Dr. Deirdre Barrett Brings Her Dreams to Life



Barrett likes to inhabit the spaces we can’t firmly grasp — the hours between wake and sleep, the gap between the real and unreal, the world of dreams.



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Looking at Dr. Deirdre L. Barrett’s artwork, you feel like you’re entering another world, or maybe just a different version of your own. A world that’s psychedelic, dripping with color and texture and pulling inspiration from the likes of Edward Gorey and Hieronymous Bosch.

Each square inch of Barrett’s work contains a mind-boggling explosion of detail. Picture animals whose feathers melt into scales, eerie faces emerging from trees, and the Harvard Lampoon, a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to publish a so-called humor magazine, covered in bird heads. A Lecturer on Psychology and prominent dream researcher, Barrett likes to inhabit the spaces we can’t firmly grasp — the hours between wake and sleep, the gap between the real and unreal, the world of dreams.

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Dreams have always compelled Barrett. By the age of six, she realized that she was different from other kids at school — her dreams were bizarre and vivid, and she seemed to remember them with startling accuracy. “As a really little kid, when I only remember discussing [dreams] with my parents, I kind of thought it was a kid thing,” she says. As she got a little older, she realized that the other kids on the playground weren’t experiencing the same thing. “I guess it was then that I did get that I seemed to have more and more vivid dreams,” she recalls.

And her dreams are, admittedly, a little strange. In an email, Barrett describes one of her recent dreams, about “some bird people that are incubating a fetus in an odd incubator while a ghost floats overhead that is both sort of another image of the fetus and sort of the spirit of a deceased entity the fetus is replacing.” Instead of shying away from the weirdness of her dreams, Barrett leans into it.

“I relate to dreams more as metaphoric, meaningful things that you can get both personal insight and creative inspiration [from],” she says.

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The path to dream research felt natural to her. “[I] realized that [if] somebody was going to pay me to work with dreams all the time, I’d better major in psychology and go to graduate school in it.”

As an academic, Barrett has explored the impact of mass trauma on dreams. In June of 2020, she published “Pandemic Dreams”: a book inspired by 15,000 individuals’ Covid-related dream submissions. The accounts were strikingly similar at the start, but “decoupled in time” as different states and countries adopted different public health policies, she says. (Barrett notes that despite most mask mandates being lifted, people are still dreaming about forgetting their masks; it’s the modern-day equivalent of the classic “naked in public” dream.) Today, she is working on finding more empirical ways to characterize Covid-era dreams.

Starting in the mid-2000s, Barrett began writing for the general public as a means of increasing accessibility to her scientific research. “I started writing trade books, and I started doing movie reviews of films about dreams, and moved a little bit away from the ‘academic-only’ way of talking about dreams,” she says. Eventually, her hunger to represent dreams began to take the form of another medium — art.

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Throughout her career, Barrett would occasionally use pencils or watercolors to try and recreate images from her dreams when they were particularly compelling. However, these sketches were often more frustrating than illuminating for Barrett, since they would typically wind up looking “like a second grader had done it,” she says.

Barrett was stumped not only by the discrepancy between the vividness of her dreams and her disappointing artistic ability, but by her friends’ inability to understand her goals: she was not interested in making art based on her dreams, but rather in using art to reproduce her dreams. "If I could have just projected photographically what was in my head, that would have been the ideal,” she says.

It wasn’t until six and a half years ago, at an art show by Nobel Laureate and former Harvard biochemistry professor Walter Gilbert ’53, that Barrett was inspired to use photography and digital photo editing to reproduce her dreamscapes more accurately. Soon after that, when she had a dream about a mask coming to life, she reached for her camera roll instead of her sketchpad. “I already have some photographs of masks because I collect masks when I go to mask shows,” Barrett says. Starting with a picture of a real mask, then adding “living eyes” and “some of the creatures that were crawling up the side of its face” changed the game.

Barrett has also recently begun to experiment with a computer program called Deep Dream, which generates images from text narratives of dreams or user-uploaded base images. Barrett appreciates the ability of Deep Dream to recreate dreams with a “sparkly psychedelic” or “unreal, night time glittery” look.

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Despite having sampled the various advantages of Photoshop, DALL-E, and traditional painting, Barrett is still looking for the perfect way to put her dreams to paper. As a result, her artistic style has changed over the years, with earlier pieces featuring iridescent jewel tones and later ones including more matte, muted images. “It feels like I'm still kind of learning and experimenting,” she says.

The target of her ambitions — the dreams themselves — is moving, too. Barrett has started dreaming less as she has gotten older, putting a clock on her source material. She recounts with some horror that she “actually failed to recall a dream one night this week in any dream content at all,” she says. Despite these challenges, she plans on continuing to use art to bring dreams to the general public — projecting her mesmerizing and fantastical dreamscapes onto the waking world.