Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Blowing the light bulb on dreams


When I opened my email this morning, I found that a friend had sent me a link to a recent article on dreams in the New York Times. I sighed when I saw her comment that yet again, a major media organ has chosen to ignore the rich everyday experience of dreamers in favor of the kind of reductionist science that holds dreams to be "meaningless". I was reluctant to click on the link. At the precise moment I did so, the lightbulb in the lamp over my desk blew.


Synchronicity strikes again. When I replaced the bulb and read the article, I saw that the Times had indeed chosen to turn out the light on our understanding of dreams. Following a paper by Harvard sleep researcher J. Allan Hobson, the piece promotes the theory that the main function of REM-state sleep, associated with visual dreaming, is physiological. "The brain is warming its circuits, anticipating the sights and sounds and emotions of waking." Forget about any other functions of dreaming, and don't fret if you forget your dreams. All that's going on in dreams is that your brain is getting a nightly tuneup. Beyond this, dreams are "meaningless."


The poverty of this kind of thinking is risible. To try to understand dreaming solely by monitoring the behavior of the sleeping brain is like trying to understand how a TV series is made by poking around in the innards of the television set, ignoring the scriptwriters, the production crew, the actors and the imagination that conceive and make the show, and the technology involved in getting the signal to your home.


Contrary to the New York Times it isn't only a few therapists, New Agers and "ancient mystics" who think dreams matter. The common understanding of most human cultures, across most of our odyssey on this planet, is that dreaming is part of our survival mechanism and a primary source of meaning and course correction in our lives. Dreaming, we scout ahead of ourselves and visit the possible future, rehearsing for challenges and opportunities that lie ahead on our life roads. I speak from first-hand experience when I say that catching dream clues to the future, reading them correctly and taking appropriate action can literally save your life. Most human cultures - and many good physicians - have also understood that dreaming is medicine: our dreams diagnose possible problems in the body, and when we get sick, our dreams are a fecund source of imagery for self-healing and recovery. Most important, our dreams give us a direct line to sources of wisdom far deeper than the daily trivial mind . Without meaning in our lives, we are less than human, and dreaming awakens us to our bigger stories and helps to restore our inner compass.
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In my book The Secret History of Dreaming I report - with extensive documentation - many cases of how dreams have guided great lives and shaped great events in fields ranging from quantum physics to rock music. But the Times has a tin ear for humanity's dream song. It seems their writer did not even hear Larry Page, the co-founder of Google, when he told a crowd at his alma mater, the University of Michigan, last spring that a dream inspired Google and offered this sage advice to his audience: "If you have a big dream, grab it." Now, that's a comment on dreams worth hearing - and acting on.
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The article referred to above is "A Dream Interpretation: Tuneups for the Brain", by Benedict Carey, published in the New York Times on November 9, 2009.

17 comments:

Worldbridger said...

There is a saying, that if a pickpocket looks at a man all he sees are his pockets.

In the same way, if a brain researcher looks at the sleeping brain all he will see is the sleeping brain.

The saddening, maddening aspect is the priest-like status these expert fools have in our society.

Fortunately, direct experience trumps pomposity.

Louisa said...

If somebody with a medical degree and Ivy League affiliation says that dreams are only for brain tuneup, let him be, for he is entitled to his opinion, - as long as he does good science.

But as usual, statements such as the ones made in that NYT article have little to do with science. I understand how Dr. Hobson can prove that REM sleep intervals are associated with brain self-adjustment. You form a null hypothesis that no association exists between REM sleep and some brain activity or behavior, you collect data from tarantulas, mice, rats, humans, whomever you can catch in your lab, you do your little statistics and end up with a number that indicates that the null hypothesis is wrong. So you reject the null hypothesis and say, honestly and responsibly, that at a certain level of confidence REM sleep and certain brain functions are linked. So far so good.

What I don't understand is how Dr. Hobson can prove that dreams are NOT associated with anything else. To prove that, he would need to go through ALL alternative hypotheses regarding the functions of dreaming and perform experiments that allow him to reject all of these hypotheses one by one. In case of a phenomenon as complex as dreaming, this is an arduous task. Dr. Hobson can form any private opinions he pleases, yet an experimentalist who ignores a tremendous body of evidence of the multiple roles that dreams play in human life and states that they are just physiological functions is not acting as a responsible scientist.

But you can rent a Sicilian villa and a Vermont farm from Dr. Hobson. They are advertised on his website right next to his professional activities and his numerous books offered for sale. His URL is .net, but his site is clearly .com. I would expect a bit more class from a Harvard MD in his mid-70s.

Lynne said...

I sighed and thought of you when I read this article this morning, Robert. Has Dr. Hobson never had a dream experience of his own that would bring in to question his findings?

Robert Moss said...

Louisa, Thank you so much for your finely reasoned explication of what a truly scientific approach to these matters would require.

Lynne, It is indeed a puzzlement why some fine intellects are eager to devote so much work to dismissing the reality of dream experience. We must hope that they will each receive a dream of awakening.

Sara said...

