Cover image for The committee of sleep : how artists, scientists, and athletes use dreams for creative problem-solving-- and how you can, too
The committee of sleep : how artists, scientists, and athletes use dreams for creative problem-solving-- and how you can, too
Barrett, Deirdre.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Crown Publishers, [2001]

Physical Description:
x, 211 pages ; 22 cm
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BF1099.P75 B37 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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The author of the highly praised The Pregnant Man: And Other Cases from a Hypnotherapist's Couch draws on fascinating examples of artists, writers, scientists, and others who have used dream work to enhance their creativity and problem-solving abilities.

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Publisher's Weekly Review

Taking her title from John Steinbeck, who once wrote that "a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it," Barrett gathers supporting evidence for the idea that dreams can enhance creativity and solve problems, not only for Nobel Prize winners and other overachievers like Coleridge, Gandhi and Dal¡, but for everyone. Drawing on personal narratives, anecdotal evidence and clinical studies, Barrett (The Pregnant Man and Other Cases from a Hypnotherapist's Couch), a faculty member at Harvard Medical School's department of psychiatry, shows how "the Committee" works across all disciplines and mediaÄincluding poetry, film, engineering, music, sports and politics. She also crosses cultural boundaries to show that dreams in non-Western societies serve a similar creative function. Intriguingly, Barrett explores dreams that foreshadow "illnesses that did not yet show physical symptoms": one man dreamt of a panther piercing him "just to the left of his spine between his shoulder blades," in exactly the spot where, two months, later a malignant melanoma was found. Barrett provides readers with dream exercises and specific techniques for making the most of their sleeping hours. In addressing the "accuracy of dream recall," she reinforces her credibility by acknowledging a greater "potential for distortion when people other than the dreamer repeat the story." However, her use of the catchall term "Committee" begins to lose its irony through repetition, yielding the occasional impression that Barrett actually believes that some independent body governs dream content. But that's one small stylistic quibble with an otherwise graceful and fascinating work. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



From CHAPTER ONE In the Gallery of the Night: Painting and Sculpture from Dreams Born in South Carolina during the Depression, Jasper Johns's artistic aspirations led him to New York, where he painted for several years without finding a unique voice. In 1954 he resolved to "stop becoming and be an artist." His inspiration was a dream in which he saw himself painting a large American flag, and the next day he began exactly that project, later titled simply Flag. A lengthy series of flag pictures followed, which established Johns as a major artist. His work continued with other simple, bold paintings that highlighted the design artistry of commonplace objects. He disavowed all his paintings that preceded Flag destroying those still in his possession and purchasing and shredding any that came to his attention later. "Since he has never shown anything drawn before this," wrote one biographer, "the extraordinary initial impact of the image and the authority with which it is painted give the impression of a finished artist suddenly sprung from nowhere." (1) Johns later told an interviewer, "I have not dreamed of any other painting. I must be grateful for such a dream!" He laughed. "The unconscious thought was accepted by the conscious gratefully." (2) Dreams have played a role in visual art since mankind began to represent the world. The astonishing images of the night have always inspired artists. A bird-staff and other fantastic elements, believed to represent prehistoric dreams, appear on the walls of caves in Lascaux, France. This earliest known human art, produced between 40,000 and 10,000 B.C.E., caused Pablo Picasso to exclaim, "We have invented nothing!" Scholars know more about the strikingly similar cave art of California's Ojai Valley, or "Valley of the Moon." The earliest works found there date to 1000 a.d., but legends associated with them survived when missionaries arrived in the late 1700s. These rock paintings were done by the 'atiswinic -- a type of shaman whose title literally means "dreamer" or "having a dream." The 'atiswinic drew fantastic animals and horned