From the Archives: Artists and Scientists Envision Dreaming

Dana Alliance member J. Allan Hobson has long been interested in sleep and dreaming, including classic research on rapid eye movement sleep. After he retired from Harvard, Hobson even built a museum, Dreamstage, on his farm in Vermont. In 1999, he filed a rather playful essay for our Cerebrum journal, “From Angels to Neurons: Artists and Scientists Envision Dreaming.” Collecting and describing science data and great artworks, he invites us to dive into our own impressions of consciousness and dreaming. Here are two bits from the essay:

The Music of the Spheres

15th century etching, artist unknown

15th century etching, artist unknown

With the rise of invention and exploration in the fifteenth century, models of the universe became increasingly mechanical. Clockwork is an obvious inspiration for this image, in which the late medieval pilgrim has reached the edge of the physical universe and—insatiably curious—has pushed his head through this barrier to listen to the music of the celestial spheres. Now we are learning to look at the cosmos inside the human head and to discern the clockwork within the brain so that we may understand the orchestration of our states of consciousness. The heavenly spheres of today are nerve cells and their music is the electrical activity that is the physical basis of our minds.

Sleeping Man and Cat

Photo by Ted Spagna, courtesy of J. Allan Hobson

Photo by Ted Spagna, courtesy of J. Allan Hobson

Drawing by J. Allan Hobson, courtesy of Hobson

Drawing by J. Allan Hobson, courtesy of him

Modern sleep research is materialistic. It uses human subjects whose brain, eye, and muscle activities can be recorded in sleep laboratories using electronic measuring machines called polygraphs. At different stages of sleep, the subjects are awakened and asked about mental activity such as dreams. Sleep researchers also study animals such as the cat, whose neurophysiology can be described at the level of single cells and molecules.

We now know that the brain is activated periodically during sleep. When we dream, the brain’s electrical activity is exactly the same as when we are awake, but most sensory input and motor output are blocked. Periods of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep are associated with dreams in which vivid perceptions arise spontaneously and are knit together into a coherent story. The fleeting quality of our dreams comes not from the lightness and whimsical nature of winged messengers but from the alterations of our brain physiology and chemistry in REM sleep.

Hobson gives many more examples in the essay, and six years later developed an entire book on this theme, with co-author Wohl Hellmut, with nearly the same title as the essay, From Angels to Neurones: Art and the New Science of Dreaming (2005). Sadly, the book is out of print, but maybe your science or art library has it. If the Ted Spagna image haunts you the way it does me, check out the book Sleep (2013), which has tons of his sleeping-people photos and text by Hobson as well (click the Look Inside bar on Rizzoli’s book page to see a dozen more photos and also this New York Times post).

— Nicky Penttila

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