Dr. J. Allan Hobson, Who Studied the Dreaming Brain, Dies at 88
Dr. J. Allan Hobson, a psychotherapist and pioneering sleep researcher who disputed Freud’s view that dreams held hidden psychological meaning …
Dr. J. Allan Hobson, a psychotherapist and pioneering sleep researcher who disputed Freud’s view that dreams held hidden psychological meaning, died on July 7 at his home in East Burke, Vt. He was 88.
The cause was kidney failure resulting from diabetes, said his daughter, Julia Hobson Haggerty.
For some time, sleep was not taken seriously as an academic pursuit. Even Dr. Hobson, who was a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the Laboratory of Neurophysiology at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center, joked that the only known function of sleep was to cure sleepiness.
But over a career that spanned more than four decades, his own research and that of others showed that sleep is crucial to normal cognitive and emotional function, including learning and memory.
In more than 20 books — among them “The Dreaming Brain” (1988); “Dreaming as Delirium: How the Brain Goes Out of its Mind” (1999), and “Dream Self” (2021), a memoir — he popularized his research and that of others, including the findings that sleep begins in utero and is essential for tissue growth and repair throughout life.
“He showed that sleep isn’t a nothing state,” Ralph Lydic, who conducted research with Dr. Hobson in the 1980s and is a professor of neuroscience at the University of Tennessee, said in a phone interview.
“He demonstrated that the brain is as active during R.E.M. sleep as it is during wakefulness,” he added, referring to sleep characterized by rapid eye movement. “We know as much about sleep as we do in part because of him.”
One of his most influential contributions to dream research came in 1977, when Dr. Hobson and a colleague, Robert McCarley, produced a cellular and mathematical model that they believed showed how dreams occur. Dreams, they said, are not mysterious codes sent by the subconscious but rather the brain’s attempt to attribute meaning to random firings of neurons in the brain.
This view, that dreams are the byproduct of chemical reactions, was a departure from psychological orthodoxy and heresy to Freudians, and it remains in dispute.
But to Dr. Hobson, the content of dreams was not as important as the electrical activity of the brain during the dream state.
His work became foundational for many other sleep researchers, including Carlos H. Schenck, whose team in Minnesota found a link between behavioral disorders during R.E.M. sleep — punching one’s bed partner, for example, or even jumping out of a window — and the likelihood in some of those people of developing Parkinson’s disease.
“Allan Hobson helped us understand the dream abnormalities of R.B.D. right from the beginning in 1986,” Dr. Schenck said in an email, referring to R.E.M. sleep behavioral disorders.
Dr. Hobson thrived on controversy, and it was no surprise to many that he challenged his own profession of psychoanalysis and its founding father. Even as a child, he constantly questioned the status quo. At 4, he took measurements and concluded that Santa Claus could not fit down the chimney.
“I’m skeptical about any absolute set of rules, scientific rules, moral rules, behavioral rules,” he said in a 2011 interview with The Boston Globe. “That’s one reason why I don’t feel bad taking on Sigmund Freud. I think Sigmund Freud has become politically correct. Psychoanalysis has become the bible, and I think that’s crazy.”
In one of his books, “Out of Its Mind: Psychiatry in Crisis — A Call for Reform” (2002, with Jonathan A. Leonard), he called for an overhaul of the profession.
“I think people became disillusioned with psychoanalysis because it was, ultimately, a strange way of caring for people,” he told The New York Times in 2002.
“There was this tendency in the psychoanalytic world to imply that everything was psychodynamic,” he added, noting that some doctors reflexively blamed mothers for their children’s behavior.
But Dr. Hobson softened his views in his later years.
“He came to believe that psychoanalysis could be useful for treating mental disorders,” Dr. Lydic said, “but he did not believe in a rigid symbolism in the interpretation of dreams.”
For the most part, Dr. Hobson still believed, as the saying goes, that a cigar was just a cigar.
John Allan Hobson was born on June 3, 1933, in Hartford, Conn. His mother, Ann (Cotter) Hobson, was a homemaker. His father, John Robert Hobson, was a lawyer.
John attended the Loomis School, now the Loomis Chaffee School, in Windsor, Conn., graduating in 1951. He spent a year abroad, then returned to study at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he majored in English, graduating in 1955. He received his medical degree from Harvard Medical School in 1959.
He married Joan Harlowe in 1956; they divorced in 1992. He married Dr. Rosalia Silvestri in the mid-1990s, and she survives him.
In addition to his wife and daughter, Dr. Hobson is survived by four sons, Ian, Christopher, Andrew and Matthew; his brother, Bruce; and four grandchildren.
After medical school, Dr. Hobson interned for two years at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan. In lieu of military service, he served in the Public Health Service of the National Institutes of Health.
He was influenced by Michel Jouvet, a neurophysiologist who discovered the region of the brain that controls rapid eye movement and who helped steer Dr. Hobson to study sleep and dreams.
Apart from his research, Dr. Hobson was most passionate about his farm in Vermont, which he acquired in 1965 and had since been its steward.
He converted part of one barn on the property into a small, interactive sleep museum and classroom for local students, basing it on his multimedia exhibit “Dreamstage,” which celebrated the art and science of sleep and toured science museums across the United States in the late 1970s. His museum featured, among other things, a preserved brain as well as artwork of brains.
The farm was a gathering place for family and friends. Dr. Hobson’s children said that the dining room table was often the scene of celebratory recitations of poetry and song. Afterward, the kitchen would fill with the sound of Big Band favorites and become a dance floor.
Dr. Hobson wrote in his memoir that he spent 10 years reading all of Marcel Proust — twice. He read 10 pages a day.
“I simply admire his persistent and revealing self-analysis and his description of mental life in and at the edges of sleep,” Dr. Hobson told The Globe. “His self-observation is much more careful than that of Freud.”