The Believer, October 2007
Psychoanalysis turns all psychiatrists into literature critics; what does it do to neuroscientists studying the brain during dreams?
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.”
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