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In the field of dreams, sleep researcher Dr. J. Allan Hobson, 88, took on team Freud

Dr. J. Allan Hobson, in his Vermont barn-turned-museum in East Burke in 2006.
Dr. J. Allan Hobson, in his Vermont barn-turned-museum in East Burke in 2006.PAUL O. BOISVERT/NYT

In taking a scientist’s approach to studying what happens to minds during dreaming, Dr. J. Allan Hobson saw something far different than the often repressed desires that Sigmund Freud interpreted more than a century ago.

Among Dr. Hobson’s choice metaphors was an automobile. Think of dreaming, he said, as gunning an engine on a chilly morning: Set off by biochemical reactions, dreams keep people ready for action.

“You know how to do a lot of things that you don’t do often. Well, in a dream, these command programs are being run so they’re ready to go when you are,” he told the Globe.

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“Somehow all the basic circuitry we take for granted has to be prepared to function,” he explained, and during rapid eye movement sleep, “the motor is running, but the clutch is disengaged.”

Dr. Hobson, whose landmark sleep research challenged Freud’s decades-long dominance in the field of dreams, died of kidney failure resulting from diabetes on July 7 in his East Burke, Vt., home. He was 88.

Within the field of neurophysiology, “he is a giant,” Richard Russo, then-president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, told the Globe in 2005.

“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,” Russo added.

In 1977, Dr. Hobson and Dr. Robert McCarley published a paper that said “dreaming sleep is physiologically determined and shaped by a brain stem neuronal mechanism that can be modeled physiologically and mathematically.”

Dreams result from the brain trying to understand the firing of neurons, they said, and are not weighed down with deep psychoanalytic meanings. In their biological model, dreaming was “a built-in process as fundamental as breathing,” Dr. Hobson told the Globe in 1977.

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A Harvard Medical School professor emeritus in psychiatry, Dr. Hobson told the Globe in 2011 that he didn’t “feel bad about taking on Sigmund Freud. I think Sigmund Freud has become politically correct. Psychoanalysis has become the bible, and I think that’s crazy.”

He also forcefully set aside the theories of Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist who analyzed dreams and saw them as important messages sent from the psyche.

“If you’re a pure scientist, Jung is just deadly,” Dr. Hobson said in the 2005 interview. “The collective unconscious, the anima … these are literary constructs. You can’t do any science on that kind of stuff.”

The oldest of three siblings, John Allan Hobson was born in Hartford on June 3, 1933.

His father, John Robert Hobson, was a patent lawyer for Hartford-Empire Co., a holding company. His mother, Ann Cotter Hobson, stayed home raising the children and later worked as a secretary for a department store.

A budding scientist as a boy, Dr. Hobson was only 4 when he measured a neighbor’s chimney and concluded that Santa Claus couldn’t possibly slide down with presents, he recalled in a 2011 Globe interview.

And at 8, Dr. Hobson said, he put to rest a local tale that headless snakes don’t die until sundown. Heading into the woods, he found and dispensed with a few snakes, which failed to cling to life until the sun set.

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Though his father believed public schools provided a sufficient education, Dr. Hobson took an entrance exam and secured a place at the private Loomis Institute in Connecticut.

After graduating in 1951, he spent a year abroad, including studying at Sutton Valence School in England. Upon returning, he persuaded Wesleyan University to count those studies as part of his college credits, and he graduated in three years with a bachelor’s degree.

While at Wesleyan, he read all of Freud’s writings and wrote a thesis on Freud and Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. He then went to Harvard Medical School, from which he graduated in 1959.

During an internship at Bellevue Hospital in New York City and a residency at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center, Dr. Hobson concluded that psychiatry was “proudly, defiantly, and completely divorced from medicine,” he recalled in a Harvard Magazine interview.

Calling the brain “the most elegant creation in all of nature,” he focused his studies on the science part of psychiatry. After a stint with the US Public Health Service, he returned to the Massachusetts Mental Health Center, and to Harvard.

Over the years, Dr. Hobson wrote or coauthored many books, including titles such as “Dreaming: An Introduction to the Science of Sleep” (2004) and “The Chemistry of Conscious States” (1994).

At the end of the 1970s, he put together a traveling exhibit called Dreamstage. The centerpiece featured a subject sleeping in a transparent room. Electric signals from the sleeper’s brain during dreaming triggered a lightshow of music and flashing colors, and the show drew substantial crowds in Cambridge and elsewhere across the country.

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For participants it was a dream job, so to speak, but with a catch. “I recruit people who have relatively little difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep,” Dr. Hobson told the Globe in 1979.

He and Joan Harlowe, who also lives in East Burke, Vt., married in 1956 and divorced in 1992. They had three children, Julia Hobson Haggerty of Bozeman, Mont., Ian of Brookline, and Christopher of Wilton, Conn.

Dr. Hobson subsequently married Dr. Rosalia Silvestri, a neurologist in Messina, Sicily, who has conducted sleep studies. They had two sons, Andrew of Raleigh, N.C., and Matthew of Messina.

In addition to his wife, five children, and former wife, Dr. Hobson leaves a brother, Bruce of Manchester Center, Vt.; five stepchildren, Enzo Tanzanillo, Elena Tanzanillo, Giugi Tanzanillo, Luca Di Perri, and Caterina Di Perri, all of Messina; and four grandchildren.

The family held a private service at Dr. Hobson’s farm in East Burke. A public memorial gathering in Boston will be announced.

Dr. Hobson told the Globe that he purchased what was then called North Star Farm in 1965, after seeing an advertisement offering 10 handmade buildings and 15 acres in East Burke for $10,000.

“I thought I was going skiing, but really I became the steward of this artisan creation,” he told the Globe in 2006. “I could visualize the process of building it, and the human effort, the care that had gone into it, impressed me. I learned how to take care of it, building by building, and I became reverent about it.”

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Putting to use his interest in architecture, he designed a museum space inside the 1860 barn, which has a view of nearby Burke Mountain. Inside, he re-created with mannequins, rather than living subjects, his 1970s traveling show — calling it the Dreamstage Sleep and Brain Science Museum.

Since age 40 he kept a journal that had totaled 130 volumes by 2005, weaving together ideas, drawings, photos, and, of course, dreams.

Asked by the Globe if he had a favorite, Dr. Hobson recalled “one in which I’m running across the Swiss Alps. I’m virtually weightless. I’m almost flying. There’s water under my feet, and yet I don’t get wet. I feel great. I see all the mountains. I see all the water. I see the rocks under my feet. It’s psychedelic.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.