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J. Allan Hobson’s Theory of Dreaming and its Relevance to Horneyan Theory

[J. Allan Hobson, M.D. is a noted theorist of dreaming and professor emeritus in Harvard Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry. He has written nineteen books on dreaming and waking consciousness and on the implications of research on dreaming for mental health. — AKS]

Video of Hobson’s lecture on “Dream consciousness,” delivered as part of the 9th Annual Symposium of Bial Foundation, “Behind and Beyond the Brain,” held on March 28–31, 2012 in Porto, Portugal.

Video of Hobson’s lecture on “Dreaming as Virtual Reality,” delivered on October 29, 2012 at the Istituto Superior Psicologica Aplicada (ISPA) in Lisbon, Portugal.

J. Allan Hobson’s Theory of Dreaming and its Relevance to Horneyan Theory

By Anthony K. Shin (2016)

One of Karen Horney’s major contributions was her psychodynamic theory of personality and of the forces that drive human behavior. As Robin L. Benton has persuasively shown in The Prophetic Voice of Karen Horney in the Evolution of Psychoanalytic Female Developmental Theory: from Freud to Contemporary Revisionists (1994), Horney’s contributions to psychology have been adopted by many later thinkers, but have also remained largely unacknowledged.

I have suggested elsewhere on this website that Andrew N. Tershakovec did much to connect Horney’s theory with information and computer science and to bring Horneyan theory up to date with more recent developments in cognitive neuroscience. Here, I give a rough sketch of how Horney’s and Hobson’s theories can each supply what is missing in the other.

Freud initially tried to formulate a psychology that was kept connected with the latest developments in neurology, i.e., in the study of the physiology of the brain, through his Project for a Scientific Psychology (1895). However, he quickly realized that the sophisticated measuring equipment was not available to test theories about electrochemical processes in the brain. He did not believe it would be possible in his lifetime, if ever, to make hypotheses about how dreaming worked in ways that could be tested by observing processes occurring in the brain. By the time he published The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Freud no longer believed that connections could be made between the study of dreaming, mind and neurophysiology, or that such connections needed to be maintained in the emerging field of psychology. Horney shared Freud’s view that neurology and psychology did not need to be kept in touch with each other, although she critiqued many of fundamental postulates of Freudian psychoanalysis, especially in her second book, New Ways in Psychoanalysis (1939). Benton provides rich detail in The Prophetic Voice of Horney (1994) on the spirited interchange of ideas between Freud and Horney and the under-appreciated improvements that Horney made on classical psychoanalysis through her critiques.

Yet Horney’s mature theory, presented in the five books published within her lifetime in 1937–1950, also suffered from technological limitations, since the precision measuring instruments had not yet been developed that could be used to test, corroborate, or disconfirm any hypotheses based on her theory. Hence it was not possible to determine whether Horney’s theory could be used to make predictions that were corroborated by what was known in neurophysiological research in her time. Furthermore, Horney accepted, or at least did not question, Freud’s assumptions about how dreaming and the mind functioned, and she did not try to offer an alternative theory of dreaming or of mind.

In contrast to Freud, who moved from neurology to psychology, J. Allan Hobson began in the field of psychiatry, but has found himself increasingly drawn to neurobiology. In 1977, Hobson and his colleague Robert McCarley published a landmark paper in which they came up with an entirely new “activation-synthesis” theory of dream generation, based on measurements of electrical activation levels in the brain during sleep and dreaming. Although not simple in its details, their “activation-synthesis” theory of oneirogenesis was firmly grounded in neurobiology (unlike what Freud posited were the mechanism and function of dreaming). Hobson and McCarley presented strong evidence to demosntrate that “dreaming sleep is physiologically determined and shaped by a brain stem neuronal mechanism that can be modeled physiologically and mathematically.” In other words, they now had powerful ways of associating dreaming with electrochemical processes in specific areas of the brain that could be precisely tracked and measured using delicate instruments and lined up with and/or modified by physiological and mathematical models.

This is not the place for a full-length discussion of Hobson et al.’s theory and its elaborations, which are detailed in Hobson’s nineteen books and many other collaborative works. It must be noted that Hobson himself harbors doubts about either psychiatric or neurobiological thinkers would be receptive to any forging of connections with either his own theory of dreaming or with Horney’s theory of personality or of anxiety neurosis. He observes that psychiatrists are often more interested in proper diagnoses and treatment, and neurobiologists gravitate toward genetics.

It bears mentioning here that Tershakovec provides a highly accessible introduction to the major tenets of Hobson’s theory as well as the ideas of many other recent thinkers. The Mind draws on Hobson and McCarley’s 1977 paper and on Hobson’s first book, The Dreaming Brain: How the Brain Creates Both the Sense and the Nonsense of Dreams (1988), and connects Horneyan theory with Hobson et al.’s work as well as that of other more recent psychologists, including Daniel Kahneman. Tershakovec makes no reference in The Mind to any of Hobson’s numerous other books published after 1988. However, Tershakovec talks extensively about something he calls “emotional code,” which is not the same as but is connected to what Hobson has called “emotional salience.”

