Sweet Dreams Are Made of This: An Interview with J. Allan Hobson


“Over the centuries and even today, dreams have been looked at subjectively and as experiences whose significance is cryptic, needing to be decoded in some way. A new way of viewing dreams, as transparent, their significance available to the dreamer, unaided by prophet or psychoanalyst, derives from the objective studies of modern sleep science and neurobiology,” writes Dr. J. Allan Hobson in one of his many books, “The Dreaming Brain: How the Brain Creates the Sense and the Nonsense of Dream,” which examines how the study of the brain has come to help us understand dreaming.

An American psychiatrist and dream researcher, Hobson is a professor of psychiatry, emeritus, at Harvard Medical School, and a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. In “The Dreaming Brain” (and many of his books on dreaming, including “13 Dreams Freud Never Had: The New Mind Science”) he dismisses Freudian and Jungian dream analysis as unscientific, saying dreams are a vast maintenance task of the brain.

“I differ from Freud in that I think that most of these dreams are neither obscure or bowdlerized, but rather they are transparent and unedited. They reveal clearly meaningful, undisguised, and often highly conflictual themes worthy of note by the dreamer (and any interpretive assistant). My position echoes Jung’s notion of dreams as transparently meaningful and does away with any manifest and latent content.”

Hobson’s study of rapid eye movement (REM) and sleep labs incorporated more scientific study of dreaming than Freud’s and his descendants’ use of self-reported dreaming. “The form of dreams is related to brain activity in sleep; and that the brain is first turned on (activated) during sleep and then generates and integrates (synthesizes) its own sensory and motor information,” he writes. “The sensory and motor signals that the brain automatically generates are both the driving force and the directional vector for the dream plot, which is synthesized in light of an individual’s past experiences, attitudes, and expectations.”

His book, “Dream Life: An Experimental Memoir,” conducts an experimental investigation into his life and work. Dreams — most intense in REM sleep, when the brain is active — need no Freudian-style decoding, he says. Dreaming is a glorious mental state, to be enjoyed and studied for what it tells us about consciousness.

Brain World: How did you get involved in studying dreaming?

J. Allan Hobson: I’m a psychiatrist, and I was very unhappy with the theories and practice of psychiatry as it was taught to me in 1960 — I was very unhappy that the Freudian explanations were either incorrect or inadequate to deal with major mental illness; I was fairly certain they weren’t. There was a great upsurge of biological interest then. None of that appealed to me.

So I left my residencies and went to NIH [the National Institutes of Health] and discovered the sleep lab. It struck me as an interesting model of mental illness to study this normal state of dreaming — in dreams you seem to be there, you believe them to be true, but they are not true, you have memory loss, confabulation. It had everything for me! How does the brain do this?

BW: What have your learned?

JAH: In REM sleep, when most dreaming occurs, the brain is active but offline. It’s no longer sensitive to external inputs. You have changes in input-output gating, you become unaware of the outside world and your brain is turned on — it’s as if you were awake but you’re not awake. This is exactly what happens when people become crazy — they lose their connection with the outside world, that have some balanced shift in neuromodulator systems.

The general idea is that the brain has its own way of constructing reality or what reality is like, and that system is very useful to us in consciousness, but it gets out of hand and creates all sorts of problems. It’s all well and good to lie in bed to dream, but you don’t want to see created people in your world as you’re talking to me. I’m pretty sure I can keep my own voices under control. We go around talking to ourselves. We are able to somewhere understand that is an internal process, that it’s not coming from the outside world; but if you thought it was coming from the outside world, you’d think you’re in big trouble.

In dreaming, you think you’re awake, and what can be more delusional than that? The brain — normally — is completely wrong. That, in itself, is interesting.

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