Psychoanalytic Dream Interpretation – The Beginning

Psychoanalytic Dream Interpretation was popularized by Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and others through their use of dreams during the psychoanalytic process in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Freud tended to stick to purely scientific methodology accepting theory that could be validated through physiological phenomena whereas Jung added a spiritual element into the mix which confounded Freud to no end.

Psychoanalytic Dream Interpretation Psychoanalytic Dream Interpretation

Psychoanalytic dream interpretation was viewed to be a respected, perfectly valid and highly advanced method of opening up the psyche or unconscious part of the mind during this period and up through the 1970’s.

In the early 1950’s, the phenomena of REM (rapid eye movement) was discovered to be the period of high dream activity during sleep cycles and the scientific community went wild over the idea that you could predict when people were dreaming. Money was poured into research of REM and dream analysis – mostly due to the thought that knowing the unconscious secrets revealed during dreams, thus the unconscious mind, that the U.S. would have an edge in the ‘Cold War’ effort – not because the government wanted to improve the creative lives of it citizens, which happened to be a side effect. Just about every university in the country received grant money to fund dream or REM research projects.

Also, with this research, much was discovered about the basic functioning of the brain from connecting subjects to EEG machines to measure the level of brain activity while the research subjects slept in dream labs across the country.

Neuroscientists could pin down which parts of the brain were active during sleep, when different sleep cycles began and ended, which parts of the brain lit up, and which parts went into hibernation in various cycles. All night long, they could see that the brain was starting and stopping certain functions, there were clearly cycles which repeated themselves. It became evident that the brain was not resting during many parts of the night, some brain areas were much more active during sleep than during waking hours – an indication that some heavy-duty processing was taking place.

Psychoanalytic Dream Interpretation Enters Its Dark Age

Then psychoanalytic dream interpretation research hits an iceberg and sinks into oblivion for 30+ years due to ‘bad’ science and hubris of one individual. Allan Hobson, at Harvard University, was one of these scientists involved with doing research on the brain during sleep. Hobson observed that dreams and REM seemed to begin when the brainstem started to emit random electrical signals from the ‘pons’ when REM and dreaming started. These brainstem signals were random and chaotic – no patterns or logical flow could be determined, therefore he jumped to the conclusion that because these signals were chaotic and random that dreams were nothing more than random images responding to what was basically static from the reptilian brainstem.

Psychoanalytic Dream Analysis
(Wikipedia – The pons lies between the medulla oblongata and the midbrain. It contains tracts that carry signals from the cerebrum to the medulla and to the cerebellum and also tracts that carry sensory signals to the thalamus. The pons is connected to the cerebellum by the cerebellar peduncles.)



Then, through a combination of his ‘bad’ science and hubris, Hobson began to attack Freudian theory and the practice of psychoanalysis as a hoax, a completely invalid way of treating patients seeking psychological help. He took to grandstanding, publicly ridiculing Freud and his followers at conferences, especially when he was aware that psychoanalysts were in attendance.

Freudian Psychoanalysis

Hobson and other neuroscientists forcing a Freudian to recant his heresy

Dreamstage – Hobson’s ‘big’ show in Boston at Harvard

Because this was considered a major discovery, Hobson and Harvard decided to create a major event around it. An elaborate exhibit was assembled on the Harvard campus where a sleeping subject could be seen through a one-way mirror. The sleeping volunteer was hooked up to an EEG that displayed his brain waves and REM activity. The EEG output was hooked up to a system of laser beams that reflected onto the walls of the exhibit using different colors to track the eye movements and brain waves.

There was an enormous amount of interest in the ‘Dreamstage’ exhibit, the New York Times placed the extravaganza on the cover page of their Sunday Magazine and people from all over flocked to the event. It was so popular that the exhibit traveled to San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis, Atlanta, Dallas and eventually made its way to France over a four-year period. His conclusions that dreams were essentially meaningless and that psychoanalytic dream interpretation was based on ridiculous notions became highly publicized and generally accepted.