I'm not surprised at the conclusion reached by the article.I don't know about Hobson's work specifically but I don't think it would be a stretch to conclude that if Hobson has an inkling that dreaming functions in a much larger sense, he would probably have to reevaluate many of the conclusions that support his theories.
There are so many instances that dreaming is so much more from people every where everyday!I can't imagine life without dreaming. I wish him a wake up dream, a BIG JUICY DREAM that cannot be ignored.

Grace said...

218collegeI have found that there are many instances when I've seen people absolutely LIGHT UP when describing a BIG dream, even if they seem not to have much concern or curiosity for any type of "spiritual excitement". They weren't looking for it, but the truth and emotion of a powerful dream connection can't be ignored.
As you say Robert, the "big story is hunting us", and when it does it can't be ignored, sometimes it just takes a while to find us. Maybe even a lifetime or two. I believe it finds everybody eventually.

Grace said...

ps, ignore the first word of my comment, computer frustrations!

Robert Moss said...

Aw Grace, and I thought your opening to your original post must be an esoteric code for "Joe College", and a comic reference to the limitations of those hothouse academics who seem to miss out on the raw truth of everyday (and in this case verey night) expetrience. You are quite right: at some point in the life of even the hardest of hard heads, a BIG dream will cause an awakening. If they insist on going back to sleep, it will come later, in the dream from which we do not return to the body.

Lou Hagood said...

I do like Hobson's take on an ongoing dream consciousness, with waking & sleeping conscious in parallel. Sounds like active dreaming to me.

Robert Moss said...

Hey Lou, You may want to check out the Hobson paper on which the NYT article was based, or go back to his "Dreaming as Deiirium" for a refresher on how utterly unlike Active Dreaming his approach is. The notoin that dreams are the effect of the cortex trying to make sense of random neuronal firing during the night and have no extra-physiological meaning is in fact a throwback (in my humble opinion) to the bad old days of pschiatry before Freud. The NYT quote suggesting that dreaming is consciousness operating without external sensory input was - as I recall - harvested from someone else.

Wanda said...

It is short-sighted to study the brain while ignoring the heart, the soul, and then to declare dreams, the sublime communicator among them, meaningless, isn't it?

I go back to a day 20 years ago when my surgeon came alongside my bed just moments after returning from my surgery for breast cancer - "if it were not for your dreams, you would have been dead within the year with almost no sign of symptoms - the symptoms would have been too late for your life." I hope the "physician within" does not fail to communicate with Dr. Hobson when he is most needed - but I wonder if Dr. Hobson will recognize a dream of crisis since in his limited world dreams only tune the senses. He forgets to consider the responding orchestra.

Robert Moss said...

Wanda, the authority of your personal experience is immense. Your book "She Who Dreams" and your current work in helping many to work with dream diagnosis and harvest dream imagery for healing are vitally important contributions to the true medicine of the 21st century, and an instant corrective to the reductionist ideology and flawed studies reflected in the NYT report. It's time for you to be heard by many more people, including those who publish articles in the NYT. Why not offer the NYT an op-ed piece of your own?

Louisa said...

Many years ago, on a train bound for a small town at the foot of the Urals with a ratio of prisoners to freemen of perhaps 2 to 1, a physicist and a chemist/poet/pornographer/Mozart scholar/
magician argued about esoteric matters. To make a point, the magician attached a heavy Swiss Army knife to his balding forehead and let it hang there, as if held by a magnet in his third eye, defying gravity and roughness of Russian railroads. After about half a minute or so, the physicist said:

"I have seen. But I do not believe."

I was the third person in that train compartment and thought that doubting Thomas at least accepted experimental evidence.:)

I think it's a great idea to respond to the NYT article. The comments to it suggest that a lot of people would appreciate seeing a good rebuttal posted. Yet be prepared for that physicist's reaction from the folks with letters after their names.

Robert Moss said...

A wonderfully revealing quote, Louisa. I have heard similar lines from similar people, but never with such a rich descriptive and narrative context. It would be delightful if it weren't also troubling.

Marcia said...

Actually, Hobson is very clear in distinguishing REM sleep, which is a physiological brain state, from dreaming, which is a pyschological experience.

In fact, the idea that these two are completely different things is an important component of his theory.

Fetuses in the womb have REM sleep (because they have brains) but they don't have dreams because dreaming requires the ability to use language to create a coherent story (a dream.) Children don't usually have dreams until they around five years old.

Hobson is very clear that his work is primarily about REM sleep, not about dreams.

Source: http://www.meaingofdreams.org

Robert Moss said...

I am stunned by the statement that children usually don't have dreams until the age of five. I have three daughters, and was delighted by the dreams they told me from very young. I helped them to keep journals of their dreams and stories from the age of three. I have since had the pleasure of listening to many other dreams from many other small children and it seems to me they are the very best mentors for the adult world on what the dreamworld contains.

On the thesis that language is required for dreaming, it could surely be contended thagt dreaming may be at the origin of human language. It is surely significant that one of the very first uses of writing was to record dreams.

Katie said...

"To try to understand dreaming solely by monitoring the behavior of the sleeping brain is like trying to understand how a TV series is made by poking around in the innards of the television set, ignoring the scriptwriters, the production crew, the actors and the imagination that conceive and make the show, and the technology involved in getting the signal to your home."

wow that is all I have to say,and so much science works on this literal surface reading of the universe too.I love this blog so much.