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Dream Psychology: Psychoanalysis for Beginners (1921) by Sigmund Freud describes the curious and complex mental processes that unfold in dreams. Each night, the slumbering mind crafts dramatic and elaborate productions, or dreams, that sleepers watch like a movie. Dreams can be analyzed for deep meanings and themes that provide startling insights into the dreamer’s life.
The stuff of dreams tends to be a hodgepodge of imagery, events, and characters. On a surface level, most dreams don’t make sense, which makes it tempting to dismiss them as unimportant. However, trained experts can use systematic inquiry to work with a patient to identify where the brain gets the raw materials for dreams, how those dreams are constructed, and what psychic purpose they are trying to fulfill. Together, these areas of inquiry form the field of psychoanalysis.
There is deep meaning in the way that waking and sleeping people form free associations, or connections between apparently disparate things. On close examination, these seemingly random connections can lead to startling revelations. Often, these revelations are centered on some unspoken wish that dreamers hold deep in their hearts.
As a rule, people go through life oblivious to some of their most deep-seated desires, especially those having to do with sex. Many of their actions in the waking world are controlled by these desires, even if they don’t realize it. Psychoanalysis brings these desires to the surface and makes them explicit, resulting in a process of discovery that can drain the controlling desire of its power to motivate behavior from behind the scenes in the unconscious mind.
The activity of dreaming is important to healthy brains because it synthesizes lived experience with an individual’s interior emotional life. For people with mental health problems, such as those who suffer from psychosomatic disorders like hysteria, dream analysis provides a useful mode of inquiry to diagnose and troubleshoot the problem. Dream analysis can help people resolve deep emotional disturbances and old psychic wounds, as well as acute physical symptoms like hysterical vomiting.
While the details and precise significance of dreams are highly personal, it’s possible to make several generalizations about the mechanics of dreams. Broadly, the purpose of dreams is to fulfill a wish that can’t be satisfied in the waking world. The shame that society inflicts often causes people to repress their desires in order to avoid psychic discomfort. But the discomfort isn’t banished forever; it’s only buried. Repression isn’t a healthy defense mechanism, but it’s a common one. People who recognize and manage their fears and desires instead of pushing them aside will better understand the past, a benefit that will help them navigate the future.
Dreams are a meaningful tool that people use to process unconscious thoughts and feelings. But this process may be difficult to recognize because the waking mind and the sleeping mind work differently.
For much of history, dreams were deeply misunderstood. Some people mistook dreams to be religious messages from gods and spirits. Others dismissed them as insignificant nonsense or the product of biological processes. Dream theory holds that dreams are in fact a thought process that works according to a certain logic; it’s just that dream logic uses a different set of rules and conventions than the conscious thoughts of the waking mind.
Dreams tend to be a curious combination of content that’s borrowed from or inspired by daily life, mixed with deeply buried desires of which the dreamer is likely unaware. With regard to the dreamer’s waking life, dream content usually relates to events that occurred a day or two before the dream. Familiar faces and commonplace events may appear in strange contexts, which contribute to dreams’ surreal quality. But the nonsensical quality of dreams is actually the result of an associative chain that’s sparked by the day’s events. By following this chain, it becomes possible to gain deep insights about oneself or even resolve pathological symptoms.
The content of dreams must be analyzed in order to be properly understood.
Occasionally for adults, and often for children, the meaning of a dream is entirely straightforward. Such dreams plainly demonstrate the principle that dreams are meaningful. But even when a dream isn’t literal, it can still be a vessel for meaning.
Dream theory holds that most adults’ dreams aren’t easily intelligible. To truly understand a dream’s significance, it’s often necessary to move past a superficial reading. Dreams are not direct in the manner of news items; their style is typically more ambiguous, surreal, and poetic. Generally, when details of a dream are puzzling or the plot seems incoherent, it’s likely that those details are encrypted with secret meaning.
Dream theory distinguishes between a dream’s manifest content, which is its surface meaning, and latent content, which is its coded meaning. Manifest content can be summarized like a plot, whereas latent content requires deep digging and analytical interpretation. When a person remembers or relays what happens in a dream, that description is the manifest content. On that surface level, the manifest content may seem insignificant, inscrutable, or strange. The latent content is an explanation of the strangeness.
Psychoanalysis can be understood as the process of uncovering the latent content of dreams to better understand an individual’s mental and emotional life. One difficulty in psychoanalysis is that while manifest content can be summarized, creating that summary isn’t necessarily easy. Even on a surface level, the content of a dream may be ambiguous or confusing, which makes it difficult to report.