I suggest that it is this concept of “emotional salience” in Hobson’s theory that makes it possible to line his neurobiologically-based theory of dreaming up neatly with the key tenets of the mature form of Horney’s psychodynamic theory of personality and motivation. Emotional salience refers to the predominant emotion or feeling associated with what is perceived in dream state. Starting with the results of a 1994 study co-authored by Jane Merritt, Robert Stickgold, Edward Pace-Schott, Julie Williams, and Hobson, it became apparent that the top three types of emotional salience that showed up in dreams — based on awakening and self-report of what was remembered of the dreams in naturalistic and laboratory-experimental settings — were (1) anxiety, (2) elation, and (3) anger. These emotions were much more commonly reported than presumably more socially-determined feelings such as sadness, shame, and guilt. Although the authors predicted that differences might be observed between the rates at which anxiety, elation, and anger were reported in the dreams of women and men, no such difference was found, suggesting that these three emotions are primary and instinctually derived, since they have serve vital survival functions. As Hobson writes in 13 Dreams that Freud Never Had (2005), “From a Darwinian perspective, the emotions of anxiety (which engenders wariness), elation (which engenders affiliativeness), and anger (which engenders defense or attack behavior) are highly adaptive. Be careful; find a mate; and drive off competitors and predators” (p. 35).

Horney died twenty-five years too early to have any chance of knowing about Hobson’s work, but her theory of motivation posits that people’s actions, decisions, thoughts, and feelings are powerfully driven by three major trends: the need or tendency to move toward people, against people, or away from people (Our Inner Conflicts, 1945). Movement toward other people could also be described as “compliance,” movement against as “fight,” and movement away as “flight” — behaviors found throughout the animal kingdom. Horney noted that most people are mixed types, and that these three major, seemingly primordial types of movement could function in relation to the physical and social environment, that each has its value and can be manifested in healthy or unhealthy ways. However, especially among her clientele, the need for protection against anxiety often grew very great in a highly competitive, “civilized” society (such as in the U.S.), and patients tended to fall into patterns of relying heavily and one-sidedly on just one or two of the major types of movement as a way of coping with and protecting against what they perceived as threats to their security. Horney expanded upon these ideas in her last book, Neurosis and Human Growth (1950), in Ch. 8, “The Expansive Solutions: The Appeal of Mastery” (“moving against people”); Ch. 9, The Self-Effacing Solution: The Appeal of Love” (“moving toward people”); and Ch. 11, “Resignation: The Appeal of Freedom” (“moving away from people”).

We see now that anxiety can engender wariness (as noted by Hobson) and provoke “movement away” to avoid or escape from immediate or potential threat; that elation can encourage affiliative behaviors and give impetus to “movement toward” what seems likely to yield more feelings of elation; and that anger can propel “movement against” to eliminate threat or danger to one’s physical or social well-being. Hence, I argue, robust support for Horney’s identification of the movements toward, against, and away from people can be found in Hobson and his collaborators’ research on the top three most commonly-reported emotions in dreams.

From Psychodynamic Neurology: Dreams, Consciousness, and Virtual Reality (2015):

« Allan Hobson is Professor of Psychiatry Emeritus at Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts. He was born in Hartford, Connecticut, on June 3,1933, and obtained an AB degree from Wesleyan University in 1955, followed by his MD from Harvard Medical School in 1959. Between 1959 and 1960 he served his internship in medicine at Bellevue Hospital, New York, and from 1960 to 1961 and 1964 to 1966, he was a resident in Psychiatry at Massachusetts Mental Health Center, Boston. From 1962 to 1963, Hobson was a clinical scientist at the National Institute of Mental Health. During the academic year 1963–1964, Hobson was Special Fellow of the National Institute of Mental Health, Department of Physiology at the University of Lyon, France.

His successful career has brought Hobson many honors and awards including admission to the Boylston Medical Society and the Benjamin Rush Gold Medal for Best Scientific Exhibit, American Psychiatrist Association, 1978. He was the recipient of the 1998 Distinguished Scientist Award of the Sleep Research Society. In addition to several committee assignments at Harvard Medical School, Hobson has participated in numerous national and regional medical committees and served on the editorial boards of many medical journals. He has held many consulting appointments including Consultant in Psychiatry for the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission since 1965. In 2004, Hobson received the Peter Farrell Prize from the Division of Sleep Medicine, Harvard Medical School, for his lifetime dedication to sleep research at Harvard.

His major research interests are the neurophysiological basis of the mind and behavior, sleep and dreaming, and the history of neurology and psychiatry. He has contributed numerous articles to scientific jour nals and chapters to medical textbooks and is the author or co-author of many books and monographs, including The Dreaming Brain (Basic Books, 1988) and Sleep (Scientific American Library, 1989). Hobson’s work has focused on the cognitive features and benefits of sleep. The results and concepts of this work are reported in The Chemistry of Conscious States (Little Brown, 1994), Consciousness (Scientific American Library, 1998), Dreaming as Delirium (MIT Press, 1999), The Dream Drugstore (MIT Press, 2001), Out of Its Mind: Psychiatry in Crisis (Perseus Books, 2001), Dreaming: An Introduction to Sleep Science (Oxford, 2002), 13 Dreams Freud Never Had (Pi Press, 2005), Angels to Neurones (Mattioli 1885, 2005), and Dream Life: An Experimental Memoir (MIT Press, 2011), and Ego Damage and Repair (Karnac, 2014). »

(pp. xxiii–xxiv)

Wikipedia article on J. Allan Hobson