CAN FREUD’S THEORY OF DREAMS HOLD UP AGAINST MODERN NEUROSCIENCE?
Early this year, Allan Hobson, a recently retired Harvard psychiatry professor, was on his Vermont dairy farm preparing to open a dream museum. His barn, which until recently held more than forty cows, now contained a small, glass-enclosed bedroom at its center. Two dummies lay under the covers. Their faces were made of plaster—one molded from Hobson’s head and the other from his wife’s. Beside the bed was a preserved brain in a jar and X-rays of Hobson’s own skull.
Hobson has arguably been the dominant scientist in dream research for the past thirty years. He decided to open the museum when his Boston neurophysiology lab shut down (the whole hospital relocated) and he no longer had a place to showcase his favorite belongings. Several of the items come from his 1977 traveling science exhibit, Dreamstage, which attracted some thirty thousand visitors and popularized his theory that dreams are the result of random neural firings. In the original show, a volunteer slept in the glass bedroom while his brain waves and muscle twitches were projected onto a wall with laser lights.
For many years, there were often just two scientists represented in Intro to Psychology textbooks: Hobson and Freud. Hobson cultivates his reputation as the “Anti-Freud”—he’s even published an essay in which he pretends to be Freud congratulating Hobson on his work. Only recently have scientists begun challenging Hobson’s sweeping dismissal of psychoanalysis with actual neuroscience. His success (people called his lab the “Dream Team”) is due in part to his charisma and PR skills. He speaks with sanguine authority, announcing that he will save psychiatry, that we must objectify the subjective, that psychoanalytic theory makes us lazy babies: “It’s too comforting, like the Bible. It makes you brain-dead.”
Hobson has pale blue eyes, a few white tufts of hair, and an air of worn, preppy polish. One cheek droops slightly from a recent stroke. As he moves through the museum, he addresses the “fundamental problem” of whatever he’s discussing and tends to trail off into a series of knowing “blah blah blah blah”s when he feels he’s made his argument clear. On the walls is a narrative of the dreaming brain with large illustrations, designed to appeal to schoolchildren. He wants students to come here and know they have brains, “not minds floating up in the air like clouds.” He leans in close to an image of cilia magnified to the point where they appear edible. “It looks like a tidal pool,” he says. “Or maybe an ovary.”
Despite his distaste for Freud, Hobson is happy to divulge his own feelings, particularly sexual ones. He’s kept a dream journal for the past forty years, in which he freely analyzes his cravings, territorial problems, and preoccupation with being bigger, smarter, and more powerful. He began his training with a firm belief in psychoanalysis (he wrote his undergraduate thesis on Freud and Dostoyevsky), but about a year into Harvard Medical School he became frustrated by the scientific flimsiness of ideas he had once accepted as truth. “I was seduced,” he says. “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”
In the early ’70s, while planting microelectrodes on the brain stems of cats, he formed his widely cited Activation-Synthesis theory and broadened its implications, perhaps unduly, to disprove Freud’s claim that dreams are caused by unconscious, often sinister desires. He and his Harvard colleague Robert McCarley proposed that dreams are strange and fragmented not because secret urges are being censored, as Freud claimed, but because the brain is in a naturally chaotic state. During REM sleep, the phase most ripe for dreaming, the brain stem sends random signals up to parts of the forebrain that control emotions, movement, vision, and hearing, and these higher brain centers patch together a story out of the electrical input. Hobson accused psychoanalysts of reading dreams as pieces of literature and creating narratives when there weren’t any. (“I’m more interested in their grammar,” he says.) The media quickly picked up on his theories, distilling his research into one catchy idea: dreams are meaningless. Hobson didn’t mind the popular exaggeration.
“It took the wind out of the psychoanalytic dream sails,” says Robert Stickgold, a prominent Harvard dream researcher as well as the author of two science-fiction novels centered around medical experiments gone awry. “At that time, psychoanalysis was the only game in town. Think of it as the civil rights movement, which went through this period of Black Power before coming back to equilibrium. Or the feminist movement, which led to separatism before coming back to balance. Any time you’re trying to produce a dramatic shift in public belief you have to overshoot.”
