An active, synthetic genius

Allan Hobson, one of the pioneers in the field of what sleep and dreaming are ‘for’, talks to Jon Sutton

You’ve been described as the ‘anti Freud’, and have said psychoanalysis is ‘too comforting – it makes you brain-dead’. What’s your main objection when it comes to dreaming??

Freud correctly assumed that any scientific psychology would have to be based on brain science. But in 1895 this ‘Project for a scientific psychology’ wasn’t possible, so he turned his brilliant mind to the entirely speculative creation of his dream theory. A century of brain science on, his project is now feasible. In my opinion, Freud’s dream theory is incorrect in every important respect, but my main objection is to his idea that dreaming is inimical to waking consciousness.

Yet you started out as a ‘believer’. Have you struggled to unshackle yourself from Freud?
It is only within the past year that I have felt totally emancipated. First, in June 2008, I realised that dreaming was not an unconsciousness mental state as Freud assumed. Instead it is conscious but unremembered. Viewing dreaming as an altered state of consciousness, not so much repressed as unremembered, changes everything. Even more recently, I have come to see how and why waking and dreaming are complimentary not antagonistic.

My new theory of dream consciousness asserts that dreaming is a state of primary consciousness, associated with REM sleep but also subserving waking (with its secondary conscious features) as a virtual-reality model of the world, including the sense of self (Freud’s ego), the sense of self-as-agent, movement, a space in which the self-as-agent moves, and – if that were not enough – integrated emotion. This is all given. It comes with the suit (which is, of course, the brain). Waking consciousness takes advantage of dreaming by borrowing all this ready-made stuff and only needs to instantiate particular information. This goes a long way to solving the formidable ‘binding’ problem faced by consciousness science.

Dreaming reveals this process clearly. The dreamer is always me and I am always moving in a world that has features of the real world but is entirely fictive, including the perceptions, movements, and associated feelings. REM sleep physiology has already revealed the brain sources of the movement, the perceptions and the emotions. Stay tuned and you will see the self emerge in much the same way that Rodolfo Llinás proposes in I of the Vortex. There is no little Jon in there, just a brain that calls itself Jon in keeping with external convention. Jon is, at first, a virtual reality self who becomes a person and, through a no doubt interesting set of events, becomes an editor. Every night he relearns everything: he is a self, a self-as-agent, etc. and he updates this model with newly learned data.

I do indeed dream that one day I’ll become an editor! Incidentally, I find that there are few things more interesting than your own dreams, or more boring than other people’s.
Speak for yourself! I myself love to read good dream reports because I have a non-psychoanalytic way of looking at them. There are two problems. One is that there are far too few good reports. And the second problem is that people are far too committed to penny-scale type interpretations of them. For me, good dream reports are trying to tell me how the mind really works and that it works
in ways that Freud never dreamed.

But if much of a dream’s form and substance derive from physiological processes that occur independently of a dream’s apparent meaning, is it still as interesting to look at dream content?
The meaning of dreams – and mine are dripping with meaning – is transparent, not disguised. You need only keep a dream journal, as I have for 40 years, to realise this truth. If dreams are a fig leaf for my desires they are not covering much of my own sexual anatomy. I may be a bit more lusty than Siggy, but that can’t be why my dreams are so embarrassingly naked. If you read my recent book, Thirteen Dreams Freud Never Had, you might get a chuckle at the view through my psychic keyhole!

Without disguise-censorship, Freudian dream theory is dead in the water.

Does the ‘grammar’ of a dream appeal more than the ‘literature’?
Both appeal to me. If I were creating a school curriculum – and I am – I would insist that students study both. I love to speculate too. I do it every day – at the breakfast table; by the water cooler; over lunch; and even in bed after supper. But when I write a scientific paper, such as my current project for Nature Neuroscience Reviews, I try to keep speculation to a minimum. I want a scientific psychology as much as Freud did in 1895.

What does your curriculum involve?

I teach a 10-session course called The Basic Science of Sleep and Dreaming. It covers the psychology, physiology and philosophy that was also the content of my William James lectures at the University of Roehampton earlier in the year, but it is much more detailed. It is popular with graduate students in cognitive science. I have taught the course in one day, two days, or 10 days to eager students all over the world. Have curriculum, will travel.

What does it mean to ask whether dreams have meaning?
Damned if I know. Something beyond appearances? Symbol decoding? True motivation? My dreams are so laden with meaning that I need not look further than my detailed reports for all the meaning I might need to permit a very thorough psychic overhaul. I tried to make this point clear in my lectures at Roehampton, but my psychoanalytic discussants were most unwelcoming. They all acted like I was trying to put them out of a job, which I suppose, in a way, I was!

Why do we dream in non-REM sleep if, as you say, the characteristics of dreams are paralleled by the characteristics of REM sleep?
REM is about twice as effective as non-REM in dream production (when defined by the number of experimental sleep lab awakenings yielding reports). But REM reports are about six times as long and they are at least twice as hallucinatory and twice as thought-impoverished. REM is where it’s at if you want to figure out how the brain does it. In science, you can’t do everything, so you look where the light is. It’s brightest in REM.

