Sigmund Freud on Dreams


One way that Sigmund Freud explores facets of personality that are unconscious, is through dreams. Dreams can reveal to us, if interpreted, some of the eternal struggle represented in his theory on personality. Particularly it reveals some of the desires of the Id and the Ego’s struggle to resist them. The Id is the structure of the mind with basic dives and acts according to a pleasure principle and to avoid pain. The Ego functions on the reality principle and tries to satisfy the Id in a realistic fashion.


The idea of using dreams to understand the workings of the mind is one that some might consider to be insignificant. Freud states this might be due to the fact that dream interpretation “carries with it the taint of the unscientific and arouses the suspicion of personal leanings towards mysticism.” (Psychoanalysis, p.75). There is also the problem that dreams are misleading and unclear. Nevertheless, dreams are an intriguing phenomena that can reveal some aspects of what occurs in the “Intermediate condition between sleep and waking.” (Psychoanalysis, p.75). Perhaps quite unique aspects can be revealed in dreams since unlike waking life we do not have much control over the path our thoughts take.


The purpose of dreams themselves is a highly debated topic. Freud states that it seems dreams “must be remnant of the mental activity of waking life disturbing sleep,” (Psychoanalysis, p.80) since sleep has a primary restorative role and dreams appear to be a disruption of that. Indeed, if deep sleep is needed for body maintenance and recuperation, why do we need to dream at all in lighter stages? Yet even if we do not get enough delta sleep we can still dream in the lighter stages of sleep. If we are severely sleep deprived we will begin to hallucinate. It does seem that images, ideas and themes from the previous day make their way into our dreams. Does that mean dreams are necessary or only that while we fall into sleep progressing from alpha, theta to delta sleep, our brain is still operating under alpha and theta? Or is it a necessary component in how we process the information from the day? Freud mentions that real noises occurring while we are sleeping can be molded into our dreams, such as alarm clocks being changed to sirens, implying that our ability to process and interpret information is still functioning on some level. Whether they have a specific purpose or not remember that many theorists, including Freud, believe that a great deal of automatic thinking occurs unconsciously in our day to day lives and dreams may be one method to tap into that.


Freud states when one asks a person to interpret their own dreams, “Only he does not know what he knows, and therefore thinks he does not.” Psychoanalysis, p.91). We are assuming that dreams have a deeper meaning and “to say that dreams have meaning is to assert that they are intelligible, and even intellectual operations of man; to understand them is to experience their intelligibility.” (Freud & Philosophy, p.88). Some dream theorists state that dreams are merely the cause of random firings of neurons in the brain. Other theories suggest that at some level dreams aid us in working over situations and problems that are influencing our lives. They do not necessarily have any more meaning that that, although it is a valid possibility. He compares sleep to hypnosis, which may be valid since the state of awareness in hypnosis, as with meditation and sleep, is all in the alpha to theta brainwaves we experience. He makes the comparison to say that a hypnotized individual believes they do not remember an event, they indeed can when pressured. Likewise when someone states they do not understand a dream they can eventually. While in both cases we are trying to tap into a brain state that is more intuition, free flow ideas and symbolic, hypnosis can bring out memories whereas with dreams we have something more fluid and intangible to work with.


Under the assumption that dreams have meaning Freud then labels the actual dream the Manifest content and the meaningful element the Latent content. The dream interpreter has to then get the individual to look at each element in the dream and try to draw associations from that.


“The conception of the dream element is as follows: it is not in itself a primary and essential thing, a ‘thought proper’, but a substitute for something else unknown to the person concerned, just as it is the underlying intention of the error, a substitute for something the knowledge of which is indeed possessed by the dreamer and inaccessible to him.” (Psychoanalysis, p, 102).


The mind while awake often remembers through associations. Logically we can assume that we are not aware of all the associations we make and thus they would not immediately occur to us unless we thought about it. If something does disturb us it is conceivable we could forget the associations we link to it. Freud insists every element has an association that leads to the actual latent content of the dream. Not every element of a dream may be meaningful and indeed some dreams may be entirely manifest content.


