Published in 1899, ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ was perhaps Sigmund Freud’s first major work, preceding the likes of ‘The Psychopathology of Everyday Life’ and ‘Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality’. Although Freud’s perspective still governs popular attitudes toward dreams, his ideas have long been ‘out of fashion’ in the scientific community, in line with a general displacement of psychoanalysis by psychiatry.
However, in his lecture at Hendrick’s Carnival of Knowledge - which I must say was a privilege to attend - Dr Jim Hopkins (whose background is actually in philosophy) tried to unify Freud’s work on dreams with modern developments in neuroscience, specifically Karl Friston’s ‘free-energy principle’. Dr Hopkins did so with such enthusiasm, humour and lack of pretension that the event was engaging throughout.
Key to the lecture was the notion of the brain as a predictive mechanism, constantly working with sensory input to anticipate future experience. Aligning himself with Friston and another neuroscientist called Allan Hobson, Hopkins held that dreams are a way to optimise the brain’s hypothetical model of the world by consolidating vast amounts of sensory data.
On this basis, he argued - in tandem with Freud - that by locating the memories and feelings under consolidation we can understand the ‘meaning’ of dreams; in other words, we can use the ‘manifest’ content (sensory experience) to uncover the ‘latent’ content (emotional experience). Hopkins thereby showed how Freud’s theory of dreams anticipated scientific advance.
Even though Hopkins does not himself have a formal background in neuroscience, it was refreshing to see two seemingly disparate schools of thought unified in this way. We were reminded that, for all his faults and fallacies, Freud was a man of great insight whose ideas cannot simply be buried by empiricism. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that - in spite of the credibility with which it was delivered - the content of the lecture remains highly contentious, and steadfast conclusions about the nature of dreams should therefore be withheld.