anthropomorphs set against geometric grids. We have no texts for most of the paintings and can't know exactly which ones spring from dreams. But a few were told to the missionaries as dream accounts. One of these depicts the nose of a coyote growing after he chased girls around, begging for a kiss. A second shows a man capturing the retreating sun with a stick. In yet another, a swordfish tosses a whale around, juggling his outsized adversary as though he were lighter than air. (3) Other tribes around the world routinely use dreams as a basis for visual arts. The Chippewa of North America weave their dream images into the patterns of their banners and beadwork, and the Saroa of India paint their dreams on the walls of their houses. Australian Aborigines have long depicted the events of their Dreamtime -- a complex concept that includes nocturnal dreaming -- with distinctive dot paintings on bark. In Europe there was no mandate for dream art, but artists nevertheless often portrayed nighttime visions. When religious themes dominated -- and the Church was its chief patron -- artists commonly depicted the great dreams of the Bible. The scriptures dictated the content; the dreams of Jacob, Mary, and Pharaoh were popular subjects. But artists conveyed the state of dreaming according to their own nocturnal world. Figures faded into mist for one, hung suspended in midair for another. Some painted their own dreams directly. Albrecht D?rer's 1525 watercolor of a savage storm bears the following inscription: I saw this image in my sleep, how many great waters poured from heaven . . . drowning the whole land. . . . The deluge fell with such frightening swiftness, wind, and roaring that when I awoke, my whole body trembled; for a long while I could not come to myself. So when I arose in the morning, I painted what I had seen.(4) In the Romantic era, William Blake portrayed the dreams of Queen Catherine and the biblical Jacob in his distinctive mystical style, as characters soaring through the heavens. He painted his own dream as Young Night's Thoughts (1818), depicting himself lying on the ground dreaming, the action of the dream painted next to him, a poem based on the same dream beneath that, and finally a straightforward account of the dream. Blake also had recurring dreams of a supernatural art instructor, with a third eye in his forehead. The instructor presented the dreaming Blake with images to paint and advised him on technique. Awake, Blake made numerous oil colors of the recommended scenes. He sketched the teacher in the straightforwardly titled Man Who Instructed Blake in Painting in His Dreams (1819). The Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones painted romantic scenes of medieval knights and ladies dreaming about each other. Traveling to Rome by train, the artist fell asleep and dreamed so vividly of the nine muses on Mount Helicon that he felt compelled to paint them the moment he arrived at his destination. Burne-Jones wrote of this painting, The Rose Bower (1870? -- 90), "I meant to depict a beautiful dream . . . in a light better than any light that ever shone . . . in a land no one can remember. . . ."(5) Soon another artistic movement was to take dream art further than the Romantics or the Pre-Raphaelites had ever . . . well, dreamed. The Surrealists At the end of World War I, European youth were disillusioned -- none more so than young artists, who tended toward both pacifism and cynicism. They refused to spend their gifts glorifying war and the politicians who'd led millions to their deaths. Instead, a cadre of the most gifted flocked around Andr? Breton in Paris as he called for a revolution in painting, drama, and literature. The movement called Surrealism was to be the liberation of artistic consciousness from historical and logical constraints. As a mode of escape, Surrealists used dreams more explicitly than any school of European art before them. Breton invited the inner circle -- Max Ernst, Salvador Dal?, and Man Ray -- to his apartment on rue Fontaine in Paris, where they recounted their dreams to one another. Breton's Manifesto of Surrealism touted the "omnipotence of the dream" and described the new movement as the "resolution of the two states, dreaming and reality, which are so seemingly contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality -- a surreality."