Deirdre Barrett

Deirdre Barrett
Deirdre Barrett in 2006

Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D. is an author and psychologist who teaches at Harvard Medical School.[1] She is known for her research on dreams, hypnosis, and imagery and has written on evolutionary psychology. Barrett is a Past President of The International Association for the Study of Dreams and of the American Psychological Association’s Div. 30, The Society for Psychological Hypnosis. She has written four books for the general public: The Pregnant Man and Other Tales From a Hypnotherapist’s Couch (1998), The Committee of Sleep (2001), Waistland (2007), and Supernormal Stimuli (2010). She is the editor of four academic books: Trauma and Dreams (1996), The New Science of Dreaming (2007), "Hypnosis and Hypnotherapy" (2010), and "The Encyclopedia of Sleep and Dreams." (2012). She is 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 and The International Journal for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis.


Barrett is best known for her work on dreams and their contributions to creativity and objective problem solving.[2] She interviewed modern artists and scientists about their use of their dreams, documenting dramatic anecdotes including Nobel Prizes and MacArthur 'genius grants' whose ideas originated in dreams.[3] She also conducted research asking college students to incubate answers to real-life homework and other objective problems on which they were working, finding that in one week’s time, ½ had dreamed about their topic and ¼ had a dream which provided an answer.[4] Barrett describes dreaming as simply “thinking in different biochemical state”[5] and believes we continue to work on all the same problems—personal and objective—in that state. Her research concludes that while anything—math, musical composition, business dilemmas—may get solved during dreaming, the two areas dreams are especially likely to help are 1) anything where vivid visualization contributes to the solution, whether in artistic design or invention of 3-D technological devices and 2) any problem where the solution lies in thinking outside the box—i.e. where the person is stuck because the conventional wisdom on how to approach the problem is wrong.[6][7]

Barrett has also conducted research on lucid dreams[8][9][10] and on helping people suffering from PTSD to incubate mastery dreams to change their nightmares,[11][12][13][14][15] and published studies tracking the progression of dreams during bereavement.[16][17][18] She has studied characteristics of dreams in various disorders including depression[19] and dissociative disorders.[20][21] During the summer 2010 publicity about the dream-themed film Inception, Barrett was interviewed by media including ABC,[22] NBC Today,[23] CNN,[24] WSJ,[25] NYT,[26] and USA Today,[27] pointing out that some aspects of the film like lucid dreaming, control of one’s own dreams, and dreams-within-dreams were highly realistic while the control of others’ dreams, time slowing in dreams, and absolute impossibility of dreaming that you die were all fictional premises in the service of the thriller plot.

Barrett’s studies of hypnosis have focused on different types of high hypnotizables, finding two subgroups which she terms fantasizers and dissociaters. Fantasizers are people who have vivid imaginations, find it easy to block out real-world stimuli, spend much time daydreaming, report imaginary companions as a child and grew up with parents who encouraged imaginary play. Dissociaters usually had a history of childhood abuse or other significant trauma, had learned to escape into numbness, and to forget unpleasant events. Their association to “daydreaming” was often going blank rather than vividly recalled fantasies. Both score equally high on formal scales of hypnotic susceptibility.[28][29][30]

Other research by Barrett focused on the similarities and differences of daydreams and nocturnal dreaming[31] and on the significance of earliest memories as reflecting a microcosm of an individual’s worldview.[32][33] Barrett is interested in film and has written on techniques which films use to represent dreams[34] and on the negative stereotypes of hypnosis in film.[35]

Most recently Barrett has written on evolutionary psychology, especially the concept of supernormal stimuli—the idea that technology can create an artificial object which pulls an instinct more strongly than that for which it evolved. The phrase "supernormal stimuli" was coined by the Dutch scientist Niko Tinbergen in the 1930s. Barrett's book Waistland (2007) [36] explores the weight and fitness crisis in terms of supernormal stimuli for food and rest.[37] Her latest book, "Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose" (2010) [38] examines the impact of supernormal stimuli on the diversion of impulses for nurturing, sexuality, romance, territoriality, war, and the entertainment industry’s hijacking of our social instincts.[39]


