Deirdre Barrett is a psychologist at Harvard Medical School. She is the author of The Committee of Sleep, an account of how artists, scientists and athletes engage in creative problem solving while sleeping.
MISC: You’ve done a lot of research on how dreams influence scientists and technicians. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Deirdre Barrett: Our thinking is so much more visual when we’re asleep. The visual centers of the brain are even more active than when we’re awake. Some of the other areas, like those involved in verbal expression and higher cognition, are less active. So, unsurprisingly, the endeavors that get the most help from dreams are those in the visual arts.
From the perspective of stoking inspiration, what do dreams do better than waking life?
Dreams don’t censor possible solutions. That’s why many of them can seem nonsensical. So they can be useful any time someone is stuck on a problem because the conventional solution is wrong. The most famous example in the sciences is Kekulé and the benzene ring. He was working at a time when scientists knew the atomic make-up of benzene, but they didn’t know how the molecule was structured. All known molecules were some straight line with side chains and so that’s how Kekulé was trying to map benzene, but it just wasn’t making sense. In his dream, he saw the atoms “gamboling” in front of his eyes and they began to form snakes. One snake reached around and took its tail in its mouth, and Kekulé awoke with the realization that benzene was a closed ring. It’s clear from his dream that he’s watching atoms, not real snakes as is sometimes thought. He’s dreaming very directly about the problem. That’s an example of how both visualization and “thinking outside the box” can be accomplished in a dream.
Can you give me an example from engineering?
Take Elias Howe’s invention of the sewing machine. Most of the device had been completed, but Howe was stuck because he was trying to take a conventional sewing needle – which has a point at one end and a hole at the other – and figure out how to make the machine both hold it and pass it through fabric. You just can’t do that with a hand-sewing needle. In his dream, he dreamt that he was in the jungle, surrounded by savages with spears. They told him that they were going to kill him if he didn’t finish his machine immediately. He looked and saw that all of their spears had holes at the pointed end, and awoke realizing that his machine would work with needles having that shape.
My colleague at Harvard, Paul Horowitz, designs the controls for telescopes, including the lens arrays. He says that whenever he’s working on a new telescope, he’ll get stuck every two weeks or so on some problem. And whenever he gets stuck, he reliantly has a dream that tells him how to solve it. These dreams are much more straightforward and dependable than his normal dreams, which are disordered in the way that most people describe the dreams.
It sounds like he might be a bit of an outlier case to have such concrete dreams. Have you encountered many of these types of “dream outliers”?
I’ve heard of a computer programmer who would lucid dream whenever he was stuck on a problem and summon Einstein to show him the answer to the problem. Einstein would then produce a flow chart on a blackboard showing how the programming problem could be solved. I spoke to another programmer whose first words to me were: “I often dream in C++.”
In the arts, it’s much more common. There are a significant number of artists who do all their art based on dreams, and many others who choose to do that for years at a time. If you read Robert Louis Stevenson’s essay on what he calls his “brownies”, he’s really saying that the majority of his plots and creative ideas come to him in dreams. But there’s a whole continuum, from people who have a single dream that births a new idea, to those who are constantly inspired by dreams.
Do you think that dreams are an untapped resource for most people? Is it still a taboo subject?
I don’t think that still is quite the right phrase, because, historically, many tribal societies – and even modern tribal societies – put a lot of emphasis on dreams, including deriving highly practical advice from them like how to construct shelters to reduce weather damage or how to figure out the migration patterns of the animals they rely on for food.
Looking to dreams for guidance in everyday life is an established practice in many cultures. The most famous mathematician that India ever produced, Srinivasa Ramanujan, said that he dreamt all of his major mathematical proofs. But Ramanujan grew up with parents who were teaching him to look to his dreams for guidance and information on practical, spiritual and personal issues. Modern Western society is newly dismissive of dreams. So, for the average Westerner, they are an untapped resource.
We’ve talked a lot about how people who are prodigies in their chosen field become inspired by dreams. What about the rest of us?
It’s important to realize that dreams are not going to give you something far beyond your waking abilities, or cause a breakthrough in a field in which you’ve done no background preparation. But they can help you achieve a breakthrough in a field in which you’re well prepared. Otto Loewi won a Nobel Prize for an experiment that came to him in a dream, but he was already incredible sophisticated about biology, chemistry and medicine.
That all being said, when I was researching The Committee of Sleep, I found innumerable chat groups of average people relating the ways they’ve found inspiration in dreams. One was on a quilting site. One member posted a picture of a quilt she had seen in a dream and decided to make. And she got at least a dozen responses from other quilters saying how surprised they were to find that someone else designs quilts in their dreams! And these were not modern art quilters exhibiting at MoMA. These were ordinary people who quilted as a hobby and were getting help in that hobby from their dreams.
What kind of tools can creative people use to get more out of their dreams?
In my research, I had students take problems with single solutions they were already working on – they could be homework problems, but they didn’t have to be – and promise not to work them on during the day for a week. Instead, I asked them to create the intention of solving the problem in their sleep, just before they went to bed. This is called dream incubation. What I found was that 50% of them had a dream that both they and a group of judges agreed contained the problem or was on the topic of the problem, and that almost a third of them actually solved the problem. This is by far the highest proportion reported in any research of this kind, and I think there are two reasons for that. First, these are probably the easiest problems used in any of this research; they weren’t particularly hard. But they also had intrinsic motivation attached to them; these were things the students had to do, even if they weren’t participating in the experiment. It certainly looks like this formal, bedtime incubation makes it more likely that a specific problem will make it into a dream.
This interview appears in MISC fall 2013, The Inspiration Issue