(6) Many surrealists painted specific dream images, and all of them used characteristics of the dream world such as space that has no depth or extends to infinity, and juxtaposition of incongruent objects. Salvador Dal??s The Dream; Max Ernst's Dream of a Girl Chased by a Nightingale; Paul Nash's Landscape from a Dream; Dal?'s The Dream Approaches; and Gil Bruvel's The Sleep Goes Away are all fruits of the Surrealist dream dictation. Surrealist cultivation of dreams found its ultimate expression with Salvador Dal?. In a delightfully eccentric volume, Fifty Secrets of Master Craftsmanship, Dal? dispensed advice to aspiring artists. His wisdom ranged from mundane recommendations on brush types to frequency of sexual activity (advocating celibacy while awaiting inspiration but intercourse at least daily once painting -- a formula B. F. Skinner would have admired). Dal? claimed that the greatest potential inspiration lay in the dream. "What you prevent yourself from doing and force yourself not to do, the dream will do with all the lucidity of desire," he advised. Dal? focused first on the vivid dreams that seize us just as we're beginning to fall asleep, or what psychologists call "hypnagogic imagery," with his technique of "slumber with a key." His tone was whimsical, but his intent serious as he instructed novices to sit in a comfortable armchair, "preferably Spanish": In this posture, you must hold a heavy key which you keep suspended, delicately pressed between the extremities of the thumb and forefinger of your left hand. Under the key you will previously have placed a plate upside down on the floor. Having made these preparations, you will have merely to let yourself be progressively invaded by a serene afternoon sleep, like the spiritual drop of anisette of your soul rising in the cube of sugar of your body. The moment the key drops from your fingers, you may be sure that the noise of its fall on the upside-down plate will awaken you. . . .(7) Dal? obtained many surreal images this way. He illustrated the essay with an example, which he called "Flesh Wheelbarrow." The twisted fibers of muscle and skin that made up this device were arrestingly bizarre even by Surrealist standards. The Master challenged his pupils with a further claim: the premium images from sleep onset were those obtained after dining on sea urchins "gathered in the last two days that precede the full moon, choosing only those whose star is coral red and discarding the yellow." He recommended preparing them ? la Catalane, in a chocolate-based sauce to which he also attributed psychoactive properties. Lest one think he was pulling the reader's leg, sea urchins do have a reputation as a soporific among fishermen of Creus -- where they are a major harvest. Our phrase "sleeping like a log" has its equivalent there in "sleeping as though you had eaten three dozen sea urchins." One of Dal?'s sketches of odd, hybrid swan-people bears the title "Dream Provoked by a Meal of Sea Urchins." Dal? believed the elaborate nighttime dreams of REM sleep offered more versatile images because their content could be intentionally influenced. He outlined a characteristically eccentric program of nocturnal stimulation for doing so. The final dream of the night was targeted because it was "the one closest to waking" and the only one he believed was subject to influence. Recent studies conclude that although other REM periods can be manipulated, the last one is indeed the easiest to work with. Sleep researchers who have applied tactile stimuli to the skin, played recordings of distinctive noises, or shone colored lights on subjects' closed eyes, have found that these may be incorporated into dream content. To generate a pleasing artistic image, Dal? suggested fragrance poured near the nose, soft music, or gentle pressure on the closed eyeball -- all these stimuli to be provided "by one's valet." Surrealist painters admired the new field of psychoanalysis for its emphasis on the unconscious and dreaming. The Swiss artist Peter Birkhauser, a friend of Carl Jung, filled his paintings with powerful dream images that Jung famously called "archetypes." In The World's Wound, Birkhauser depicted a recurring dream of a man with a terrible, bloodless, gaping split running the length of his body. The wounded man moves beseechingly toward the dreamer, struggling to speak, but always unable to do so. Years later, his canvas Having Speech portrayed the final version of this dream. Blood flowed from the man's wound and he was finally able to talk. Several of Birkhauser's paintings depict death. When his wife was dying of cancer, he painted In the Night of 13 October 1942, based on a dream. His biographer wrote, "A miraculous being, half fish and half insect, climbed up beside Birkhauser's wife . . . From its mouth emanated a blue light. Courageously, Sibylle Birkhauser stood still; the fish approached her as if to kiss her and she became completely illuminated by the blue light." (8) Birkhauser's last painting, completed just days before his own death, portrayed a dream in which a great, glowing beast stood over him, inspiring both