When politicians and the Department of Defense got word of this from such a highly respected neuroscientist from such a highly-esteemed institution as Harvard, most of the funding for the study of REM and dreams came to a halt. This was in the late 1970’s. Because of this, many academic institutions dropped their classes on psychoanalytic dream interpretation, and many institutions became skeptical of psychoanalytic therapy in favor of behaviorist therapy that seemed to work well on monkeys.

I specifically recall a well-meaning friend of mine in the 1970s telling me after she discovered I was in psychoanalytic therapy that a professor of her’s at Maryland University had told her that this form of therapy was found to be ineffective and that I should quit immediately. Fortunately, my intuitive reaction from having been in therapy was that psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic dream interpretation work were effective, therefore I did not heed her advice.

‘Bad Science’ – What Hobson Failed to Do

What Hobson had failed to do was to check for patients who had extensive damage to their brainstem to the point where they no longer emitted these random chaotic signals at the beginning of sleep. Per his theory, since dreams were allegedly created by the brainstem’s signals, such individuals should be incapable of dreaming. For a scientist making such a claim, such a test would have been a standard procedure for the results to really be conclusive – a bit of an oversight. Although it is true that most victims with extensive brainstem damage are dead, there were cases to be found where some that survived could still communicate. (1 )

Hobson’s Fallacious Conclusion

Andrea Rock in her book “The Mind at Night” gives an excellent account of how the dream met its demise for a 30+ year period. The following excerpt from her book describes Hobson’s logic:

“Since signals which initiated the creation of dream imagery came from the primitive brainstem (a.k.a. reptilian brain) and the more highly evolved cognitive areas of the forebrain were just passively responding, the dream process had “no primary ideational, volitional, or emotional content. The resulting dream was the product of the forebrain “making the best of a bad job in producing even partially coherent dream imagery “in response to chaotic signals from the brainstem.” ( 1 )

Furthermore, since the dream imagery appeared during a changeover of the electrochemical neuromodulators, Hobson stated that “dreams contain no hidden message and that the dreaming process itself is ‘devoid of thought’ though as a heart beating or lungs breathing”. ( 1 )

The changeover which Hobson was referring is the depletion of two key neuromodulators; norepinephrine, and serotonin which 1) directs and focuses our attention and 2) regulates moods, respectively: while, simultaneously, these are replaced by another neuromodulator, acetylcholine, that stimulates the visual, motor, and emotional centers of the brain and transmits signals that trigger rapid eye movement and visual imagery in dreams. (1)

Because of the electrochemical nature of this changeover and the random chaotic signals coming from the brainstem controlling both REM and the dreaming process, Hobson drew the conclusion that this combination could not bring about any logical meaning.

Basically, he eviscerated Freudian psychoanalytic dream interpretation theory and dismissed Carl Jung with his notions of collective unconscious and archetypes which he felt resembled a religion for which he had no tolerance.

Hobson in his description of dreams refers to them as chaotic, random, and hallucinatory which is completely inaccurate.

Dreams are anything but ‘hallucinatory’ which implies seeing things that are not in reality present. The images are metaphorical or symbolic (words that Hobson detests because they respectively sound so Jungian and Freudian). The metaphorical images are emotions represented in imagery due to the origins of the dreaming mechanism having been evolutionarily designed over 100 million years ago, long before the notion of language was conceived. The creatures at that time would have thought only in terms of imagery (as most mammals do) whereas today humans think in terms of a combination words and imagery. In a waking state, the scales lean toward language, but while dreaming, the scale tips heavily to imagery.

The terms ‘random’ and ‘chaotic’ both imply that there are no relationships that can be drawn by a sequence of events as in the selection of lotto numbers. Metaphors are relationships between words, therefore, metaphorical imagery is not random, the imagery is related to specific emotions of the dreamer. Also, each dream is not a standalone entity, there are patterns to multiple dreams where the same theme arises which challenges both the terms chaotic and random. The extreme of these patterns would be the cases of ‘recurring’ dreams where the individual is stuck at an impasse in their life where the brain just plays back the same images. Similar to when an old record would get a scratch and replay the same portion of a song over and over, but with the recurring dream, a series of neurons fire over and over.

