Phenomenological Psychology

Phenomenological Psychology header image

REM sleep and dreaming – towards a theory of protoconsciousness

May 13th, 2010 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

Review of Hobson, J. A. (2009) “REM sleep and dreaming – towards a theory of protoconsciousness,” Nature Reviews – Neuroscience, 10, 803 – 184.

In “The Interpretation of Dreams” and elsewhere, Freud famously argued that dreams express unconscious wishes and desires. One of the reasons why Freud found dreams so interesting is because he thought they provided unmediated access to mental states in a manner similar to hypnosis and free association, thus potentially anchoring personality theory on more empirical grounds. We now have plenty of reasons to doubt whether this is so. For example, Francis Crick (co-discoverer of the DNA double helix) theorized dreams are nothing more than the discharge of static electricity from the brain. New advances in neuroscience such as the discovery of REM sleep have defined a middle ground between Freud on the one hand and Crick on the other. Neuroscience is pertinent because it provides precisely the kind of empirical footing for dream theory, which Freud lacked.

One of today’s preeminent dream theorists is J. Allan Hobson. Using brain imaging technology, his lab has developed data suggesting REM sleep is a kind of “protoconscious” state before actual dreaming occurs. During REM sleep the brain prepares to undertake the integrative functions characteristic of waking consciousness. It predicts a range of possible conscious states by providing a functionally-useful virtual reality model of the world. “The development of consciousness is thus seen as a gradual, time-consuming and lifelong process that builds on, and constantly uses, a more primitive innate virtual reality generator, the properties of which are defined for us in our dreams.”  Hobson has extended his research to “lucid dreaming” (realizing one is dreaming during the course of the dream) and even the way the brain relates mind to waking consciousness. Hobson validates Freud’s early theories about the importance of dreams, though surely in a way Freud never imagined.