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by J. Allan Hobson
MIT Press, 2001
Review by Valerie Gray Hardcastle, Ph.D. on Jan 15th 2002

The Dream Drugstore

This is a fascinating book.  In The Dream Drugstore, Allen Hobson uses his own theory of dreaming to discuss altered states of consciousness, including psychosis, mania, and brains on tranquilizers, antidepressants, psychedelics, narcotics, and psychotherapy.  In broad strokes, his claim is that the neurochemistry of dreaming is quite similar to what we find in these other conditions, and that if we can understand the former, then we can also understand the latter.  Even if you don’t quite agree with this broad-strokes claim, there is still lots and lots worthwhile in his book to ponder.

            Hobson claims that this book is written for a general audience.  I have to disagree with him there.  I think writing books for general audiences is quite difficult.  One difficulty is knowing how to pitch something at the appropriate level – you don’t want to pander to the lowest common denominator; at the same time, you don’t want to aim too high and go over the heads of the majority.  Hobson aims too high.  Except for the fact that it is categorized as a trade book (which means very few references at all), this book is suitable for professionals in the field, scholars and advanced students in related areas, and maybe the occasional dilettante who is widely read in neuroscience.  But my mom, as educated as she is, wouldn’t be able to read this book easily.

            The first two-thirds of the book recounts Hobson’s theory of dreaming and embeds it in a larger framework for understanding consciousness and brain dysfunction.  For those of you already familiar with Hobson’s research, you won’t find too much new here.  For those of you not yet familiar with what Hobson has done, you should be, and this is an excellent introduction.  He occasionally strays too far into side disagreements he is having with colleagues and I can’t say that I always find his illustrations and figures helpful (using a state space analogy can be overdone).  Nevertheless, Hobson provides us with a good and clear account of what we know about the neurophysiology and biochemistry of sleep and dreaming.

            The last third of the book connects sleep and dreaming research with what we know about how various chemicals and other insults to the brain alter perception and thought.  This is the best part of the book, for it consolidates a huge body of literature under one theoretical framework.  I find Hobson’s ideas provocative, creative, and strikingly original.  I am not sure whether in the end I will agree with his views.  My hunch is that he pushes the analogy with dreaming too hard and that differences between psychosis, for example, and REM sleep with outweigh similarities.  Nevertheless, his proposals deserve to be taken seriously.  They are well worth exploring.  For all I know, he will turn out to be exactly right. If nothing else, he gives us a unified framework under which to discuss all manner of conscious states.

            Throughout this presentation, Hobson is clearly and unapologetically anti-drug.  Thus he presents a refreshing change from the rest of the world, which is enamoured with SSRIs, various and sundry sorts of tranquilizers, and drugs for recreation.  He highlights the known long-term effects from taking mood- or psyche-altering chemicals, pointing out that we in fact know very little about the permanent effects on the brain, but what we do know doesn’t look happy-making.  I was particularly heartened to see such commentary regarding our beloved SSRIs, since there is not enough public worry regarding what we might be doing to ourselves by taking these feel-good drugs ad infinitum.  I sincerely hope that we take Hobson’s concerns to heart.

            The final chapter of the book, as almost a coda, concerns how Hobson’s views should affect psychoanalysis.  This, too, I found hugely interesting, since Hobson was originally trained as a psychotherapist and doing talk therapy still forms a large part of his professional life, and yet he is also firmly immersed in brain chemistry.  How he integrates the two works well and provides a blueprint for others interested in following his path.  It also significantly improves upon the assumptions behind most psychoanalysis, in my humble opinion. 

What we find here is barely more than a sketch of how it all fits together, though.  I would love to see this chapter expanded into a book in its own right.  Perhaps this could be Hobson’s next project.  I’ll be first in line to buy it.

            All in all, if you are interested in how the mind/brain works, this book is well worth your time and energy.  I guarantee you will learn something new and, perhaps more importantly, think about what you already know in a different light. I highly recommend the book.


© 2002 Valerie Gray Hardcastle


Valerie Gray Hardcastle, Ph.D., Program in Science and Technology Studies, Department of Philosophy, Virginia Tech