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Letter to the Editor   |    
Origins of Dreaming
Am J Psychiatry 2002;159:495-a-496. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.159.3.495-a
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To the Editor: Dr. Reiser’s article was a scholarly review that deserves appreciation as an effort to ally neuroscientists and psychoanalysts in an effort to solve the mind-brain problem (i.e., How does the brain produce the activity of the human mind?) through analysis of the dream. But the article troubles us because the two disciplines have been at odds for decades and have shown little interest in a common ground. We are neither neuroscientists nor psychoanalysts but are no strangers to the ideas of both groups. Our view of Dr. Reiser’s article has led us to the following conclusions and speculations:

1. When neuroscientists and psychoanalysts talk about "the dream," "affect," or "emotion," they are not talking about the same objects.

2. REM, while an interesting phenomenon and the subject of much excitement by neuroscientists, says little or nothing about the meaning of the dream.

3. Freud’s notion of the dream as wish fulfillment is either incorrect or a gross simplification that fails to take into account alternative motives.

4. Dr. Reiser misspoke when he implied an identity between psychoanalysis and the mind. Surely the mind is much more. And he misspoke when he implied an identity between neuroscience and the brain.

5. In general, the history of psychiatry has not depended on the coalescence of diverse orthodoxies such as neuroscience and psychoanalysis.

6. Dr. Reiser’s expressed hope for a breakthrough by means of positron emission tomography and computerized tomography scans seems in the nature of a Freudian wish.

7. We were disappointed that Dr. Reiser’s review did not contain a single reference to the work of the great neurosurgeon/psychologist Wilder Penfield, director of the Montreal Neurological Institute in the 1930s.

Penfield showed that conscious brain-damaged subjects, when their brains were surgically exposed and tagged, reported dream-like experiences when their brains were stimulated by electrodes at different sites but different dream-like experiences when later their brains were stimulated at approximately identical sites. (Penfield must have understood that his electrodes may have sparked fewer or greater numbers of brain cells when he applied his electrodes to sites he had tagged.)

We owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Reiser for raising the subject of the meaning of dreams, which remains one of the great mysteries of human activity, both functional and dysfunctional, but question his call for an alliance between such adversarial groups of scientists. We suspect that any major breakthrough in dreaming will come from a chance observation by a brilliant observer such as Penfield or Freud.




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