A New Interpretation of Dreams

Jeffrey Saver

  • The Dreaming Brain by Allan Hobson
    Basic Books, 319 pp, $22.95, March 1988, ISBN 0 465 01703 7

Allan Hobson is a leading Harvard neuroscientist who has figured prominently in the breakthroughs which have occurred over the past three decades in the neurophysiology and neuropsychology of sleep and dreams. Long known within the field for his provocative views on the philosophical implications of sleep research, Hobson in this much-awaited volume addresses himself for the first time to a general audience. The heart of this work is an exposition of the widely-accepted Hobson-McCarley model of dream activity. Dreams, Hobson proposes, are the product of the synthetic, ordering activity of higher cortical brain areas responding to somewhat random internal stimuli generated by lower brain centres in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. In Hobson’s hands, this activation-synthesis model offers a grand vision of the creative power of the human brain, and yet one set squarely in the mainstream of current cognitive science and neuroscience. It is thus the first encompassing alternative modern neurobiology has offered to Freud’s interpretation of dreams. Hobson is knowledgable about and sensitive to psychoanalytic theory, but does not hesitate to declare its shortcomings. The Dreaming Brain may be seen as an attempt, generally successful, to supplant the analysis of dreams that lies at the core of psychoanalytic theory with a radically different neurophysiological vision, a central challenge to the scientific and psychological foundations of the Freudian world-view.

The ubiquity of dreams has been common knowledge ever since Aserinsky and Kleitman discovered REM sleep and its association with subjective reporting of dream experience in 1953, and yet it still occasions surprise. We each of us dream in a regular and predictable fashion four or five times a night, and just as routinely fail to recall our dreams on awakening. In each evening’s sleep sustained dream scenarios, elaborated over periods lasting up to an hour, alternate with thought-like mentation in 90-minute cycles. Thus, as we traverse the seventy-year span that late 20th-century civilisation on average allots us, we will spend at least fifty thousand hours dreaming, a full six years devoted to oneiric life.

A central challenge for any theory of dreaming is to explain the bizarreness of dreams, to provide a rationale for the surreal shifts of person, place and thought that make dreams dreamlike. In characterising the fantastical qualities of dream narratives, Hobson enumerates five cardinal features of dreaming: vivid sensory impressions, often motor and visual (motor and visual hallucination); discontinuities of time, place and person, including flagrant violations of physical law (spatial and temporal cognitive distortion); uncritical acceptance of events, however unusual, as experientially real (delusional acceptance of hallucinoid experience); strong emotion (intensification of affect); and the tendency to fail to remember the experience once it is completed (amnesia). The parenthetic terms are those which result when Hobson, a physician as well as a scientist, subjects the dreaming mind to the neurologist’s or psychiatrist’s ‘mental status exam’. His disconcerting but illuminating conclusion is that by strict medical criteria each of us, when dreaming, is formally psychotic, delirious and/or demented. Dreams are indeed bizarre, and through them we each partake of a madness structurally similar to that which afflicts individuals with schizophrenia, organic dementia and other neuropsychiatric conditions. Insights gained from the study of the dreaming brain, Hobson gives us reason to hope, may shed light on the genesis of the numerous waking states with which it shares formal features.

Freud suggested that the bizarreness of dreams arises from a process of intra-psychic disguise and censorship. In sleep, he hypothesised, the sway the ego-superego holds over the unconscious, repressed impulses that comprise the id is lessened. Forbidden wishes threaten to intrude upon the conscious mind, but their disturbing quality would disrupt the sleep state and awaken the sleeper. Therefore, Freud suggested that another postulated psychic entity, the censor, disguises the unwelcome impulses through a variety of defensive transformations. The forbidden urgings are joined with the day residue of recent events through psychodynamic processes of displacement, condensation and symbolisation. Freud concluded that the bizarre manifest content of dreams must be dissected and interpreted to uncover the holy grail of all psychoanalytic endeavours: the latent content that is the motive force of the dream process.

Hobson lodges a number of objections to Freudian dream theory. Some are familiar: notably, the charge that Freud failed to specify findings that might invalidate his proposals, refusing to expose his insights to the peril of falsification, which is an essential, if unforgiving feature of all scientific theory. Hobson notes, for example, that Freud, having declared all dreams to be the fulfilment of wishes, had then to confront the quite common and seemingly contradictory occurrence of anxiety and other unfulfilling feelings in dreams. Freud explained away this incongruity by suggesting that dreams featuring such unpleasant, negative emotions were simply failed attempts at wish-fulfilment. Though disagreeable or even harrowing, when correctly analysed such dreams, too, could be seen to originate in the wishes of the dreamer seeking gratification. The apparently contradictory could always be reinterpreted as confirmatory, and failure to accomplish this feat indicated a defect, not in psychoanalytic theory itself, but in the interpreter-critic’s understanding and application of the theory.

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[*] The proposal that the dreaming brain generates motor programs that are only subsequently blocked from being executed has received confirmation in the experiments of Michel Jouvet. Working with cats, Jouvet placed lesions in the neural tracts responsible for this inhibition of motor outflow in the dream state. When the lesioned animals entered the REM state, they stood, moved about and carried out complex behavioural sequences, including chasing imaginary mice across the laboratory floor – all the while remaining asleep by neurophysiological criteria. The cats literally acted out their dreams. I had long marvelled that no analogous human disorder arising from a spontaneous lesion in the nervous system had ever been delineated in the neurological literature. The recently recognised REM sleep behaviour disorder, however, appears to be in all respects equivalent. Its sufferers physically enact their dreams, often with resulting physical injury to themselves or their bed-partners. And unlike the more common parasomnias of sleep-walking that occur in non-REM sleep, the REM sleep behaviour disorder arises in neurophysiologically unequivocal REM sleep epochs.