Dreaming – A Very Short Introduction by J Allan Hobson
Dreams have long fascinated mankind and our species has spent a great deal of time and effort attempting to discover what they mean: Which has all been a monumental waste of time – according to the author of this interesting little book! In the 143 closely argued pages Hobson makes the case for looking at the brain and the mind as purely material entities (which I strongly agree with) and analysing dreams as by-products of this materialism. Dreams, he contends, are not messages from the Gods nor are they shape shifted entries into the workings of the subconscious as Freud would have us believe. Freud indeed comes under special and very critical analysis for leading dream research in the wrong direction for the majority of the 20th Century.
Dreams can, the author proposes, tell us a great deal – but not about what they have long believed to inform us about. What dreams and dream research can tell us about is the functioning (and sometimes malfunctioning) of both the brain and the mind it produces and especially about the operation of human consciousness. The contents of dreams – such as they are – are red herrings which will, to mix my metaphors here, lead the unwary down various garden paths. Rather than the content once the form of dreams is considered, along with various scans (CAT, MRI etc.), they give vital clues to how the brain/mind operates when we’re asleep – basically attempting in vain to bring some order and structure out of the chaos that is our sleeping brains whilst the very centres dedicated to rational analysis have been decoupled and are unavailable. With these areas of the brain off-line the remaining centres try their best to weave a narrative using disparate images, memories and other elements we are all familiar with (at least briefly) on awaking.
The author certainly makes a convincing case – OK I was already starting from the purely materialist stand-point but it’s still a valid point – that old ideas of dream analysis are bunk and have prevented the real analysis of what’s actually going on in our brains to move much beyond modern versions of shamanism. With our increasing knowledge of how the brain works we are beginning to understand what function dreams uncover behind their often bizarre outward appearance. If you want an interesting and thought provoking view of something we all do for a considerable amount of time during our lives then this is a very good place to start. More on sleep (and dreams) to come.