THE DREAMING BRAIN

J. Allan Hobson

Penguin, London, 1990.


This is a very welcome account of research into sleep and dreaming, which provides a proper historical and physiological context for our questions about this puzzling part of our lives. The dominant theory in psychology in the 20th century has been Freud's. Hobson propounds his own theory - Activation Synthesis (AS) - which accounts for the processes behind Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, when dreams are made. AS relates the form of dreams to self-activated brain processes whereby sensory and motor information is automatically generated and synthesized by the brain.

The mechanism proposed does not require the positing of repressive psychic forces or notions of a collective unconscious. As the argument unfolds, we can see that the Freudian model of psychic energy is unnecessary and less than plausible.

The criticism of psychoanalysis on the grounds of its failure to be scientific is familiar enough: the theory of repression and censorship is speculatively derived from subjective clinical reports, with no quantitative assessment, and is expressed in such a way that it could not conceivably be refuted.

There is a further issue that poses severe difficulties for Freud, Jung and their followers. This concerns the relationship between energy and information in the brain. Freud claimed that the nervous system had only external sources of energy (e.g. somatic drives), whereas it can metabolically generate its own energy. He also assumed that the energy in the system could only be dissipated by motor discharge, whereas it is capable of cancelling its energy by means of inhibition.

Neither is the brain passive in processing information: it has the genetically derived means of creating its own. On this question we have the notorious confusion of energy with information. Freud's construing of psychological processes in terms of energy rather than information led him to assume the applicability of a kind of conservation principle, whereby information is neither created nor lost by the mind/brain. But the brain elaborates its own information, and there is reason to believe, Hobson reports, that early childhood memories are usually irretrievably lost (which poses another problem for that aspect of psychoanalytic theory which derives psychological conflict from early experience).

Although Hobson does not use these terms, this distinction is behind an important point he makes towards the end of the book:

"Freud's idea that dreaming serves to discharge instinctual energy is… problematic. A physiological process might discharge instinctual energy but a psychological process cannot. Freudian theory shifts semantic level. Dreaming is a psychological state, while sleep is a behavioural state. Both are reflections of physiology. One cannot ascribe physiological and behavioural functions to psychological events without risking semantic chaos and, what is worse, confusion of correlation with cause."

It is thinking in terms of information rather than forces or energies that enables us to imagine how it could be that the brain manages (as it automatically does every morning) to generate consciousness. Each of the 20-50 billion cells of the brain "is talking to at least 10 000 others at least once, and as often as 100 times, per second. With a chatterbox of such proportions, it is to me just as incredible that such a system would not have awareness of itself as it is incredible that it does".

AS postulates that our dreams are shaped by the brain's making sense of, among other events, information about motor commands which themselves are blocked at the spinal level. In the absence of corrective sensory data from the outside world about real movement, the brain does its best to interpret what seems to be happening, thereby producing the typically bizarre narrative of the dream.

This bizarreness itself "has no particular psychodynamic significance, and… its interpretation, as being psychologically overdetermined, is not only gratuitous but even possibly hazardous". It is not necessarily the result of a process of disguising inadmissible information, but merely a product of the brain's effort to make a story out of internally generated signals without the benefit of feedback from the external world or from normally accessible memories.



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Paul Taylor 2001