J. Allan Hobson
In his early years as a dream researcher, J. Allan Hobson (now Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard
Medical School), believed that dream images arise during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep from random
bursts of nerve cells in the brainstem; the top of the spinal cord which protrudes into the brain, (the
primitive brain). He believed that these images are given meaning in order to express whatever story we
need to tell ourselves at the time. He called this process, Activation Synthesis,
[i] and described it as a
self-activated brain process whereby sensory and motor information is automatically generated within the
brain rather than originating in the body as it does in waking consciousness. He, therefore, suggested
that dreams reflect the higher, (or thinking) brain's efforts to make sense of the haphazard signals
generated by the lower brain.
We do the best we can with whatever comes along and he believes that
this is the reason for many dreams being disjointed and jumbled.
In a later book he developed this theory further and conceded that dreams may have some purpose
although he does not believe it is useful, or necessary, to analyse the content. He proposes that the
purpose of REM sleep is to consolidate memories of the day's events and to anticipate or rehearse the
possible consequences of these events. This, he believes, helps us to cope with external circumstances
by matching those experiences to internal information.
[ii] Thus he sees the primary function of dreaming
as facilitating learning and, thus, making us better able to survive.  However, he believes that the form of
a dream is of far greater importance than the content, which he tends to trivialise, believing the meaning
to be so obvious that it is not worthy of analysis or interpretation.  But even his own dreams used as
examples in one of his books
[iii], reveal certain anxieties about current situations in his life* and perhaps
we need to acknowledge the fact that many people are unaware of the life situations that are causing
them stress. Experience has shown that analysing dream content gives the opportunity to bring those
issues into consciousness.
Although his books are very interesting, he does have a tendency to assume that all dream workers apply
Freudian concepts to dream analysis and he uses this idea to denegrade content analysis and dream
therapy. The reality is that very few dream workers support Freudian ideas and Hobson's arguments are
hard to defend in the light of more up to date empirical and experiential evidence from more modern
dream researchers.
In the world of "hard science", however, Hobson has put forward an interesting theory of brain-mind
function. This he sees not as a fixed personal identity but as a dynamic balancing act between the
complicated chemical systems (neurotransmitters) that regulate our consciousness and our
sleep/dream/wake cycle. These neurotransmitters can variously excite or inhibit transmission of nerve
signals to neighbouring neurons and so may be responsible for the difference in perception and
associations made during sleep and waking consciousness. This idea has been taken up by many dream
researchers and is providing a useful explanation of dreaming sleep in terms of neural and biochemical
Copyright J.C.Harthan (2002)
[i] HOBSON, J. Allan "The Dreaming Brain" Penguin, London (1990)
[ii] HOBSON, J Allan  "The Chemistry of Conscious States" Little & Brown (1994)
[iii] HOBSON, J. Allan  "Dreaming; An Introduction to the Science of Sleep". Oxford University press (2002)
*In the case of his "Richard Newland" dream, it would have been useful for the reader to know whether or not he was consciously anxious
about his property. Had he, in reality, entrusted his property to people who he felt (perhaps subconsciously) were careless about their own
houses? And although he states that the dream was about his real property, the dream property bears no resemblance to the real thing.
He states that this bizarreness is common in all dreams. It is not. If we were to make a scientific analogy, we might say that he has held up a
test-tube full of chemicals and yet is telling us that the tube is empty!