry residents and then a few psychology people who were getting to stay home and do sessions over zoom. The psychiatry residents’ psychiatry hours were down so they were getting reassigned to the ERs and places where the COVID patients were going to be coming in, so I was [able to be] safe teaching them remotely, but they were right there in the hospital in a riskier situation than usual. I felt like this was so much worse for most people than for me, whether it was my psychiatry students or the world at large. I think trying to protect my cat [was representative] of my concern about everybody.
So those were really near the start. The only other dream I’ve had that was really explicitly about COVID was about three months back and it was about my survey of COVID. In the dream, instead of an online survey, I had invented an app where people could tell a dream via the phone and it was very not realistic. It made the phone project a little, colored-light hologram about halfway between the phone and my face and each one was just one image. It was like the key image in [the individual’s] dream would project out of this little hole a sort of transparent, but 3D-like image. It was usually a scary monster or animal, or sometimes it [was] a scene– a whole scene of something — but usually kind of one thing.
I was watching [these holograms] and as I was looking at one that was like a COVID monster — it had a COVID particle for its head and then a vaguely-human-but-not-exactly-human body in this hideous yellow color — I [started] feeling so bad for the dreamer that I wanted to do something to comfort them. And so I faux-realized in the dream that I could reach out and hug the little hologram of the monster and the dreamer would feel [the hug too] and be comforted as I hugged the image of their dream monster. I started doing that with each image that came up: an image would display and I’d hug that whole hologram.
I think that’s just such a perfect portrayal of how I felt [while] reading all these pandemic dreams that people were turning into the survey because normally when I’m hearing a dream I’m in the room with the person and I am used to [doing] a lot of psychotherapy work. Even now, I’m talking to students about their dreams and doing work with that, or just the general public and sharing and dream groups. So to read all these really anxious pain dreams, and yet not be able to do anything with them, as a clinician, was disturbing at times. So instead of my survey, I had in my dream faux-invented this app that I could comfort the dreamer with.
I can sort of see that anxiety seeping into an alteration to the way you were collecting these dreams, so thank you for sharing that. It sort of leads to my last question: what effects did you find the pandemic had on people’s mental health and how did these anxieties or depression show themselves in dreams? Did you find any interesting patterns or were they unique for every person?
I did find some distinctive clusters of dreams that [ultimately] changed over time. Early on, the dreams were [primarily] about fear of [simply] catching the virus. About half of those were fairly literal, “I’m spiking a fever,” “I’m coughing,” or “ I’m having trouble breathing;” or just a little distorted — like [how] one dreamer looked down at her stomach and saw blue stripes and faux-remembered that that was supposed to be the first sign of a COVID infection. So just “I’m getting COVID” is a really common one.
But just like in other crisis samples that I collected, like after 9/11, there are also a lot of metaphors. I saw a lot of the same metaphors as in other crises, like bad people shooting, wild animals attacking, lots of natural disasters — tsunamis, earthquakes, tornadoes, wildfires breaking out. But then there were some distinctive ones for COVID of which the biggest cluster were bug attacks. Any kind of bug — swarms of flying insects, or armies of cockroaches running at the dreamer, or masses of Wrigley worms. I think that’s partly because dreams can be sort of pun-like visual images and we say “I’m getting a bug” to mean coming down with an infection. Closely related to that, lots of little particles that cumulatively could harm or kill you make a swarm of small bugs a good metaphor for the COVID virus.
Some of the other smaller clusters I saw that were kind of unique to COVID [didn’t] have as vivid a visual image as [we saw with] 9/11 — [like the trend of] invisible monsters that you knew were out there and could attack you any minute, but you couldn’t see them. So [we] really did see both the things that happen with any crisis, but also this element of the creepy unknown. It was interesting that those never went away…they haven’t gone away till this day. The, “oh my God. I think I might have COVID.”
They became less [frequent] and other dreams started appearing like quarantine / isolation / stay home orders and the people who were sheltering at home alone tended to have these scenarios that exaggerated the loneliness. They’d be thrown in prison, especially solitary confinement; they were stranded alone on spaceships, two of them were sent to be the first person Mars colony, and one was stranded on Saturn all by themselves…so these exaggerated portrayals of total aloneness. The people who were sheltering with extended family or roommates often had the opposite sort of scenario of overcrowding and lack of privacy like the whole neighborhood has moved into [their] house! One man couldn’t walk through the rooms in his house because everybody had cots set up. There was a woman who was trying to use the toilet and she couldn’t get the bathroom door closed because everybody’s stuff was blocking the doorway. Similarly, anxious, exaggerated scenarios about what was going wrong with homeschooling.