awe and terror. Are They or Aren't They? We can't simply note surreal qualities or read titles to tell which paintings began as dreams. Ren? Magritte's Reckless Sleeper has been used to illustrate "dream art," but Magritte said he never used nighttime dreams in his work, and composed his paintings by an entirely rational process. Even Dal?, who derived so many paintings from his "slumber with a key" and pre-awakening stimuli, titled one painting of a sleeping woman The Dream, which his biographers say was closely modeled on an art nouveau pin he owned in waking life. Frida Kahlo's painting also titled The Dream is another work that tempts viewers to leap nimbly to the wrong assumption. It depicts the artist, covered by vines, sleeping on a four-poster bed aloft in the sky. Above her, on the bed's canopy, lies an eight-foot skeleton, wired ominously with explosives. When I discovered this painting, I already knew that Kahlo's work had been influenced by a horrific childhood accident. Thinking it might make a good cover illustration for my earlier book Trauma and Dreams, I'd searched for and found an account of the picture. Kahlo described that she was sleeping peacefully in her bed and green vines grew over her. Then her bed lifted gently up and floated into the sky, pulling the vines up by their roots. End of dream. I combed other books on Kahlo for a passage explaining the skeleton's presence. Further information came in the form of another picture -- this time a photograph of the artist seated on her bed under a giant papier-m?ch? skeleton wired with firecrackers, "a constant reminder of mortality," the legend read. She playfully referred to it as her "lover." The dream format has also served as a convenient ruse. For years following the Communist Revolution, Russian officials forbade artists from painting anything that did not promote the Party. The art and literature of this period have been dubbed "Boy Meets Tractor." During the post-Stalin loosening of rules, other topics were again permitted, but none that were critical of the government. Symbolic art became more popular. Painting in this era, the Russian artist Olga Bulgakoza's bold, fanciful images resembled Chagall's. Her Dream About the Red Bird (1989) (9) shows one man stabbing another in the back. Intermediate figures suggest they are the same man -- that he ultimately kills himself. A giant red bird stands behind them. The bird's beak and claws are the same shade of yellow in the Soviet flag. The red bird casts a dark shadow over the men. Phantasmagoric dream or political allegory? We can't know whether artists working under such repressive conditions are using the structure of a dream to evade censorship, or whether the Committee of Sleep is indeed at work. During the Soviet years, many Russians did dream thinly veiled political statements. At the time of the August 1991 coup, I was attending a dream conference in Moscow and I was among the minority of Americans who remained. Every morning the multinational group would recount their dreams. Soviets more often described politically symbolic dreams -- for example, vast numbers of people being herded helplessly like cattle -- while westerners presented dreams focused on their personal lives. Although dreamlike art needn't arise from a dream, some surprisingly realistic works do. Jasper Johns's Flag is specifically classified by the art world as a prime example of the genre called Realism. Another American painter of the same era, Ellsworth Kelly, developed his abstract geometric assemblies of multiple canvases from a similar dream experience. Studying art in Paris under the GI Bill of Rights, Kelly was not immediately inspired in any distinctive direction. When his veteran's benefits ran out, he began teaching adolescents at the American School so he could remain in Paris. Excerpted from The Committee of Sleep: How Artists, Scientists, and Athletes Use Dreams for Creative Problem-Solving--And How You Can Too by Deirdre Barrett All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Introductionp. IX
1. In the Gallery of the Night: Painting and Sculpture from Dreamsp. 1
2. Dreams That Money Can Buy: Filmmaking and Theaterp. 24
3. The Stately Pleasure Dome: Dream Literaturep. 40
4. The Devil Plays the Violin: Dreams and Musicp. 66
5. The Committee of Sleep Wins a Nobel Prize: Dreams in Science and Mathp. 82
6. Of Sewing Machines and Other Dreams: Inventions of the Committeep. 107
7. The Claw of the Panther: Dreams and the Bodyp. 123
8. When Gandhi Dreamed of Resistance: The Committee in Non-Western Culturesp. 145
9. What Word Starts and Ends With "He"? Sleep on a Brainteaser and Wake Up with a Headachep. 161
Conclusionp. 182
Notesp. 191
Acknowledgmentsp. 207
Indexp. 208