The activation-synthesis model is a theory of dreaming developed by researchers J. Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley. First proposed in 1977, this theory suggests that the physiological processes of the brain cause dreams.
How does brain activity during sleep lead to dreaming? According to Hobson and other researchers, circuits in the brain stem are activated during REM sleep. Once these circuits are activated, areas of the limbic system involved in emotions, sensations, and memories, including the amygdala and hippocampus, become active. The brain synthesizes and interprets this internal activity and attempts create meaning from these signals, which results in dreaming.
The initial publication of their research stirred up considerable controversy, particularly among Freudian analysts. Since many dream researchers and therapists invest considerable time and effort trying to understand the underlying meaning of dreams, the suggestion that dreams were simply the brains way of making sense of brain activity during sleep did not sit well with many.
While the activation-synthesis model of dreaming relies on physiological processes to explain dreaming, it does not imply that dreams are meaningless. According to Hobson, "Dreaming may be our most creative conscious state, one in which the chaotic, spontaneous recombination of cognitive elements produces novel configurations of information: new ideas. While many or even most of these ideas may be nonsensical, if even a few of its fanciful products are truly useful, our dream time will not have been wasted" (1999).
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Hobson, J.A. & McCarley, R.W. The brain as a dream-state generator: An activation-synthesis hypothesis of the dream process. AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PSYCHIATRY, 134:1335-1348, 1977.
Hobson, J. Allan. (1995) Sleep. New York: Scientific American Library.
Hobson, J. Allan. (1999). Consciousness. New York: Scientific American Library.