The big fight over the neuroscience of dreams

Believer Magazine covers the battle over whether neuroscience has supported or undermined Freud’s theories on dreaming, who suggested that dreams are symbolic expressions of our unconscious mind.

The debate is particularly interesting because it is largely centred around two larger-than-life personalities.

Allan Hobson is a retired Harvard psychiatry professor who did a great deal of neurophysiological work on dreaming and is vehemently anti-Freud, suggesting that dreams are just the higher cognitive centres creating a narrative out of essentially random brain stem activation.

Mark Solms is a psychoanalyst and neuropsychologist who also researches the neuroscience of sleep, and has argued that dreaming heavily involves higher brain centres and involves a different mechanism from sleep itself, suggesting that there may be involvement of symbolic processing from higher cognitive centres.

The two had a famous debate, which has been made available as an oddly ‘Fight Night’ packaged DVD, where they trade blows over the nature of dreaming and the brain. Their dispute has been continued in both popular and scientific publications.

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‚Äôre 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‚ÄîLike a Bad Dream.” Or “In Bed with Mark Solms? What a Nightmare!”

In a somewhat unusual turn of event, Hobson suffered a brain stem stroke in 2001, which seems to have stopped him dreaming, which, he argues, bolsters his claim that dreaming is essentially random activation of the cortex by the brain stem.

However, it’s also notable that the stroke has stopped him sleeping, so the issue remains unresolved.

The Believer Magazine does a great job of capturing the debate, as well as the personalities involved.

Link to Believer Magazine article ‘Hobson’s Choice’.

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