Hobson was unconcerned whether hundred-year-old theories were an appropriate target to shoot at. “To be wrong about something so important as human motivation is a capital sin,” he says. He frequently references Freud’s 1895 Project for a Scientific Psychology, a failed attempt to provide a neurological explanation for emotional life. Not enough was known about the brain at the time, and Freud ultimately gave up, dismissing the endeavor as “scribble,” “a kind of absurdity.” Hobson sees himself as fulfilling Freud’s original goals. In his office next to the new museum, he still keeps a double-exposed photo of Freud’s office on his wall: it’s shot so that Hobson appears to be both sitting in Freud’s chair and lying as a patient on his couch. He calls it his mystic corner. “What I’m trying to do is continue where Freud left off,” he says. “Freud knew he needed brain science to make a decent theory, but he didn’t have it. So he went off and woolgathered. He’s a brilliant man, super stuff, great writing. But it’s all wrong.”
In the past few years, Freud’s Project for a Scientific Psychology has been taken up again, this time by a group of researchers—the International Society for Neuro-Psychoanalysis—who believe Freud’s theories have been wrongly demolished by scientists like Hobson. One of Hobson’s most prominent critics is Mark Solms, a neuropsychologist at the University of Cape Town who accuses the field of neuroscience of ignoring the mind, “our own beloved self,” and treating the brain as if it had the reflective capacities of the liver.
Solms, who was analyzed for nine years, five times a week, now travels around Europe and America, lecturing on the intersection between psychoanalytic theory and what we know about neurons. He’ll sometimes end his speeches with an enthusiastic “Freud is not dead!” He tempers his arguments with hard data, making Freud seem sophisticated, almost new. He’s at one extreme in dream research, while Hobson is at the other (there are plenty of dream scientists who don’t concern themselves with Freud). “Solms is like the leader of a new cult,” says G. William Domhoff, a professor of psychology and sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “And Hobson is the anti-Freud, just like the anti-Christ.”
Solms began studying patients with brain damage in the late ’90s, and discovered that people who suffered lesions to a part of the frontal lobe crucial for motivation—what he calls the “I want it system”—stopped dreaming. The results, he is quick to explain, are consistent with the Freudian premise that dreams are rampant with unchecked desires. “Why are we lying there for eight hours every night doing nothing?” he says. “Our motivational system is telling us to explore and forage and want things. The dream is the alternative to going out in the world.”
Hobson originally congratulated Solms on his research, but when he discovered that Solms was on the board of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute and was working on an English translation of the complete works of Freud, he stopped writing him friendly letters. He has since altered his own theory to allow for more activity in the forebrain, not just the brain stem as he had originally proposed, but still insists that dreams have no inherent meaning: they’re the equivalent of Rorschach blots, and analysts or dreamers can make of them what they choose. He’s addressed the controversy in a series of journal publications with titles like “Freud Returns—Like a Bad Dream.” Or “In Bed with Mark Solms? What a Nightmare!”
Hobson’s colleague Robert Stickgold says he’s amazed by the place Freud is given in these debates. “You might as well say, ‘Dopamine urges reflect Ecclesiastes 12:43,’” he says. “It’s like, excuse me? It’s not logical. When Einstein came up with his theory of relativity and basically said that everything Newton found was subtly wrong, there were no people out there screaming, ‘How dare you, how dare you challenge the laws of Newton!’”
But Freud has a peculiar hold on people, in part, perhaps, because his theories make so much sense. With the help of a psychoanalyst, all the random, disparate events of one’s life come together in a coherent narrative. We can blame each of our quirks and failures on any number of plot points. Over time, even Hobson has come to acknowledge the allure of the Freudian worldview. “Freud wanted to have everything: god, sociology, sex, family,” Hobson says. “We can let him in later, but not until we first rebuild the whole fabric of psychiatry. He’s too domineering. That was our problem. We let him in too soon.”
At a conference hosted by the Center for Consciousness Studies in Tucson last year, Solms debated Hobson for nearly two hours on Freud’s theory of dreams. At times, the conversation resembled a high-school class election—“I hope that when you vote at the end, you’ll vote for me!” said Solms cheerily—with each scientist becoming increasingly emotional about the other’s foolishness. To illustrate how dreams are like hieroglyphics, Solms gave an example of one in which he is a schoolteacher and Hobson is a young student sitting in his classroom in a uniform. An interpretation, he said, might uncover the wish “I want to teach Allan Hobson a lesson.”
While both men now agree more or less on the neuroscience, they disagree on how to read Freud. Hobson believes the central tenet of The Interpretation of Dreams is the disguise censorship theory—the idea that dreams come to us in secret code. Solms concedes that this particular point might be off, but takes a more holistic view, praising Freud for his poetic generalities: the shift between animal and civilized drives. “A veil is lifted while we sleep,” he says, “and that’s the crux of what Freud claimed.” Hobson might agree with the first half of the statement, but not the second. His objections are less about science than literary interpretation.
