22 September 2006


A stone sits in the middle of the driveway in front of the house. One stone, darker than the rest. A stone that would fit into a cupped hand. The shape is irregular Possum skulland lumpy; the texture rough and pitted. The stone is encircled by a small, blue band of webbing, like a miniature climber’s sling. I recognise its significance.

It is the mark of incipient terrorism.


The Neurological Foundation of New Zealand (NFNZ) suggests the current scientific consensus is that dreams have no meaning. The Foundation’s usually excellent newsletter quotes Harvard Medical School’s Allan Hobson [1] as pointing out that “hallucinatory mental content is lowest during active waking and highest during REM sleep,” while “the incidence of thinking is highest during quiet waking and lowest during REM sleep.” From this, the Foundation’s article concludes a sleeping brain cannot simultaneously generate perceptions and think about them; in other words, you cannot make sense of your dreams.

I’m still struggling to make sense of that logic.


I walk down the driveway and through the gate, into an area of scrub-covered hillside and crumbling rock, leading down to flat land. I spent my childhood here; now, however, it is Viv playing fiddlemore arid, full of drought and fear. I walk with my hands held out and up to show I am helpless, that I am no threat. I am afraid, but keep walking. A group of small men walk past me and I try to explain that I just wish to talk. They seem to be in a hurry, but they assure me they will arrange a meeting. I am doing this to avert the attack on my family.


The NFNZ’s article was published this year. I check the article on which it was based and find it was published in 1998 [2]. Given the article did not present original research but instead was a selective, popular summary, the conclusions are likely to be close to a decade old. That’s a long time in science, and I wonder what the consensus is now.


I wake in a room already full of light, and reach out to turn on the radio. A New Zealand woman has been seriously wounded by a gunman in Jordan; another person in her group was killed in the attack.

I am awake in my room in the Pohangina Valley, listening to what happened in the world while I was dreaming.


Even a cursory investigation raises doubt about the NFNZ’s dogmatic conclusion. Hobson's models ofTony singing dreaming have not been universally accepted; indeed, they have been opposed vehemently by Mark Solms, whose research results disagree with Hobson's in three major areas.

Hobson claims dreams originate in the same region of the brain (the pons) that stimulates REM sleep; the signals arising here are relatively chaotic [3] and it is the forebrain’s attempts to “make sense” of these chaotic impulses that we experience as dreams. He now concedes that the forebrain might in fact influence REM activity, but still maintains that because the “thinking” part of the forebrain (the prefrontal cortex) is not active during dreaming, while the “emotional brain” (the limbic and paralimbic regions) is active, dreams have little or no meaning.

Solms, however, claims to have shown that dreaming is not synonymous with REM sleep—in other words, that significant dreaming activity occurs independently from REM sleep [4]; and that dreams originate in a different area of the brain (the ventral tegmental area of the midbrain).

Hobson and Solms also disagree about the biochemistry of dreaming. Hobson focuses on the levels of serotonin, norepinephrine, and acetylcholine and how the interactions of these chemicals cause the observed characteristics of dreams, while Solms argues that the dopaminergic system—which also regulates appetites and desires—forms the basis of dreaming.

Thus, the controversy arises from three major differences: the area of the brain in which dreaming Paul playing harmonicaoriginates (and therefore the implications of this in light of what is known about the function of these different regions); whether dreams are substantially a byproduct of REM activity; and the neurochemical basis of dreams (and again, therefore, the implications of this).

The upshot of these differences is that Hobson’s theory points strongly to dreams as being largely random and therefore meaningless, but Solms’ theory links dreaming with areas and processes considered important in generating our appetites and desires. This also means Freud’s theories of dreams can have no place in Hobson’s model, but seem to be not just allowed, but supported by Solms’ model.

Despite this polarisation, Hobson and Solms both consider dreaming as akin to psychosis; they regard dreams as fundamentally bizarre and emotional. However, empirical sleep research—in loose terms, experimental observation—suggests otherwise; moreover, this research suggests both theories are wrong because the predicted associations between neurophysiological activity and the characteristics of dreams (e.g., “bizarreness”, or intense emotion) have not been observed [5].


I lie awake, thinking about the dream, thinking about dreaming. When I was a small child, I often dreamed of being chased by wolves and escaping into the sky. As I grewPhymatosaurus in the Ruahine older and learned more about the true nature of wolves, the dream became less frequent. Now, I no longer have recurring dreams—at least, not that I remember. But other people do, and I wonder: if brain activity during dreaming really is so chaotic, how can this explain recurring dreams?


Further investigation leads me into a mire of arguments, hypotheses, digressions, and technical jargon well beyond my comprehension, but what does seem clear is that the NFNZ's dogmatic conclusion is unjustified: other theories have been proposed, but all are flawed in some way. Even the popular assertion that sleep serves to consolidate memory is hotly argued [6].

Currently, no satisfactory model explains dreaming. A sound model, it seems, remains a dream.


Do dreams have meaning? For all my scepticism about the quality of the NFNZ’s article and regardless of whether Allan Hobson’s theories (or any others) are correct, I’m inclined to agree with at least part of what he says: the greatest value of dreams is that the attempt to interpret them tells us something about ourselves. The difficulty, of course, arises if you believe they mean nothing; if you believe you cannot meaningfully interrogate your dreams. If you believe that, then dreams can tell you nothing about yourself.


