"The Dreaming Brain," J. Allan Hobson

Pros: Lucid, engaging, thought-provoking, fascinating
Cons: A bit heavy on science for the layman
Rating: 5 out of 5

First published 3/2/2001

Harvard professor J. Allan Hobson is by far the best teacher I’ve ever had the pleasure of learning from. There are others who were funnier, or at least taught classes at an earlier and more humane hour of the evening. But Hobson is a rarity among college professors: a literate, well-spoken, well-written man, intensely intelligent, friendly, kind, always willing to spend time with his students, with an endearing sense of aesthetics, unafraid to voice his opinion on anything and, above all, excitingly and appealingly passionate about his work. It was a 7:30 pm class, and I was always on the edge of my seat.

Hobson’s work concerns the biological basis of consciousness, sleep and dreaming. He beautifully mixes the scientific and the intuitive, the physiological and the psychological. He likes to say that he studies the “brain-mind,” the concept of the brain and mind as a coherent whole, neither one worth studying without the other. He believes that the two sides must be taken as parts of a whole, and in doing so, shockingly throws a concept that feels obvious, logical and clear (to this student, at least) right into the faces of a decent portion of the psychological community (who would like to see things only in terms of neurons and synaptic gaps, or Oedipal complexes and fixations. I’m over-simplifying things of course, but you get the idea).

Freudians Beware

If you’re a Freudian you probably won’t like some of what Hobson has to say. I happen to be fine with this – Freud did some great things for the field of psychology, but that doesn’t mean that all of his theories make sense with what we know about the brain today. Some of his ideas just don’t stand up to the physical realities of the brain.

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.

The Level of this Book

This book was deliberately aimed at the layman – but at the educated and intelligent layman. The verbiage is literate and intelligent, and there are plenty of words of three syllables or more. There’s a fair amount of neurobiology in here, but there’s also poetry, snippets from dream journals (historical, modern and the author’s own), humorous stories and fascinating discourse.

If you flunked high school bio you probably don’t want to read this book. You would get a lot out of it even if you skipped the neurobiology sections, but the neurobiology is important to and thoroughly wrapped up in the discussion, so it would be a shame to get only a partial picture of the arguments at hand. (Note: I haven’t had bio past high school, and although I sometimes had to work a little to fit together all of the detail, I was able to make sense of it.)

What You’ll Find

Hobson has been studying the phenomenon of dreaming for decades, and in this book he shares a great deal of what he has learned with us. You’ll discover what the most common characteristics of dreams are. You’ll find out that there are other sorts of interesting brain activity during sleep that happen during periods other than REM sleep (for those who fell asleep during high school bio, REM stands for Rapid Eye Movement. It’s the part of sleep when your brain gets all active, your eyes move around wildly under your eyelids, and you dream).

One of the more interesting revelations for those who know almost nothing about the biological experience of dreaming is how unreliable the subjective experience of dreaming is. For the most part it isn’t that we dream less or more after we’ve been upset or had indigestion, that some people dream for hours and others dream for minutes, or that some people only dream just before waking. It’s that people’s ability to reliably remember their dreams is notoriously bad. We all dream fairly similar amounts, for similar lengths of time, in similar ways. Here you’ll find out what the base-lines of dreaming are: how you dream, when, and the variations possible within that norm.

One of the most unusual and interesting directions of Hobson’s research is that of studying dreaming as a means of studying madness. 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. Hobson points out that but for the fact that we are asleep when all of these things occur, we would be considered psychotic! He suggests that dreaming might be the product of a similar sort of physiological process to that which occurs in the mentally ill. Through studying these common, everyday (“everynight”?) events, we might be able to build a model of mental illness.

Hobson discusses historical approaches to dreams and dreaming, including dream interpretation (by prophets all the way back to the Book of Genesis, through Freud and psychoanalysis).

Although the brain-based theory that I will develop runs deeply counter to the psychoanalytic theory of the interpretation of dreams, I do not mean to imply that I disagree with its psychodynamic spirit. But I do mean to propose alternative explanations for all of its important claims. And the result is a radically opposite approach to interpretation.

I differ from Freud in that I think that most dreams are neither obscure nor bowdlerized, but rather that they are transparent and unedited. They reveal clearly meaningful, undisguised, and often highly conflictual themes worthy of note by the dreamer…

Hobson goes on to talk about many subjects: the “transparency and creativity” of dreams, early twentieth century dream investigations, lucid dreaming, the structure and function of the brain, states of consciousness, REM sleep, sleep research, sensation and movement in dreams, bizarreness in dreams, and the future of dream science. This book was published in 1988, so the field has continued to advance and evolve since this book was published. But as of the class I took just a couple of years ago, Hobson’s “madness of dreaming” theories were progressing well, as was the research to back them up. So the material in this book is still quite useful and meaningful.

This is a fascinating book, scientific and poetic all at once. Whether or not you agree with Hobson’s theories, you can still learn a heck of a lot about neurobiology and the history and science of dreaming.

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