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INSIGHTS: All You've Got to Do is Dream

News from the Johns Hopkins Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

Dr. Harris

Dr. James Harris

A former head of Child Psychiatry at Hopkins, James C. Harris holds deep interests in sleep, neuropsychiatry and emotional development. He co-founded a pediatric sleep disorders clinic in the early 1980s, for example, and is a specialist in autism and intellectual disability—once called mental retardation—championing whatever improves life for young patients dealt such a hand.  His textbook, Developmental Neuropsychiatry, effectively established that specialty. And for some 30 years, he’s taught Psychiatry’s course that describes theories of how the human psyche comes to mature throughout a lifetime.

Here we get Harris’ perspective on the work  (See article on sleep study)  that ties the waking and sleeping brain in new ways.

You’re really enthused about this new study, yes?

Absolutely! We think you’ll be able to study the integrity of brain circuits while someone’s asleep.

But, more, since I teach about Carl Jung’s views, I’m pleased we’ve found evidence to support his thoughts on the continuity of consciousness in dreaming. The research suggests more strongly than before that what happens in sleep is important in emotional adaptation, in making us better able to carry out life’s tasks.


It’s a lot like that Bergman film Wild Strawberries that I like to use to illustrate the human process. The main character dreams of his own death and, in the course of a day, is sharply reminded—by events and during dreams and daytime reveries—of the important phases of his life. He reflects on them, on their value to himself and by the movie’s end, has become a more integrated person; he’s found new meaning in relationships that he hadn’t before. Why? Because throughout the film, he holds a dialogue between his dreams—his inner self—and his everyday waking consciousness. It’s this back-and-forth that’s important.

Elaborate, please.

There’s a hypothesis that imagery from emotional events of the day surfaces in your REM sleep. When that’s “matched” with something already present in your emotional memory banks and then re-experienced in REM sleep, the result is a biological modulating of your emotional life. It smooths the harsh edges, so to speak, helps you come to terms with your life. You’re ready to adapt to a new day.

And the study’s exciting because...

It suggests that this process, where there is continuity between waking and REM sleep consciousness, is meaningful and real. We may be able to show, at some point, or begin to quantify how sleep’s most valuable quality—restoring us by balancing our emotional life—works. Also, it may lead to early detection of depression, Alzheimer’s disease or schizophrenia—all sleep-disrupting illnesses that affect our emotional life, memory and cognitive balance. And finally...


This, to me, might begin to help us understand the neurophysiology that underlies psychotherapy. Is the alternation between narrating and reflecting that’s so basic to psychotherapy mirrored in the continuity of  waking and dreaming? That’s what I’d like to find out.

Winter 2008 IndexHopkins Newsletter Archive