I’m not suggesting any kind of prescience in the dreams I mention here, nor do I attach any importance to the supposed coincidences. Dreams about terrorism are, I suspect, not uncommon. Tragically, nor is terrorism solely a nightmare.

1. Hobson is one of the developers of the activation-synthesis hypothesis, which in its original form regards dreams as essentially meaningless (Hobson, J.A.; McCarley, R. 1977: The brain as a dream state generator: An activation-synthesis hypothesis of the dream process. American Journal of Psychiatry 134: 1335–1348. [Read the abstract]).
2. The original article is no help, because in it Allan Hobson doesn’t argue the case for denying that dreams have meaning—he insists they have no meaning: ‘"Dreams do not contain messages from the unconscious mind, or provide an outlet for repressed feelings," insists J. Allan Hobson, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.’ (op. cit.)
3. This has been disputed; brain stem signals may be ordered and predictable, or at least not as chaotic as claimed by Hobson (Jones, B. E. 2000. The interpretation of physiology. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 23: 955–956).
4. The association between dreaming and REM sleep has been recognised since 1953 (Aserinsky, E.; Kleitman, N. 1953: Regularly occurring periods of eye motility, and concomitant phenomena, during sleep. Science 118:273–274); however, this aspect of the Hobson/Solms controversy focuses on whether REM sleep is the sole origin of significant dreaming.
5. Domhoff, G. W. 2005: Refocusing the neurocognitive approach to dreams: A critique of the Hobson versus Solms debate. Dreaming 15: 3–20.
6. For example, compare Robert Vertes' conclusion that “there is no compelling evidence to support a relationship between sleep and memory consolidation” with the view of Jan Born and Bj√∂rn Rasch that “ compelling evidence has accumulated that links sleep to learning and memory.” Vertes, R. 2004: Memory Consolidation in Sleep: Dream or Reality. Neuron 44: 135-148; Born, J.; Rasch, B. 2006. Sleep to remember. The Neuroscientist 12 (5): 410–424.

Photos (click them if you want a larger image):
1. Possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) skull, No. 1 Line track, Ruahine Range. Someone had hung this by its eye socket from a small, dead shrub in front of the massive rimu, a tree hundreds of years old.
2, 3, 4. Viv, Tony, and Paul playing at the Waterford a few weekends ago.
5. Kowaowao (hound's tongue fern, Microsorum pustulatum), No. 1 Line track.
6. Image based on a photo of horopito (mountain pepperwood, Pseudowintera colorata), No. 1 Line track.

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor


Tracy Hamon said...

I find it improbable that dreaming serves no purpose to our physical selves. To imply that they are unimportant seems to imply that many of our waking dreams have no purpose. Somehow I think daydreaming correlates to creativity, and the existence of art. That said, about my own world of dreams, I tend to pay attention to the dreams I have in the middle of the sleep cycle, as these I find to be of significance--although, as I get older I remember these less and less. I used to keep a dream log, but have found this can make one obsessed more with the dream world than with the waking.

I read once that maybe the waking world is as foreign to the dream world as the dream world is to the waking. I believe anything is possible.

larry said...

Pete--I really like the photo of the Pseudowintera.

butuki said...

First, lyrical photos, Pete. They go perfectly with the essay. I love the skull photo and the last photo of the leaves.

"I’m still struggling to make sense of that logic.

Perhaps you need some quiet day dreaming in order to make sense of the logic?

What is funny about such scientific arguments is that so many of the participants agree that logic and practicality make up all the aspects of evolutionary development. And yet, even though dreaming occurs in so many different types of animals, the very fact that dreaming exists at all seems not to figure into their criteria for evolutionary purpose. Furthermore, their arguments assume that "thinking" and perception are only one type of phenomenon, not allowing for alternate ways that the body and mind might interpret the world. They assume that "thinking" and "waking" are intuitively "such", but if they were challenged to prove the existence and nature of "thinking" they would be hard pressed to come up with anything any more substantial than dreaming. Just proving that another person has consciousness or that another person or even the entire world around actually exist is an impossible task.

It's like the recent CNN report I watched speaking of the desire of some researchers to finally identify the chemical and hormonal components of love. "When we find them we will finally understand what love is," one of the researchers stated. God, I would hate to think how he gets along with his wife! "Hold still, dear. Just want to take a sample from your brain stem. I want to establish once and for all that you love me."

My stance, in the Buddhist vein, is that the whole world is a mirror of dreams. I believe this is why stories are so vital to our existence and mental health. And so perhaps the dream miners are starting at the wrong end of the tunnel. Instead of seeking whether dreams have meaning, they ought to be looking for whether there is meaning in "reality".

pohanginapete said...

Tracy, your comment reminds me how I often find myself "waking" from something I've been writing. I'm so caught up in it that the sense of time passing becomes warped; it's as if I'm elsewhere. Much like dreaming. I think you're right about the correlation of daydreaming, creativity, and art.