Hobson’s theory became the de facto standard among neuroscientist for the next 30+ years and many who were educated during that time period have never updated their knowledge base.

Freud Strikes Back from the Grave

During the late 1980s and early 1990s another researcher in South Africa, Mark Solms, was studying the brain during the dreaming process. He knew Hobson’s theory was the current standard in the neuroscience world and he did not set out trying to disprove Hobson, but that is what ultimately occurred.

Mark Solms Psychoanalyist

Mark Solms, Neuroscientist and Psychoanalyst/Psychiatrist

Among the research patients with brain damage that Solms’ was working appeared a couple of patients who had brainstem damage and were no longer emitting the brainstem signals which according to Hobson would start the REM process and, therefore, dreaming. Although these patients were not going into REM cycles, they were dreaming which was impossible according to Hobson. (1)

Solms began to suspect that dreams themselves emanated from the cortex as he started to encounter many cases of patients with lesions (damage due to strokes, tumors, and head trauma injuries) in the area of the parietal lobes who had stopped dreaming.(1)

Having encountered two groups of patients whose conditions had the exact opposite results that Hobson’s theory would have predicted, Solms convictions solidified. Patients with brainstem damage that still dreamt and patients with damage in the frontal lobes and parietal lobes, but working brainstems, who no longer dreamt.

Mark Solms’ Theory – Dawning of a New Era for Psychoanalytic Dream Interpretation

Solms then concluded that REM and dreaming were two separate functions which were contra to Hobson’s theory that the brainstem handled both as a single function. Dreams and REM both had their own switch or trigger to start their processes.

The frontal lobes or neo-cortex is the area of the brain where motivational or reward systems are driven. The crux of Freudian dream theory stated that dreams were driven by ‘wish fulfillment’ which would now be this area of the frontal cortex. Where Freud may have been incorrect was that ‘all’ dreams had this ‘wish fulfillment’ purpose when it is only one of many dream themes, plus his over-emphasis on sex.

Since dreams were found to emanate from the motivational areas of the brain, this reopened the validity of Freudian theory that dreams expressed our deepest wishes and fears. And, if the regions of the forebrain (frontal cortex) that are strongly linked to memory formation also prove to be involved in dream creation, that would support Freud’s suggestion that characters, settings, and actions in dreams were drawn from the vast stores of the dreamer’s personal experiences, including early childhood memories that are outside the realm of conscious reach.

The Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex

The ‘ventromedial forebrain’ lies in the lower and middle portions of the brain’s frontal lobes. The axons of the neurons in this area are covered with a substance call myelin which is a glistening white fatty substance that enables the neuronal signals to travel quickly through the brain – roughly, 250 MPH, when considering the signals are only going a few inches, is fairly rapid. ( 3 )

(Wikipedia – The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is a part of the prefrontal cortex in the mammalian brain. The ventral medial prefrontal is located in the frontal lobe at the bottom of the cerebral hemispheres and is implicated in the processing of risk and fear. It also plays a role in the inhibition of emotional responses, and in the process of decision making.)


Since the ventromedial forebrain is so deep within the brain, it is rare to find patients with damage in this area that are still alive. However, Solms came across a few such patients, enough to suspect that this region was heavily involved in the dream creation process. The patients he found with damage in this area no longer dreamt. However, there were too few sample patients to make a scientific claim. Digging into older research, Solms came across the records of the lobotomy patients from the 1950s and 1960s where doctors surgically severed this area of the brain to treat schizophrenia – however, this procedure made the patients apathetic, non-spontaneous with little curiosity in life. It cut off that motivational center that Freud thought was the basic drive behind dreams.