No matter how much Hobson insists that dream research be grounded in concrete data, his lectures often stray into matters of art. It’s as if he has been seduced by the beauty of the Freudian worldview: he’s become an authority in the wrong field. The sociologist Philip Rieff wrote that the “psychoanalytic view transforms all men into poets”; perhaps it also turns psychiatrists into literature critics. Hobson crosses off hundred-year-old mistakes with relish, unwittingly giving Freud more credit than necessary. He tackles the question of dream interpretation with unlikely Derridean rigor. In one study, his lab took a collection of dream reports and sliced out the middles, with scissors. When they pasted the beginnings and ends back together and asked judges to predict which ones were hybrids and which ones were whole, the success rate was near 25 percent. Hobson concluded that dreams can’t be read as texts with overarching themes and unities: a man who morphs into a cow that begins to fly, and then fails a Latin exam, before eating a wonderful meal, is not a story, he argues. It’s a series of random images.
For a scientist who believes all mental processes can be explained anatomically, Hobson often backs his arguments with a surprising degree of philosophical reflection. In his 2005 book, 13 Dreams Freud Never Had, Hobson freely speculates about the import of his own dreams in a way that sounds Freudian. But it’s not, he says, because all meaning is at the surface level: nothing is censored or unconscious. One gets the sense that he entered each dream with the intent to point out its randomness, and left with more meaning than he intended to find. He’ll explain a particularly weird dream moment—a lobster brain half the size of a person, or a scene in which his mother and sisters are naked, giggling, and putting on girdles—by saying that all executive functions are turned off in his dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex. This may be true, but it doesn’t explain the particular image: why a naked mom and not something else? Hobson gestures at Freudian concepts, but often calls them by another name.
Solms expresses annoyance at Hobson’s tendency to waffle. “He now tells you he has never said dreams are meaningless,” Solms complained at the conference, while twisting his hair into a frustrated little turret. “Well, whether you said it or not, Allan, that’s the impression everyone got. And that was a very important part of your rejection of Freudian dream theory.”
Hobson’s explanation of dream analysis did not impress the audience either. At the end of the debate, the crowd of more than one hundred voted overwhelmingly against Hobson’s motion that Freudian theory must be abandoned. “The tide has turned again,” Solms said after the conference. “An injustice was done to Freud and I am happy to defend him in the interest of scientific fairness. Soon I hope we can move on.”
It wasn’t until the 1950s, fifty years after the publication of The Interpretation of Dreams, that scientists began bringing people into their labs for sleepovers. They’d spray water on them, or rub their faces with cotton puffs, or ring a bell and then wake them up and see what happened. Volunteers were kept up for days and watched closely, to see whether or not they’d go insane. The early experiments were crude and often conducted by psychiatrists trained in Freudian theory. One prominent researcher studied sexual dream symbols by attempting to correlate erections (he wrapped a nooselike device around the sleeper’s penis) with aggressive dream content, like dog- and snakebites, knife fights, and scenes of choking. He was able to correctly predict tumescence seven times out of eight.
Other researchers took a sociological approach to dreams, meticulously cataloging their content: women dream of men more than men dream of women; black people are more likely to be physically damaged in their dreams than white people; 80 percent of adult dreams have a negative component—their hair looks bad or they can’t find their keys or their kid won’t stop crying—and after ninth grade, children’s dreams become significantly more aggressive.
The field of dream research deals with the worst kind of data: reported by groggy volunteers, grasping at half-formed memories. Once you wake someone up, you’ve already interfered with the evidence. Hobson’s Activation-Synthesis model was so well received, in part, because it was based on neuroscience, not subjective reports. Rosalind Cartwright, chair of psychology at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, who is well known for her research on how dreams affect mood, recalls first hearing Hobson propose his model at a conference in the early ’70s. “A bunch of us were sitting next to each other and we said, ‘You got it the wrong way around! We won’t let your physiological tail wave our psychological dream-dog!’ I used to say about Allan, ‘Oh the trouble is, he’s looking at cell recordings, he’s not talking to people—if he were paying attention to his own dreams, he would be smarter at it.’ When he did start paying attention to these things, I felt he modified his ideas a good deal.”
Only in recent years has Hobson become willing to talk more about the part of dreams that most people are interested in—feelings, symbols, characters, themes. After waking up from a particularly vivid nightmare, few of us are wondering, What part of my brain was just functioning? With practice and the help of a Nightcap (a bandanna device that beeps every few hours, wakes you up, then records whatever you say about your interrupted dream), Hobson began focusing more on the softer side of his field. “I love to talk about my dreams,” he said at the consciousness conference last year. “I’m not sure any of it really makes any difference, or that I learn anything I didn’t know, but it’s a wonderful, wonderful thing to do.”