Gradually there became a lot more wish fulfillment, happy dreams of being in big crowds doing your favorite activities, happily. Early on when there were a few of those, the people would usually wake up and say that they felt a wave of sadness as soon as they woke up because they felt like they were being shown something they couldn’t do and for a long time, they related the scene to the past. In the last few months, they’re much more common and they’re much likelier to say that they feel cheered up by the dream because they feel like they’re seeing the near future. In the last couple weeks I’ve even seen some that tell a story like that and then tell a story like, “Actually, I really was in a nightclub for the first time last week,” or, “I really did have this family reunion like in the dream.” So they’re definitely more positive dreams about being released from it now, but still the scary ones too.
Well, thank you. I’m going to allow Layla to ask a few of the questions that she’s written as well.
This is really such an interesting field of work. I have kind of a more personal question: I know I have some trouble remembering my own dreams other than if I see things around me that’ll spark a deja-vu feeling. I was wondering how you’ve worked with people to strengthen their ability to recollect their dreams?
The most kind of boring mundane piece of advice, but it’s really the single most important, is to get a good night’s sleep. We dream about every 90 minutes, but each dream gets much longer. If you sleep six hours instead of eight, you’re not getting 75% of your dream time in [that cycle]. Sleeping eight hours is really important and so many people in our modern society are chronically sleep deprived. So that’s the number one. Like I said, it’s the least interesting, but it’s the number one piece of advice.
Next, as you’re falling asleep remind yourself that you want to recall dreams. We used to always say pad and pencil by the bed, and some people still prefer some sort of lovely dream journal that’s physical, but more people prefer to dictate to their phone — it’s so much simpler and doesn’t arouse you as much to start talking to the phone. There are even apps that will sort of wake you up with a query like “what were you dreaming?”
So, to be prepared to record it, but to remind yourself as you fall asleep, and then when you wake up in the morning to make “was I dreaming about something?” the first thing you think about when you wake up. And if you clearly were, you start writing and you’re dictating it. But if you weren’t and you’re just kind of lying there with whatever you woke up with, if you felt a little sad or you were thinking about your brother, if you just stay with that, sometimes you’ll feel, “oh, yeah, it was sad because I dreamed this awful thing happened to my brother!” Whatever you wake up with will be tied into some dream content. It’s the likeliest to come back right then if you sort of try to stay with whatever little wisp of it is there. The only other way it ever comes back is through how you mentioned: that certainly if you encounter something by day that has something to do with the dream — that’s almost the only time when the dream will jump back into your mind hours and hours later. So self suggestion at bed time, and really paying attention to that before you turn your attention to anything else, because the memory is very fleeting and evanescent there.
Thank you, that’s very helpful and that makes sense that sleep deprivation could definitely be a factor! I want to hear more about your career as an author. How did you decide to get into writing and what do you hope to achieve by sharing your knowledge with the public and explaining to people more about what their dreams mean?
I always enjoyed writing. I took creative writing classes in high school and college and was on my student newspaper and was editor of the literary magazine in high school. I did both journalism and creative writing to a certain extent, but once I really got into formal psychology, you’re very much encouraged to write these very dry academic statistical analysis kinds of research studies. So I was writing all along through grad school and onward that sort of dryer, scholarly stuff.
But I really missed writing more creatively. I was a little intimidated by the idea of writing a whole book — I guess my dissertation was as long as the book, but it was not carefully crafted in the way you have to do a book…just more of get those words out there! So when I first started thinking of writing a book, I decided that I would first edit a book and write one or more chapters of it and the introduction and conclusion and invite other people to write chapters — that just felt more manageable for my first book.
I did this book called Trauma and Dreams and the good part was that I got a lot of the major dream researchers. Oliver Sacks wrote a chapter on neurological dreams and Robert J Lifton had a chapter on war trauma stuff. I had this richness of authors that I couldn’t have been doing all by myself, but on the other hand in any edited book each chapter is kind of separate and I tried to tell everyone about the style we wanted to write in, but they were just all over the place from very chatty to very formal.