It is hard to insist we only have dreams with manifest content. Someone can be betrayed by someone they love in their childhood and then have reoccurring nightmares of a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde nature, where people suddenly become frightening. So dreams can reflect a trauma of the past. The can have stress dreams related to work where they are fired, make a huge mistake or some policy changes to make life more difficult. Dreams can represent issues we have in the present. We can also have dreams about our possible future, perhaps wish-fulfillment dreams.


Through Freud’s analysis of children’s dreams he came to the conclusion that all dreams are wish fulfillment. This a dramatic leap in thought. First he assumes that children only dream literally with no symbols. Yet children learn early to draw associations between things and are bombarded with symbols. Secondly, he assumes that children only dream of wish fulfillment based on the previous day. From this basis he states we all have some wishes expressed in dreams that are unacceptable. This is called distortion, which “is due to the censorship exercised, by certain recognizable tendencies of the ego, over desires of an offensive nature.” (Psychoanalysis, p.113). In fact when someone shows resistance to making certain vasodilatations then that element always proves to be most important. The activity of the ego which causes censorship is what leads to the difficulty understanding dreams. An example Freud uses to show censorship is that of a middle-aged woman dreaming she is offering sex services to help the army, but anything in the conversation that was in fact sexual was reduced to muttering, like they were intentionally muffled.

Not everything can be revealed through associations of dream elements. Sometimes the individual has no associations to offer. The therapist then has to rely on symbols that do not have to do with any individual associations but commonalities to all dreams in general. Consequently, “Symbols have a permanently fixed meaning in dreams,” (Freud & Philosophy, p.498-9). Yet can we say this about symbols appearing in dreams? That there are in fact commonalities in symbols expressed in dreams across all age groups, genders and cultures? Perhaps it might be more beneficial to consider what the individual feels about such symbols in order to interpret the meaning of it appearing in a dream. However, Freud suggests a therapist can do this “If symbols commonly appearing in dreams are known, and also the personality of the dreamer, the conditions under which he lives, and the impression in his mind after his dream occurred, we are often in a position to interpret it straightaway.” (Psychoanalysis, p.135). Symbols then are “the work of culture. This means that symbolic relation is formed within language.” (Freud & Philosophy, p. 500). Unfortunately, this task is far more difficult than Freud seems to think, symbols cannot be static since culture and language are both malleable. So phrases, jokes, witticisms alter with time. Thankfully, “Not everything with which an object or occurrence can be compared appears in dreams as symbolic of it, and, on the other hand, dreams do not employ symbolism for anything and everything, but only for particular element of latent dream-thought.” (Psychoanalysis, p, 136). Symbolism is only used if the person cannot find personal associations to dream elements, thus the therapist must resort to more unsure general symbolization.


Interestingly enough the number of things Feud considers to be represented in dreams is not great. The consist of: the human body as a whole, parents, children, siblings, birth, dead and sex. Parents are represented as such things as kings, queens and other exalted personages. Birth is represented with some sort of water imagery and dying by a journey or traveling by train. With such symbolism we can see how it can be generalized through societies and cultures.


In contrast, symbolism related to sex are far more numerous for Freud. He states that “An overwhelming majority of symbols in dreams are sexual symbols.” (Psychoanalysis, p. 137). Some examples associated with the male genital organ are such things that represent in form ranging from sticks to poles and trees. Male genital organs are also represented by objects that have the property of penetrating and injuring, such as knives and guns. Or the whole person can be seen to represent this organ, such as the case with flying dreams. When women have flying dreams one must know that the “purpose of dreams is wish fulfillment, and that the wish to be a man is frequently met with in women.” (Psychoanalysis, p, 138). Perhaps, when it comes to this, I should quote the man himself and say ‘sometimes a cigar is just a cigar’. Female genitalia are pictured as things that share the property of enclosing a space such as caves, chests and ships. Breasts are represented as fruit in general. Sexual intercourse is represented as rhythmic activities as dancing, riding and climbing. The examples given are from even coming close to the vast amount of sexual images Freud claims are symbols in dreams. He validates this ‘fixation’ by stating he gained this information from ”widely different sources: from fairy tales and myths, jokesand witticisms, from folklore, ie. From what we know of the manners and customs, sayings and songs, of different people, and from poetic and colloquial usage of language.” (Psychoanalysis, p. 141).


