John Allan Hobson was on vacation with his wife in 2001 when he suffered a stroke in his lateral medullary brain stem. In what may be one of the most unusual experiments in the history of sleep science, Hobson proceeded to study his own descent into insomnia-induced psychosis.
By that point Hobson was already a noted psychiatrist and dream researcher, having published eight books on consciousness and dreams. A professor at Harvard Medical School, his research into rapid eye movement helped shaped modern sleep science. He’s also the creator of a sleep science museum, now located at his home in Vermont.
Among Hobson’s contributions to dream research is the contention that dreams are not encrypted messages of our deepest longings. Rather, they are simply the brain’s attempt to prepare itself for a new day of consciousness. He has also quipped that “the only known function of sleep is to cure sleepiness,” which, hey, seems like a solid hypothesis.
In his own words, here’s Hobson on the daily (and nightly) life of a dream researcher.
I go to bed between nine and 10, and I get up at eight. Thirty years ago, I wrote a book about sleep in which I said that older people sleep less. My father read the book, and he liked it, but he told me, “You’re wrong about older people — they sleep more.” It turned out he was right.
These days I spend most of my time writing. I’m working on a textbook on consciousness in relation to waking and dreaming with Cambridge University Press. I’ve got another book in the works with Oxford.
When I was a younger man, my wife was working for the Boston Bicentennial Commission, and she used to come home and tell me all about the Museum of Science exhibit on the human brain. The more I listened, the more I was sure they were going to do a bad job. So I took it upon myself to make an exhibit called the Dreamstage and it was a smash hit. It was a lot of fun. When the exhibit closed, I put everything in storage and traveled around the country, and now I’ve got it here in Vermont.
The problem with psychology today is that some people are told they should either be psychologists or neurobiologists. Science assumes you either study the mind or you study the brain, and that studying both is functionally impossible. But it seems perfectly obvious to me that you have to study psychology and neurobiology. The mind and the brain are not hopelessly separate: there’s no mind without the brain, there’s no brain that is functionally human without the mind. There’s a virtual tour you can take online, though of course I’m advertising here.
My bedside table: I have sleep apnea, so I have a sleep apnea machine and it works wonders. I have a telephone because I like to be able to answer the telephone at all hours of the night. I have a clock because I like to know the time at all hours of the night. I have a copy of The Great Gatsby, which is great for insomnia.
I feel the most important response to insomnia is to let it be. Everyone goes and gets pills and, before long, they’re addicted. I’d rather be addicted to Fitzgerald than benzodiazepine.
As a scientist you have to be skeptical. I’m skeptical of anyone who says you have to do this or that to treat insomnia. I’m skeptical of an editorial website funded by a mattress company. It’s who I am.
The truth is very elusive. Even when you think you’ve got it by the short hair, you’ve gotta be worried. Human beings are all fools — you’re a fool, I’m a fool, we’re all fools! It seems obvious to me the mind is much more capable of imagination than discerning the truth as defined by science. Most people just believe what they want to believe.
Have I ever thought I had the truth and not been worried? In a sense — I feel both that I’m not worried about it and I’m worried about it. There’s a relative truth in what I say, and I hope some of it survives me.