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To sleep, perchance to study dreams

He is a man on a quest. At a Harvard reunion, he opens several doors looking for the exit, but they turn into closed windows. Suddenly the venue changes. He's in a Greek or Egyptian temple, descending a narrow stairway under a stone arch, contemplating that one of the pleasures of working at Harvard is being exposed to beauty. Then, just as abruptly, the scene shifts again. Now he's on a Vermont hillside, walking in the snow.

It is Dream 33, and the dreamer is J. Allan Hobson, a Harvard psychiatry professor who has spent four decades exploring the workings of the sleeping brain, often using his own catalogued nocturnal visions as subject matter.

The significance of this particular dream is not what you might think. Where a Freudian might see themes of escape, Hobson hones in on physical mobility. From start to finish, his body is moving. His thoughts seem rather secondary, and that's the point.

For Hobson, the key to dreams lies not in the stories they tell but in what they suggest about the way the body works -- the same part of your brain that controls dreams is also involved in balance, body temperature and many other things.

Freud and Jung's theories were psychobabble, not science, according to Hobson, whose newest book, published in October, compares his view of dreams to those of Freud.

''If you're a pure scientist, Jung is just deadly," he said. ''The collective unconscious, the anima . . . these are literary constructs. You can't do any science on that kind of stuff."

Hobson's skepticism started early. After graduating from Harvard Medical School in 1959, he interned at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, then did his residency at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center in Boston.

''I was appalled at the place," he said. ''I thought it was so anti-intellectual. It was stupid; very psychoanalytic. If you asked a question, they asked you why you asked the question instead of answering it. So I said, 'I've got to get out of here.' "

He took refuge at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., where he was trained in scientific method. When his boss took a leave of absence, he found himself with a year ''to do nothing, except to read and think."

That's when he discovered how active our brains are when we're asleep.

''I saw the recordings being made. I saw the brain self-activating -- regularly; every 90 minutes, like clockwork. I said, 'There's a machine in there that does this. This doesn't have anything to do with motivation. This doesn't have anything to do with your father or your mother; it has something to do with having this brain.' "

In 1968, he set up Harvard's neurophysiology lab and threw himself into dream research. He also taught classes, treated psychiatric patients, and wrote scores of scholarly articles, often working late into the night.

In 1978, he helped put together ''DreamStage," a traveling exhibit that wove factual information about dream science together with experimental art. Its centerpiece was a man sleeping in a transparent bedroom, the electrical signals from his brain fueling a light show of flashing colors and music. The show drew record crowds to a Harvard auditorium.

He and his wife had bought a Vermont farmhouse in 1959, so when the Massachusetts Mental Health Center, where he had his lab, closed in 2003 for reconstruction, Hobson packed up his study and moved it into his cow barn. Soon afterward came his revelation: He would turn the building into the world's first museum of sleep and dreams.

The wood silo is now a three-story library with a spiral staircase. On the top floor, a circular sofa looks out onto sylvan mountain views. A streamlined version of DreamStage went into the main part of the barn, music and all, though the sleeping person has been replaced by a time-lapse video.

Now 71, Hobson has achieved international recognition.

''Within his own field, i.e., neurophysiology, he is a giant," said Richard Russo, president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams. ''Anyone interested in the physiological aspects of dreaming, or what the mechanisms of dreaming can tell us about the workings of the brain [and vice versa], or the relation between mind and body, must start with Hobson's work."

A stroke he suffered in 2000 slowed his pace. But he is still working, still inciting controversy, and still writing about his dreams, sometimes in lurid detail.

''I'm an open book," he said. ''Why should I pretend to be otherwise?"

Fact sheet

How he got interested in neurophysiology: At 15, he met Hartford psychologist Page Sharp, who told him that if he wanted to learn about the mind, he would have to study the brain.

Most recent books: ''13 Dreams Freud Never Had: The New Mind Science," ''Dreaming: An Introduction to the Science of Sleep," and ''Out of its Mind: Psychiatry in Crisis: A Call for Reform."

What he would be in a second life: An architect. Hobson designed every inch of his museum space. His second-floor office sports a homemade corduroy loveseat crafted from two wood doors held open by leather saddle girths.

Personal indulgence: Takes panoramic shots of houses, interiors, and conversations with an Olympic pocket camera.

Prized possession: His 130-volume journal, started at age 40; contains scientific ideas, ruminations, drawings, panoramic photos, and dreams.

Why a museum: ''What I want to do is what Page Sharp did for me: I want a 15-year-old who isn't aware he has a brain in his head." 

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