A few dry dreams - but no awakening

13 Dreams Freud Never Had
September 30, 2005

J Allan Hobson, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, is probably the most prolific writer of popular science books on sleep and the science of dreaming. He is now in his seventies and has been working in the field of sleep since the mid-1960s. Hobson is one of the subject's leading neurophysiologists.

In this, his most personal book, he sets out to refute Freud's idea that the dream is a way of repressing unacceptable instinctual wishes. To do this he draws on the many recent discoveries about the neuroscience of dreaming.

Hobson has been responsible for a number of the key advances in understanding the chemical and cellular mechanisms responsible for the genesis and, according to his theories, content of dreams. To illustrate his hypothesis, he uses his own personal interpretation of 13 of his dreams (hence the title). This book is part popular science, part autobiography. However, this combination of styles is its weakness - the science is never fully elucidated, and only those aspects of Hobson's life that he feels are necessary to explain his dreams are presented. Because each chapter is based around the need to explain a specific dream, the book itself has an almost dreamlike structure, with fragments of autobiography and science scattered through the text.

It is because this book is so personal that its central argument is, in the end, unsatisfactory. Hobson decides what is important or relevant in his life to interpret his dreams and this allows him to make a connection, however tenuous, between his life and his dreams. We, the reader, have no other information concerning his life that would allow us to make an alternative interpretation. Freud, it should be remembered, interpreted other people's dreams.

One of the cardinal rules of science is not to select only the data that supports your theory, yet by his own account, Hobson has recorded only 350 of the possible 1,450 dreams that he has had during his life, and even then he often seems to remember only 25 per cent of their narrative. As we remember only those dreams during which we awake, we have no way of knowing the contents of the dreams we do not remember, thus what is the explanation for their unknown content? This is not to defend Freud but rather to point out that we could all find rational explanations for mundane dreams such as Hobson recounts in this book, which contain little that is frightening or fantastic and almost no violence or sex. For Hobson to give an interpretation of such dream "activities" based on everyday recollections from his life would provide more convincing support for his argument. This is not to criticise the science of Hobson's argument, but merely to suggest that it is the fantastic or weird that we want explained, not the mundane.

It seems that Hobson's major criticism of Freud, rather laboriously spelt out in the prologue and epilogue, is that Freud's book The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) was written without the benefit of the science that, Hobson contends, now proves him wrong. I believe this misses the real target.

If Hobson believes that there is a rational explanation for our dreams, he should have set about demolishing the modern-day Freudians, Jungians and others in the dream interpretation business, for they are the ones who have ignored the recent advances in neuroscience. If, like Hobson's imagined still-living Freud, you want to know about the new science of dreaming, then a much better introduction to the field is Hobson's book Dreaming (1999).

Neil Stanley is director of sleep research, Human Psychopharmacology Research Unit, Surrey University.

13 Dreams Freud Never Had

Author - J. Allan Hobson
Publisher - Pi Press
Pages - 204
Price - £18.50
ISBN - 0 13 147225 9

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