His enthusiasm for dreams became even more pronounced when, for a startling month in 2001, he lost the ability to have them. While vacationing in Monte Carlo, Hobson suffered a stroke that affected the precise part of the brain stem that he began his career studying. He knew how his body would respond because he had done countless experiments on how damage to this area affects lab cats. He became nauseous, lost balance, and felt he was drowning in his own saliva. For eight days, he lost the ability to fall asleep. For a month, he couldn’t dream. He felt himself becoming psychotic with exhaustion. Like Freud, inventor of the talking cure, dying of oral cancer, Hobson seemed to have the perfect affliction. “I was wide awake all night long,” he recalls. “I said to myself, I am a cat. I am an experimental animal. But this is no experiment.”
After several days without sleep, Hobson began suffering from elaborate hallucinations. In 2002, he published articles about the experience in the journals Cerebrum and Consciousness and Cognition, vividly detailing his escalating visions. Immediately upon closing his eyes, he’d imagine himself at the bottom of a swimming pool, or covered in pieces of computer paper. Later, he was deluged by images of swirling flesh: free-floating nipples, sphincters, and crotches. At one point, he saw “a Peter Pan–like version of a colleague, Robert Stickgold, and two fairies enjoying a bedtime story.”
Hobson documented the stroke with a camera and tape recorder, dutifully noting strange thoughts, vomiting episodes, small improvements, and pain. The process reminded him of therapy, he said. Finally on the thirty-first day of his hospitalization, he had a full dream, his first in more than a month, in which his wife tried to cheat on him in forty-five minutes. Writing about the experience in multiple journals, he used the illness as a rare opportunity to provide a link between his own neurology and psychology. His doctors, however, were less interested in the connection. Hobson resented their quick and systematic diagnoses. No “doctor who saw me ever expressed any interest in what I was experiencing subjectively,” he wrote.
For years Mark Solms has criticized the field of neuroscience for just this—ignoring personal experience, treating the mind as if it were a chemical pump. (He was drawn to neuroscience at a young age, when his younger brother became brain damaged after falling from a roof.) In the face of his own trauma, Hobson too has become increasingly open to the nuances of emotional life. His Vermont museum, which features animated dream reports and synthesized “sleep music,” is a tribute to the artistic and literary possibilities of dreaming. His late-age approach has a lot more in common with Solms’s “neuro-psychoanalysis” than either of them admit.
After forty years of studying dreams, Hobson seems seduced again by the mysteries that originally brought him to the field. Hard science can never adequately describe that murky, intuitive feeling in the morning—the sense that you spent the night somewhere else. When Freud abandoned his Project for a Scientific Psychology, there were problems beyond primitive technology: Deconstructing a dream is about as mathematical as pinpointing the coordinates of the Garden of Eden. The fascination endures because it’s just out of reach, never fulfilled. Hobson was equipped with far more scientific knowledge than Freud could ever hope for, but he still finds himself making imaginative leaps, translating images into themes and symbols and fantasies. The concept of dreaming is born from this impulse: it’s too hard to resist a good story.
- Freud used the expression traume sind schaume (“dreams are froth”) to describe theories that undermine the complexity of dreams. In his Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, he quickly dismisses the idea, proposed by another scientist, that dream content is equivalent to the sounds produced by “unmusical fingers wandering over the keys of a piano.” Our minds may be filled with trivial trash during the day, but at night we are compelling and disturbed. “There are no harmless dreams,” Freud writes. “They all have the ‘mark of the beast.’” Every object has significance—pencils, trees, umbrellas, balloons, lamps, nail files. “Truly,” he writes, “all of it far from innocent.” ↩
- MRI scans produce images consistent with these findings: during sleep the part of the brain that controls drives is much more active than the part of the brain associated with executive functions, like orientation and logic. ↩
- In another study, the lab cut the dreams at midpoint. This time, judges correctly predicted which ones were authentic and which ones were artificially spliced 82 percent of the time. ↩
- Many prominent dream researchers would disagree. David Foulkes, the former director of the dream research laboratories at the University of Wyoming, has done several experiments showing that dreams move along with storylike organization. In fact, sometimes “the dream seems to get carried away with itself,” he writes in his 1999 Children’s Dreaming and the Development of Consciousness. “Just as we can, awake, get so caught up in a line of daydreaming that we pursue it without regard to anything else, so too, apparently, when we dream we can dream for the sake of having a really good dream.” ↩
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
What did you think?
Write a letter to the editor