Larry, thanks. I guess I was feeling restricted by the literal nature of so much of my own photography. I enjoyed playing, and it's nice to know the result's appreciated.

Butuki, I burst out laughing at the image of the researcher checking his wife's brain stem... As usual, your comment is packed full of insights and ideas. I found it particularly interesting how you identified the confusion between information and understanding; fascinating, too, because I'd just been skimming John Gray's Straw Dogs and noted his assertion that science has been good at satisfying our needs but hasn't changed them at all. I don't know what (nor how) he argues in his book, but I'll put aside time to read it better.

And thanks for the comments on the photos. I'm particularly pleased both you and Larry appreciated the last photo.

MB said...

I enjoyed your photos, and the way they flow through your essay. As a musician, I particularly appreciated the portraits of the players.

Dreams feel to me much like poems and art and music. To find meaning in them is a different way of thinking. Are the scientists analyzing dreams accustomed to thinking that way? Does that kind of thinking "count"?

Thanks for making me think.

pohanginapete said...

I agree, mb. Finding meaning in dreams is, or should be, a very different way of thinking, or understanding, from how we attempt to understand more tangible, concrete processes. It's essentially fuzzy; I prefer to think of it as an exploration of what might be possible. Actually, Hobson's a good writer and in his non-technical writing uses his own dreams as illustration.

Pleased you like the photos. We're lucky to have an abundance of very good local musicians, and Viv, Tony, and Paul are among the best.

polona said...

I really enjoyed your photos and the flow of the essay.

In fact, I've been a fan of yours for a few months but never left a comment. Just saying things like "excellent", "beautiful", and the like doesn't do your art justice, and I'm not very good at writing things longer than three or five short lines. :)

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Polona; I understand — I also often find commenting difficult, for the same reasons. There are so many excellent blogs out there, yours included. :^D

chuck said...

Off to dreamland am I,
Having read an informed lullaby...

The bough has broken; my cradle falls...
I'm off to dreamland,
Though morningsong calls...

Dave said...

Good post and pictures. Forgive me if I just second butuki's conclusion and leave it at that. I can't improve on his last paragraph. Of course dreams have meaning -- or nothing does.

pohanginapete said...

Nice one Chuck. Thankyou :^D

Thanks Dave, and well said re. Butuki's conclusion. :^D

KiwiSoupGirl said...

Gee, Pete - I popped in here to write a blog of my own about an intense dream I had, and here you are....! Perhaps you were hanging about in that dreamland ether and I picked you up someplace in the wilderness.....? Anyway, let the researchers prove me wrong, bet they can't... *smile*

As always, a beautiful pause for thought and reflection - and the photos.....ah, sublime! Thank you - as always.

pohanginapete said...

Thanks KSG. Actually, I remembered you when I mentioned recurring dreams; I recalled you posted some time ago about a recurring dream. It's also fascinating how I'm finding other bloggers mentioning dreams, either directly or peripherally. It's possible I'm just more aware of that, but my intuition suggests it's a little deeper. Maybe there is indeed something in the ether...

robin andrea said...

I remember thinking that dreams were really random images supplied by our subconscious that we attempt to impose a narrative on. We can't always complete the narrative, which is why we so often wind up saying things when describing a dream, "Then suddenly I was somewhere else and this was happening..." Now, I'm not so sure. I love when science smacks right up against its limits of understanding, as Butuki so eloquently conveys. I'm sure an analysis of my entire body chemistry is right around the corner, but a single insight into the content and meaning of my dreams will elude those white-coated researchers for a very long time.

Knowleypowley said...


It is only having read this essay, that I realised I hardly dream at all now (that, or as age progresses, the memory cells cannot remember them) and when I do have the occasional one, it is always set in my past life as a boy.

"O, what land is the Land of Dreams?
What are its mountains, and what are its streams?
O father! I saw my mother there,
Among the lilies by waters fair

pohanginapete said...

Robin, I think you've touched on an important point when you express doubt over how well we'll be able to interpret our understanding of body chemistry (and physiology, etc.). The achievements in those fields have been marvellous — I value them for the knowledge as much as their applications — but I feel wary because some research seems to ignore the possibility that the chemistry/physiology is an effect, not a cause. That assumes, of course, that causality has meaning — an assertion robustly denied by Hume.

K-P, I'm sure you do dream, and probably just as much. It's just that dreams are hardly ever remembered unless the dreamer wakes during REM sleep. So, take comfort from the likelihood that you're actually sleeping better... ;^D

Avus said...

Terrific photos, Pete. Pin sharp - what camera are you using? That last pic is wonderful.

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Avus. The camera's a Canon 20D, but all these photos would have been achievable with pretty much any camera, including most of the little digicams. None of the photos in this post required a flash.

I'm pleased you appreciate that last photo. :^)

MB said...

Today, I'm really admiring the Kowaowao photo. Light and shadow. And the name!

pohanginapete said...

Thanks, MB. It's a beautiful fern, especially when the light catches it like this. :^)

herhimnbryn said...

".............We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep." W. S.

Sweet dreaming PP.

pohanginapete said...

Ah, of course. Nice one, HHnB; very apposite. Thanks.