Looking through the medical records of these lobotomy patients, Solms found that for the most part these patients no longer dreamt. He now had plenty of proof that the ventromedial forebrain was the key area for dream production to begin. Hobson was clearly incorrect in thinking the dreams were ‘devoid’ of the capability of any logical thought process because they are not controlled by the random and chaotic signals from the reptilian brainstem.

The brainstem signals do, in fact, start the REM process, which offers optimal conditions to have vivid, longer lasting dreams, but these type dreams can, also, occur in all sleep states; REM, non-REM, light sleep, plus while falling asleep and the awakening period which are not REM but periods of high brain activity. The brainstem signals do play a part in activating dreams in the ventromedial forebrain but are not crucial, the show will go on without the signals.

Dopamine is the key neurotransmitter located in the ventromedial forebrain. Dopamine levels surge when the brain’s reward system is activated. When dopamine was administered to subjects before sleeping, their dreams were extra vivid and extra-long. Dopamine blockers are now given to schizophrenics to control their behavior as opposed to lobotomies which, basically, destroyed their lives.

To further his conclusion, Solms came across another variation of patients. People who could not stop dreaming. In this condition, some people can fall into a dream state while they are awake or when dreaming they awake and their brains continue the dream as if they were still asleep. This was found to be caused by damage to the basal forebrain nuclei’. Hobson had contended that the brainstem’s signals projected onto the ‘basal forebrain nuclei’ and it, in turn, activated the forebrain structures, but he assumed that this controlled the dream imagery produced, therefore, it would have been random and chaotic which was inaccurate.

Psychoanalytic Dream Analysis

(Wikipedia – “The basal forebrain is a collection of structures located to the front of and below the striatum. It includes the nucleus accumbens, nucleus basalis, diagonal band of Broca, substantia innominata, and medial septal nuclei. These structures are important in the production of acetylcholine, which is then distributed widely throughout the brain. The basal forebrain is considered to be the major cholinergic output of the central nervous system (CNS).””

Solms’ research had shown that the dream imagery was produced in the ventromedial forebrain despite having suffered damage to the ‘basal forebrain nuclei’.

If Hobson’s theory were correct, those patients with damage to this area would no longer be able to dream, let alone, being unable to stop dreaming. When the basal forebrain nuclei are damaged, the reality checking mechanism does not always come back on-line when awake. Once again, Hobson did not check to see what was the result when the basal forebrain nuclei were damaged, he just assumed these patients would not be able to dream because basal forebrain would not re-transmit the signals from the brainstem.

So, basically, incomplete research and hubris led to a 30 to 40-year lull in the advancement and validity of psychoanalytic dream interpretation.

Hobson’s Dream – Sigmund’s Revenge

Circa 2001, Sigmund Freud decides he has had enough of this ‘sh..’ and comes back from the grave to take his revenge.

Allan Hobson had a stroke, and not just any stroke, his stroke only effected his brainstem, the reptilian structure he has been focusing on much of his life. Fortunately for Hobson, he recovered, but I think Sigmund must have planned it this way.

“Hobson had a dream 38 days after his stroke which goes as follows: He is traveling with his wife abroad and discovered she had given another man a drill bit from a treasured tool Hobson kept at their weekend home, a farm in Vermont. Describing the dream in his journal, Hobson said:” It seemed to me odd that she would give a stranger one of my most precious tools without asking me. I was feeling very vexed and apprehensive.” In the dream, his wife confides to him that that she needs a secret life, and for much of the rest of the dream, he is wandering alone, unable to find her.” Once again, the above is an excerpt from Andrea Rock’s book.

The Dream Subjected to Psychoanalytic Dream Interpretation

Hmm, a ‘drill bit’, let’s see, does that remind anybody of any part of the male anatomy? Could it possibly be some fear of no longer being able to perform with his favorite tool? Then, his wife gifts his treasure to some other man.