Edited books are always sort of a patchwork. Also, I didn’t quite realize [this then], but it is almost more work to edit all those chapters by all those other people than it is to just write it yourself. Nevertheless, I had the nerve to do it. I invited my wishlist and almost all of them said yes, and Harvard University Press published it. I just didn’t quite have the nerve to just write a book right then, but once I’d done that, it definitely gave me the knowledge I could [to] write my own book and that in fact it would be easier and more satisfying in many ways. So that’s when I started writing the books for the general public.
I’ve written five books now that are all sort of geared to the general public and I’ve edited four: some of them are intended more for clinicians and some are intended for academics, but none of them are really intended for the general public.
On the same topic, you mentioned some authors that you’ve included in your book and I was wondering if there are any professors or mentors you had who inspired you to get into this field or who you’ve worked with on some of your research projects that you think have really helped you get a better understanding of what this field is.
For dreams, my interest went so far back and not only did I have a rich dream life, but I was talking to everybody about their dreams, so it just seemed almost like cumulatively it was the world that I was absorbing this from. I remember not a professor or mentor or even scholar, but a woman named Patricia Garfield wrote a book called Creative Dreaming. I’d heard of lucid dreaming, but there was more in that book about it than I had encountered elsewhere, as well as some of the Tibetan dream practices and just intentional dream incubation.
So it was a pop book for the general public, but it was just about some of the aspects of dreaming that I found the most exciting and that I hadn’t really read as much about elsewhere. Creative dreaming really stimulated me, but actually oddly, I had more mentors who were hypnotherapists, which was the other thing I was somewhat interested in and which is something you can’t just absorb from childhood — you’re not having experiences of hypnosis every night the way you are [with] dreams — so I had to learn more about that from reading and from people.
There was a woman named Gail Gardner who taught a seminar where I was an intern at the University of Colorado Health Science Center, who I think definitely taught me the most about hypnosis. There’s a way in which hypnosis and dreams are kind of similar altered states of consciousness, where metaphor and visual imagery become more dominant and linear logic less so. They can both usually make an end run around their usual defenses toward seeing some things so I’d probably say some of the things that I learned from Gail specifically and about hypnosis have also informed my work with dreams. I haven’t done anything with hypnosis in a number of years and it may be that only one quarter of my work total is that, but it [nevertheless] informed my dream work too.
My last question is kind of similar to what Adinawa asked before about your book, Pandemic Dreams. I was just wondering if you have any advice for anyone who’s noticed intense shifts in their dreams, not just related to the pandemic, but due to anything that’s happening in their life or anyone whose anxiety has really been interfering with the kinds of dreams that they’re having or just their sleep in general.
Generally for dreams, including anxiety dreams, I mostly encourage people to do some interpretive work, to do the dream interview and ask yourself about each element in the dream. What does that mean to me? Try to stitch together what in your waking life is feeling like the feeling in the pit of your stomach when the witch is chasing you down the hall…what makes you feel that way when you’re awake.
To do that sort of work is what I usually encourage, but through the pandemic, I encountered so many people who were saying that they were just having repetitive anxiety dreams about potentially catching COVID. They felt like they knew why they were anxious and that it wasn’t telling them anything. It was just kind of a vicious cycle which they worried about by day, which made their dreams more worried, which made them [again] more worried by day and they just wanted to have fewer of those dreams.
So I was coaching people more than usual on dream incubation just to make anxiety dreams lessen or go away. You can use dream incubation to ask really interesting questions or solve problems, but you can also just pick what you’d like to dream about in a kind of pleasant, escapist sort of way. Something as simple as a person that you weren’t really getting to see that you’d like to dream about, a favorite vacation spot, or just your favorite kind of dream — flying dreams a lot of people like — and to fall asleep telling yourself, “I want to dream about this.” That’s the most effective way to get rid of anxiety dreams. It’s kind of like how saying “don’t think of a white bear” makes it jump into your mind. You for sure do not want to fall asleep going, “oh, I hope I don’t have any more anxiety dreams.” That will tend to remind you of that content. For some people it was a really soothing dream they wanted to have and for some people it was more of an adventurous dream they wanted to have. So I’ve been doing a lot of this kind of work for the last several months.
*Edited for clarity and brevity.