Tuesday, April 13, 2010

When Scientists Attack (Each Other's Theories)

Neuroskeptic asks, “Why do we dream?” He goes on to discuss a theory proposed by Hobson and McCarley that dreams are simply “side-effects of brain activation.” In their 1977 paper, “The Brain as a Dream State Generator," the authors argue that “many formal aspects of the dream experience may be the obligatory and relatively undistorted psychological concomitant of the physiological brain state called 'dreaming sleep.'” What this means in plain English is dreams are simply the mental by-product of your brains attempt to deal with random physiological fluctuations in your body while your asleep.

The authors, however, do not raise this possibility as simply an interesting hypothesis to explain the origins of dreams, they explicitly frame it as an attack on the psychoanalytic orthodoxy of the 1970's. From the first line, their antagonism toward psychoanalysis is clear. They write, “Since the turn of the century, dream theory has been dominated by the psychoanalytic hypothesis that dreaming is a reactive process designed to protect consciousness... from the disruptive effects of unconscious wishes.” In other words, psychoanalytic theorists claim that, in order to release unhealthy tension, dreams allow you to do while sleeping all the things you wish you could do while you are awake. The authors go on to assert that “modern neurophysiological evidence... necessitates important revisions in psychoanalytic dream theory” (1335). Throughout the rest of the paper, they seem to assume that if they can find a physical process that explains the origins of dreams, then they will have raised a serious challenge to Psychoanalysis.

The details of their theory are not that important to me. I am willing to assume that they succeed in offering a plausible physiological account of the origins of dreams. My question is the following: does finding a physical process that parallels a psychological process, discredit the pyschological account?

In a very interesting figure (1346), the authors translate the elements of the psychoanalytic theory into their “activation-synthesis” model . The figure consists of one set of three boxes labelled “the psychoanalytic model” above a second set of three boxes labelled “activation synthesis model.” The second box of the psychoanalytic model reads: “Ego: wishes to sleep...day residue stirs up unconscious wish...” The second box in their model reads: “Activation of sensory neurons, motor neurons, and 'visceral neurons.'” The arrangement of the picture implies that the each stage of the psychoanalytic model parallels one of the three stages of their model, almost as if they are saying, “What you thought was an unconscious wish is actually just the activation of a visceral neuron.” This is the moment of the paper where the authors overthrow the psychoanalytic theory by translating each of it's stages into a stage in their own theory.

Although they are careful to add that their theory doesn't “imply that [dreams] are without psychological meaning of function” (1346), that certainly seems to be the suggestion that they are making. Rather than being psychological events, they argue, dreams are more basically, physiological events, and therefore, they do not necessarily mean anything.

They translate the psychological into the physical and argue that by doing so, they have made the psychological problematic. But isn't this move a little like arguing that because you can translate Spanish into English, English is somehow more basic? Scientists often make this move. They argue that if you can find a physical process that mirrors a psychological process, somehow you have raised serious questions for anyone who wants to speak the psychological language. But why do we necessarily assume that a physical process is more basic than a psychological process?


  1. Why do we assume that there is a difference between what is physiological and what is psychological? We are at heart physiological beings, and everything we experience is either a result of our physiology which might include "quantum mechanic" style events - maybe a neurotransmitter is absorbed at certain probabilities, leading to an inability to directly predict human behavior/psychology. This does not mean that human psychology is not essentially physiological in nature. In this particular instance, maybe our "need to resolve day residue" is in fact parallel to a physiological need in the same way any other behavior or perception a human has could potentially be explained biologically? Maybe these are just two different ways of expressing the same phenomenon.

  2. You write "We are at heart physiological beings, and everything we experience is either a result of our physiology which might include "quantum mechanic" style events - maybe a neurotransmitter is absorbed at certain probabilities, leading to an inability to directly predict human behavior/psychology."

    This does not strike me as an argument that human psychology is "essentially physiological in nature." You have restated the assumption that we will always find some biological basis for our behavior, even if it requires speaking in terms of quantum events. I agree that the physiological and the psychological may be "two different ways of expressing the same phenomenon," but you assume that the phenomenon is essentially physiological. Why does being able to describe an event physiologically imply that the event is "at bottom" physiological. Is this equivalent to arguing that because you can translate any language into English, it is the most basic language?

  3. I'm interested in this desire to identify one "at bottom." What's at stake?
    I suppose it is that if my dream are primarily a phsiological phenomenon then I don't have to worry about them being commentary on the real me?