You have said that the state of dreaming in many ways matches the state of being delusional, and includes other cognitive disturbances as well – hallucinations, disorientations, bizarre thoughts and amnesias. Do you think dreams could help us to build a model of mental illness?
Absolutely. Dreaming is a psychosis by definition. Let’s figure out how the brain does it and we will have a blueprint for research in mental illness.

In 2001 you suffered a stroke and this temporarily affected your ability to sleep and to dream. How did this experience change your views on science and dreaming?
A speculative theoretical bent has always characterised my science. I felt impelled – and pleased – to turn it on myself, Allan Hobson the patient. Integrating my wild concatenation of symptoms into a model rooted in my life’s work was intellectually gratifying – and quite possibly therapeutic.

Through my stroke recovery I learned that my dreaming was tied to my brainstem motor system. I began to dream again on day 36 post-stroke. At about the same time I learned to walk again. The fact that all dreams are animated was never noticed by the dream symbol sleuths. For Freud, riding a horse was a displacement of a sexual impulse. I myself never ride horses, in waking or dreaming, but I have plenty of sex in both states. 

You also had a bout of pneumonia, which you seemed to use as an excuse to try out a variety of hallucinatory drugs!
I was forbidden to take anything by mouth because of my tendency to swallow into my lungs, but I wasn’t sleeping well so the nurse suggested I try morphine intravenously. I had read de Quincey’s Confessions of an Opium Eater and was anticipating Piranesi-type imagery but saw nothing. No effect whatsoever.
Having just read Cliff Saper’s report about the specific arrest of histaminergic neurons in REM sleep I suggested we try an antihistamine [see]. The results were spectacular. An animated cartoon, named Thalamosaurus, was projected on the ceiling of my room.

I was completely lucid throughout. This is a variation on the theme of lucid dreaming, isn’t it? I was awake but hallucinating. Among other things this experiment confirms my activation-synthesis hypothesis and demonstrates, clearly, that the brain is autocreative.

How has your field changed in the 20-odd years since your book The Dreaming Brain was first published?
Not enough to suit me. Psychoanalysts will never recant. We have to wait for them to die. Freud has entered into the culture, like astrology and religion. People would rather have facile and even erroneous ideas than think critically and suspend disbelief. But science soldiers on. Darwin is now 200 and some folks don’t want to celebrate his birthday. I should be so lucky. When I am 200, will anyone remember?

Well, you will certainly leave a large and varied legacy. On the Harvard website you are described as a ‘synthetic genius who translated and transformed science into accessible art and symbol through Dreamstage and writing, alchemically melding scientific physiology and the magical subjectivity of the dream state’.

I have always been attracted to the aesthetics of natural history, including brain science. In 1977, I designed Dreamstage, an exhibit created by the brain of a person asleep. I still consider it my finest work, even though the chairman of my promotion committee said that they had made me a professor ‘in spite of Dreamstage’ and in spite of the lousy field that I was in, sleep research. My book, with the art historian Hellmut Wohl, is entitled Angels to Neurones: Art and the New Science of Dreaming.

You’re also a ‘do-over Dad’ – one batch of kids all grown up, and then a father again, to twins at the age of 68. How’s that going for you?

My wife is Catholic and was absolutely determined to have children with me even though I was already 63. I still think it’s not quite fair to them (since I am infirm and about to die) but I have enjoyed being a father again enormously. I have more time now, less to prove, and maybe a bit more wisdom. The idea of having twins also appealed to my experimental nature and their ‘two-ness’ has also proved rewarding. They will always have each other even if they don’t have me!


BOX: A dream report
I am cycling in heavy London traffic with a six-foot tree trimmer across my handlebars. It seems that I am bound to trim a tree, but where and to what end is not clear. As I proceed it becomes apparent that my destination is 18th-century Wimpole Street, and when
I arrive at their house, I see a girl and then her father both dressed in 18th-century garb. But the tree in their yard is small and scrawny, hardly worthy of trimming.
My dream is typically illustrative of the increase in primary consciousness features and the deficits in secondary features. I am the centre of the action and I ride my bike with intense motivation to achieve a goal which only gradually becomes clear. I say that these features – self-as-agent, motoric action, vivid perception, and strong motivation – are generic. In waking, they underlie and are guided by secondary consciousness features such as orientation, judgement, and self-reflective awareness; features that are conspicuously absent from my dream. The main reason for these changes is the radical alteration in brain function that distinguishes REM sleep from waking.
This dream is dripping with meaning. I am ambitious to a fault. I ride my bike with impunity in heavy London traffic carrying the tree trimmer that my hard-driving father and I used to trim the large spruce tree in our yard. These ‘meanings’ are self-evident and undisguised. They are not the cause of the changes in brain function that makes dream consciousness so different from, and so complementary to, waking consciousness.

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