  1. ^
  2. ^ THE WASHINGTON POST; Four Experts Try to Get Inside Readers' Heads Oct 29, 2006; M.4
  3. ^ Barrett, Deirdre. The Committee of Sleep: How Artists, Scientists, and Athletes Use their Dreams for Creative Problem Solving—and How You Can Too. NY: Crown Books/Random House, 2001
  4. ^ Barrett, Deirdre. The 'Committee of Sleep': A Study of Dream Incubation for Problem Solving. Dreaming: Journal of the Association for the Study of Dreams, 1993, 3, pp. 115-123.
  5. ^ Barrett, Deirdre. An Evolutionary Theory of Dreams and Problem-Solving in Barrett, D. L. & McNamara, P. (Eds.) The New Science of Dreaming, Volume III: Cultural and Theoretical Perspectives on Dreaming NY, NY: Praeger/Greenwood, 2007.
  6. ^ Oldenburg, Don You: Dream a Little Dream--and Pay Attention, THE WASHINGTON POST; Sep 28, 2000; C.04
  7. ^ Barrett, Deirdre Answers in Your Dreams, SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN; Nov. 2012 p. 26-32
  8. ^ Deirdre. Barrett, Deirdre. Just how lucid are lucid dreams: an empirical study of their cognitive characteristics. Dreaming: The Journal of the Association for the Study of Dreams, 1992, Vol 2., No. 4, pp. 221-228.
  9. ^ Barrett, Deirdre. An Empirical Study of The Relationship of Lucidity and Flying Dreams. Dreaming: the Journal of the Association for the Study of Dreams, 1991, Vol 1, No. 2, p. 129, 133.
  10. ^ Turner, Graham Take control and turn sleep into a playground; The Meaning of Dreams: The final day of our series investigates the strange world of 'lucid dreaming'Daily Mail (England)March 24, 1994
  11. ^ Barrett, Deirdre. (Ed.) Trauma and Dreams. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.
  12. ^ Beck, Melinda 'Health Matters' column in THE WALL STREET JOURNAL Feb. 20, 2010.
  13. ^ Cox, Emma The Sun (England) February 10, 2009 Tuesday Edition 1 Why Nightmares Are Good For You; The Primeval Truth Behind Dreams. News; Pg. 42
  14. ^ Conklin, Mike A Plague of nightmares descends on Elm Street, CHICAGO TRIBUNE, October 2, 2001
  15. ^ http://[ HE NEW YORK TIMES Following a Script to Escape a Nightmare]
  16. ^ Barrett, Deirdre L. Dreams of Death. OMEGA: the Journal of Death and Dying, 1988, Vol. 19, p. 95, 102.
  17. ^ Barrett, Deirdre. Through a glass darkly: the dead appear in dreams. OMEGA: The Journal of Death and Dying, 1991, Vol. 24, pp. 97-108.
  18. ^ Cathcart, Rebecca Winding Through ‘Big Dreams’ Are the Threads of Our Lives, THE NEW YORK TIMES, July 3, 2007
  19. ^ Barrett, Deirdre and Loeffler, Michael. The effect of depression on the manifest content of the dreams of college students. Psychological Reports, 1992, 70, pp. 403-406.
  20. ^ Barrett, Deirdre. Dreams in Dissociative Disorders. Dreaming: J. of the Assoc. for the Study of Dreams, 1994, Vol 4, No. 3, pp. 165-177.
  21. ^ Barrett, Deirdre. The Dream Character as a Prototype for the Multiple Personality "Alter". Dissociation, Vol. 8, March 1995, p. 61, 68.
  22. ^ ABC Interview with Barrett about Inception
  23. ^ Weekend Today 7/24 interview with Lester Holt
  24. ^ CNN interview with Barrett about Inception
  25. ^ THE WALL STREET JOURNAL Therapies Teach Sleepers to Alter the Ending of Their Dreams--or Even Take Flight
  26. ^ THE NEW YORK TIMES Guiding Your Sleep While You’re Awake
  27. ^ USA Today 7/16 2010 With 'Inception,' Chris Nolan's head games continue
  28. ^ Barrett, Deirdre. Deep Trance Subjects: A Schema of Two Distinct Subgroups. Chpt in R. Kunzendorf (Ed.) Imagery: Recent Developments, NY: Plenum Press, 1991, p. 101, 112.
  29. ^ Barrett, Deirdre. Fantasizers and Dissociaters: An Empirically based schema of two types of deep trance subjects. Psychological Reports, 1992, 71, pp. 1011-1014.
  30. ^ Barrett, Deirdre. Fantasizers and Dissociaters: Two types of High Hypnotizables, Two Imagery Styles. in R. Kuzendorf, N. Spanos, & B. Wallace (Eds.) Hypnosis and Imagination, NY: Baywood, 1996.
  31. ^ Barrett, Deirdre. The Hypnotic Dream: Its Content in Comparison to Nocturnal Dreams and Waking Fantasy. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 1979, Vol. 88, p. 584, 591.
  32. ^ Barrett, Deirdre. The First Memory as a Predictor of Personality Traits. Journal of Individual Psychology, 1980, Vol. 36, pp. 136-149.
  33. ^ Barrett, Deirdre. Early Recollections as Predictors of Self Disclosure and Interpersonal Style. Journal of Individual Psychology, 1983, Vol. 39, pp. 92-98.
  34. ^ Barrett, Deirdre 'The Dream Videophile' Regular column in Dream Time magazine and posted online at ASD.
  35. ^ Barrett, Deirdre. Hypnosis in Film and Television American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, Vol. 49, No. 1, July 2006, pp. 13-30.
  36. ^ Barrett, Deirdre (2007). Waistland: The (R)Evolutionary Science Behind Our Weight and Fitness Crisis. New York, New York: W. W. Norton. ISBN 9780393062168. 
  37. ^ Rimas, Andrew ‘Meet the Minds’ feature about Deirdre Barrett, PhD, Science Section, ‘’The Boston Globe’’, October 22, 2007.
  38. ^ Barrett, Deirdre. Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose. NY NY: W.W. Norton, 2010
  39. ^ Wall Street Journal review of Deirdre Barrett's Supernormal Stimuli, Feb. 25, 2010.

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