Many of these general symbols seem to come out of common sayings, jokes and culture itself. This leads me to wonder if he is giving too much importance to causal speech considering sexual innuendoes and songs may have sexual connotations because more people find sex a fascinating topic yet say things carefully as to not overly offend. Of the culture of his time was so sexually repressed that they not only had a vast amount of sexual symbols in dreams but that they felt uncomfortable and did not even dream of sex directly. More than likely the frequency of sexual symbols is merely a side effect of Freud having a strong sexual based theory and thus saw and interpreted sex meanings into areas it did not exist in. Or perhaps he failed to notice other fundamental and universal symbols and focused only on the sexual. Freud believes, however, this focus on sexual symbolism occurs from some primordial images. “We get the impression that here we have to do with an ancient but obsolete mode of expression, of which different fragments have survived in different fields.” (Psychoanalysis, p, 148. This stems to the hypothesis that sex was one of the things that motivated the development of language.


Dreams arise in childhood long before certain ideas are considered taboo. Memories of that age are rather vague, “from the oblivion in which the first years of childhood are shrouded certain clearly retained recollections emerge, mostly in the form of plastic images, for the retention of which there seems no adequate ground.” (Psychoanalysis, p. 177). Dreams that entail death wishes to loved ones can stem from earlier adult memories when, say, a person wished that the loved one were not around. More often than not these dreams stem from childhood egoism. Childhood resentment of siblings or resentment of adult placing restrictions on them can lead to adult dreams of death of a sibling or parent. The Oedipus complex Freud views in childhood development also has an influence. Since these taboos are not relevant yet to the child. “Not only does (dreams) translate our thought into a primitive form of expression, but is also re-awakens the peculiarities of our primitive mental life.” (Psychoanalysis, p. 188). Thus “all dreams are really children’s dreams; that they make use of infantile material and are characterized by impulses and mechanisms which belong to the childish mind.” (Psychoanalysis, p. 190). These wishes are what is prohibited and rejected by ego censorship and this cause distortion. If the ego fails in the attempt at distortion through censorship then often it will resort to anxiety that will force the person to wake up. Thus anxiety dreams “Constitute the last line of defense that shield against stimuli.” (Pleasure Principle, p, 60). Punishment dreams will fill the role of wish fulfillment for they “merely replace the forbidden wish fulfillment by the appropriate punishment; that is to say the fulfill the wish of the sense of guilt which is the reaction to the repudiated impulse.” (Pleasure principle, p. 61). Thus Freud ties in his theory of child development into his analysis of dreams. It is hard to imagine that dreams are purely wish fulfillment and the wish fulfillment of childhood at that, although it does explain my dreams of being a super hero. One would also have to agree to his ideas behind the Oedipus complex to believe children have such dreams. In fact we would have to agree with many of his presuppositions in order to find meaning to latent content. Nevertheless, dreams are a fascinating phenomena and analyzing them for potential latent content can perhaps give us a glimpse of our subconscious mind; a mind not hindered by the focus we have when awake, the problem solving, the attention to details and customs and free to explore.



Notes Freud, Sigmund Beyond the Pleasure Principle Bantam books, NW 1959 Ricoer, Paul Freud and Philosophy New Haven and London, Yale Uiversity Press, 1970 Freud, Sigmund A General Introduction to PsychoanalysisA touchstone book, Published by Simon and Schuster, 1935


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Comments 2 comments

Michael 4 years ago

I find it hard to believe, after all these years, dreamy debate continues even though no legitimate brain science can prove perception of dream activity has known causal factors.