I get the sense there is some underlying meaning here, but no, this plot and imagery is derived from chaotic, random signals, right? Freud must have been laughing in his grave. I do not consider myself a Freudian, but I must admit the old boy had some points. And, with the stroke in the brainstem and the ‘drill bit’ being a symbolic phallus, it might be thought that some spirit from some myth must have been evoked giving Jung a laugh at both Hobson and Freud.

But, more seriously, Hobson’s dream might, also, represent some underlying guilt he may have had for his rash condemnation of psychoanalytic dream interpretation. The drill bit could be his theory – this was the highlight of his life, another treasured tool – and he fears losing it as evidence gathered that disproved the physiological origin of dreams solely from the brainstem – and as this happened he felt vexed and lost (it was his life work), just as he would if he lost his wife to a stranger. In this scenario, his wife would represent the professional community to whom he convinced his dream/brainstem theory. If this were shot down, he would be emasculated (or lose his drill bit, so to speak). Perhaps, the stranger is Mark Solms whom Lady Luck seems to have passed the torch.

Devoid of thought?

The unconscious mind has intricately woven a very complex metaphorical scenario which can be viewed as multiple patterns based on events which had occurred in Hobson’s life at that time. These patterns are merged into a single allegorical plot, yet he proclaimed that dreams were devoid of thought.

Dreams often assimilate multiple patterns that correlate with different levels of a dreamer’s life, in this case, both Hobson’s work life and the relationship with his wife are being challenged due to Solms’ theory and his own stroke, respectively. The fact that the mind in the ‘dream state’ can weave multiple patterns of a similar nature of thought or emotion, such as fear, in a person’s life depicts the intricate and complex capabilities of the brain while dreaming, making connections that we cannot even ‘dream of’ when awake.

The unconscious part of his mind produced a perfectly Freudian dream to show him the err of his logic and thus presented him with a Freudian plot complete with symbols which he so detested.

A Renaissance for Psychoanalytic Dream Interpretation

Immediately following this period, Hobson gave some ground and admitted that all the new evidence bought forward by Solms and others would be cause for him to rethink his position. He, also, stated that dreams are meaningful and self-explanatory. Self-explanatory? My take is the about 95% of the population does not have a clue as to the meaning of their dreams, this, ostensively , would include those that Hobson’s work had convinced that dreams had no meaning.

However, in the end, he reverted to his original position, that both REM and dreams originated from the brain stem. Denial can be a very powerful blinder to the truth. Now, I am thinking the ‘drill bit’ might represent his head.

There was never any big announcement that Hobson’s research is now seriously challenged, nothing like the big extravaganza when he thought he had proven everything about Freudian and psychoanalytic theory were senseless. This erroneous piece of misinformation was highly publicized and dramatically displayed in New York City and six other major cities. A serious attempt of retracting it has never been made. Today, half of the psychological community still believes that dreams are senseless or relatively meaningless. The government money to fund dream research has never returned to educational institutions, thus very few individuals are properly trained on the use of this highly effect tool for getting to the base cause of many psychological problems.

Over the last ten years or so, there has been an attempt for the fields of neuroscience and psychoanalysis to begin working together. Both fields are complex, and it is difficult to find time in everyone’s busy schedules to integrate another way of thinking into their already stuffed minds, but some progress is being made, except for one person.

But in light of all of the new discoveries, some neuroscientists are beginning to open the door again to the validity of the psychoanalytic process and psychoanalytic dream interpretation. Much of the newer research being conducted with more advanced techniques using fMRI and PET scanning equipment tend to be validating psychoanalytic theory.

Videos of Mark Solms lectures and discussions are posted on ‘’, but appear to get very little viewership. I find them interesting, but they are not the sort of entertainment to attract the masses.

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Example of Psychoanalytic Interpretation:

PTSD Rage – Repetitive Rage Fantasies but Progress in Recovery



The main references for this article and all of the neurological information came from the following sources:

  • “The Mind at Night” by Andrea Rock
  • Wikipedia
  • “Brain Rules” by John Medina
  • All images were from Wikipedia


Copy Right @ Very Cool Dreams Company September 10, 2011


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