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

BW: So we’re all crazy?

JAH: We’re all capable of becoming crazy. Most of us — for one reason or another — we don’t take drugs, or we take them up late in life [so they don’t affect our brain development], or any number of features, including genetic ones, could expose someone to a shift in balance. In that case we might be in big trouble. Lots of people think that crazy people have it right; some of my colleagues think it’s a mistake to treat them, because they have it right. Hollywood and some distinguished psychologists think [crazy people] understand the way things are. [Crazy people do] understand a way things are, but not the way things are.

BW: And how does that relate to dreaming?

JAH: What I’m trying to do in my scientific work is to figure out how the brain generates that inside world. I’m a 77-year-old man — I think that it will be another 1,000 years to understand it well. Brain research is the answer to understanding the inside world. How else can you study the inside world? You’ve got to look at the brain, you’ve got to do brain anatomy, and sleep and dream research to figure out how those cells work from the external world to the inside world.

BW: You believe that dreams are created when random energy signals reach the brain’s cortex during REM sleep.

JAH: My theory is that in REM sleep, dreaming is a prime state — a primary state of consciousness. Dreaming is a state of consciousness, waking is a state of consciousness. They are very cooperative of each other. Dreaming takes advantage of things learned while awake, and waking takes advantage of things that are learned while dreaming. Dreaming is not the enemy of consciousness — the unconscious is not the enemy; I say that they are mutually enhancing.

BW: Do you believe dreams have meaning?

JAH: I think everything has meaning, I didn’t say that dreams have no meaning. I say that dreams do not conceal meaning. Freud would have us believe that we must interpret it psychologically, but I have never said that dreams have no meaning. Psychoanalysts are threatened. Of course dreams have meaning. We didn’t need Sigmund Freud to tell us that. He told us that dreams’ meaning is concealed.

BW: For example?

JAH: My dreams are blatantly revealed. They are embarrassingly meaningful, useful as instruments for self-knowledge, no thanks to psychological interpretations. The truth is right in front of you … I had a dream about a lovely woman, that I took off her cellophane dress … is that a symbol? That woman is not my mother, it’s some imaginary concubine — I’ve been looking for imaginary concubines all my life. That [dream] doesn’t tell me very much that I didn’t know.

BW: Do dreams tell us what we don’t know?

JAH: As a psychiatrist for 40 years I didn’t learn anything from dreams that I didn’t already know. I never have had a surprise … Maybe your dreams are telling you about something you don’t know.

The woman — that’s the manifest content. The latent content is something else — the libidinous wish for my mother and that I have an Oedipus complex. That’s an obfuscation, that’s a diversion from what is truthful about us: That we are sexually wanton. Maybe we should credit Freud for that. He wouldn’t like that very much.

BW: So what does that mean for psychoanalysis?

JAH: The evidence is poor that psychoanalytic therapy works — I’ve used it, it feels to me like it works, I believe in it, but it’s not scientifically valid. Modestly, even my own psychological efforts are probably well intentioned, but not terribly efficacious. You can’t ask a therapist or patient if what they’re doing is useful. It’s not proof of anything. Just assertions.

I will distinguish those assertions from what I’ve learned about the brain. Brain research is probably capable of yielding absolutes, not culturally relative phenomena.

BW: What do you think the future holds?

JAH: We’re learned a lot by studying nerve cells, neuromodulators, microelectrodes, and imaging, Since the 1990s, we could study the human brain in action — 15 years of work with this imaging technique, studying the regional activation noninvasively — it’s unbelievable. But spatial resolution [in brain imaging is poor — it’s like flying over Times Square and asking whether people will be Republicans or Democrats].

I am sure [the future is] going to be fabulous. [We will be able to tune in to] the human brain, normal sleep and dreaming, psychosis. That’s as far as I want to go in terms of speculating.

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