Although I can't site an old article, I agree Freud's dream analysis was simply a convention he had to proffer to do psychoanalysis. Simply, affluent, turn of the last century Austrian men and mostly women, were not likely to share their true thoughts and feelings, their trauma, without the guise of dreams. Certainly the stoical husbands would not have thought it proper for their wives to tell such things to anybody especially a man. Hence, he had to create a new culture of "dream analysis" to give his subjects "plausible deniability" and allow them to go to memories and experiences they would never have shared otherwise. Dream vs. Trauma--essentially the same in German but very different in English.

It's one of those conventions that the medical industry has to abide as a fundamental underpinning of practice. For instance, the convention that says: Addictive pharmaceuticals aren't addictive if taken as prescribed. Certainly we know addictive substances are plainly addictive no matter what is written on the prescription pad. Nonetheless, if medicine could not have this given, though flawed assumption, psychopharmaceuticals, could not be prescribed without crippling liability.

The other big unknown is that any type of psychoanalysis, and indeed many psychopharmaceutical adjunct therapies, have any significant edge over the placebo effect including such things as talk therapy, empathy or the ubiquitous sugar pill. Sure, we all have our preferences in treating emotional distress yet there is very little direct science that says one form of "treatment" is markedly more productive than the rest. We all know that most care is tautological--it works until it doesn't. Or, perhaps more accurately--it is perceived to work until it is no longer perceived to work.

And, if Freud had ever admitted this convention to anybody, he would have been accused of false pretenses. I wonder, though, if he discussed this so much he came to believe that dreams had identifiable content or if he just used it as a perception test for other Doctors and researchers. In other words, I don't even believe Freud believed in dreams. In his sequel book on dream analysis he differentiated between authentic and non-authentic dreams. I suspect this was a nod to his fellows who got "it"--the esoterica. So, I'm not saying we should call him Dr. Fraud--just recognize his pioneering work could not have been done on more than a handful of patients without this clever ruse.


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nmalbert 4 years ago from Canada Author

I'm not going to disagree. There is not a lot about Freud I agree with actually, which just makes his thinking process that much more fun to, well, think about. Or amusing in some cases. But that being said dreams are a fascinating brain process in-itself. In most cases it would seem dreams have no meaning fundamentally other than what we interpret in them afterwards, from the parts we remember. It seems they are mental left-overs from the day, background noise of the sleeping mind. They may have a specific role or function, or they may not. However, I would say in a dysfunctional mind what sort of dreams, or nightmares a person is having repetitively obviously point to what is bothering them. Our everyday worries make it into our dreams, because our everyday life makes its way into our dreams... although that is not necessarily the case, it is simply that brain state is very open to information. When you are worrying or thinking about something it might make its way in there, just as background noise might influence your dream. Such worries or concerns might provide some insight, but likely not. Maybe a psychologist could use talking about dreams as a therapeutic tool simply as way to ease someone into talking about the issues at hand. Personally, I just love the abundance of fascinating theories as to why we dream, the function of dreams but interpretation is very much a subjective thing. I have occasionally dreamed about real, every day things and real every day worries but the majority of the time I dream awesome fanciful things and while I assume Freud would find a way to create meaning in those dreams I certainly wouldn’t be able to. I’ve experienced lucid dreaming, which actually I find to be not as fun as letting your mind just go where it will. And I’ve experienced vivid, horrific nightmares associated with sleep paralysis. Makes me fascinated with the world my sleeping mind can create so vividly, even if I know I’m dreaming at the time, it is still amazing. Using it therapeutically though is rather hazy and unscientific because there is no essential meaning ascribing system we know of in dreams to find any known symbols universal or personal to figure out what is going on in the subconscious mind of the individual and consciously the individual can attach any meaning the want after the fact.

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