Dreams are highly condensed and coded.
One reason that dreams are hard to understand is that their meanings are highly compressed. The elements of a given dream operate on more than one level of meaning, and the associations are rarely literal. Multiple meanings can be packed into a single person, place, object, or event, which is why psychoanalysis is an interpretive act that’s not unlike reading a poem.
Condensation is a cognitive tool that dreamers use to edit their thoughts and feelings about their lives. Using condensation, the dreamer creates composite scenes or characters. The process is similar to what happens when a long, complicated book gets adapted into a two-hour movie. Multiple plot points might be combined in a single scene, or two characters might be blended into a composite character to help streamline the story.
While the dreaming mind’s use of condensation may seem awkward or perplexing on the surface, serious consideration often reveals it to be a form of elegant shorthand for a complicated idea. By creating a composite dream character, for instance, in which two different people are somehow the same character, the mind performs a subtle exercise in comparison and contrast. For example, in a dream, a friend might look like a celebrity instead of appearing as himself. A late relative might appear in the guise of a teacher from childhood. In the narrative of the dream as it’s experienced by the dreamer, such incongruence is noticeable, yet somehow plain and uncomplicated. But if the dreamer were asked to explain, upon waking, how they knew that John F. Kennedy was also somehow their father, the phenomenon would prove difficult to articulate.
Condensation often contains the key to a dream’s meaning, and as such, psychoanalysts pay special attention to it as they dig for the latent content of a dream. By deconstructing a composite character, hidden meaning begins to unfurl and reveal itself.
The main purpose of dreams is to fulfill wishes.
Many wishes are left unfulfilled, for any number of reasons. Sometimes those wishes are consciously known, and other times they are a well-kept secret, even from the person who nurtures the wish beneath conscious notice. In fulfilling a given wish, a dream effectively resolves it or helps bring it to the front of the dreamer’s conscious awareness, where it can be resolved later.
One stumbling block to understanding the concept of wish fulfillment is the existence of unpleasant dreams. But even a terrible, painful dream can fulfill a wish. If someone dreams that a beloved family member dies, for instance, that doesn’t mean they secretly wish for that family member to be dead. Their wish may be centered on a subtler motivation, such as the desire to see a former lover at the funeral. The dead loved one is just an incidental detail.
In therapy, a dreamer who was skeptical about wish fulfillment challenged her therapist about a dream she had about traveling with her mother-in-law, a woman she didn’t like. In her waking life, the patient avoided traveling with her mother-in-law at all costs. She couldn’t see how the dream fulfilled a wish; indeed, it seemed to go against her wishes. The problem with this patient’s analysis was that she was focusing on the wrong wish. The dream fulfilled her wish to prove her therapist wrong about wish fulfillment; the circumstances with her mother-in-law was just incidental to the true object of the dream.
Dreams are coded because people relentlessly censor themselves, often without realizing it.
Dreams are codified according to the degree they represent unfulfilled wishes that are shameful or embarrassing. A sleeping child may, in a dream, eat an ice cream cone they were unable to eat the previous day, a fantasy that provides a form of closure. The content isn’t coded because the child feels no shame about the desire. When the content of dreams is more veiled and coded, that means the wish is connected to something psychologically painful or embarrassing. Dream theory holds that the mind represses or codifies the wish to help dreamers face a difficult emotion without damaging their fragile psyches with painful truths.
Wishes absorb our attention, and so when they’re buried, their goal is to make themselves known. But for a wish to make its way to conscious awareness, it must pass a censor that deems the wish socially acceptable. All thoughts are edited and approved by this censor, which is more vigilant when the mind is awake. When the mind is asleep, the censor becomes more lax. Dreams are often forgotten upon waking because the censor resumes its work, instructing the mind to forget the dream to avoid the possibility of psychological discomfort. Far from being insignificant, forgotten dream content may hold the most important information for psychoanalytic inquiry.
Dreams are cognitive distortions. Dream elements that seem important may be relatively insignificant, whereas minor details may warrant serious attention.
Since the mind’s censor actively represses thoughts that it deems problematic, the unconscious mind has to improvise new strategies for sneaking the material past the censor undetected. An important cognitive strategy along these lines is called displacement. Displacement is the act of transferring the emotional intensity of one situation onto an entirely different situation. It’s a creative way of acting out some type of forbidden emotion—though it’s a tool that is only used in some dreams. Displacement can be thought of as subterfuge or a disguise; it is one thing masquerading as another. For example, a dreamer who harbors the secret desire to kill his father might, in dreams, kill a stranger instead. Psychologically, it’s easier to express the negative emotion towards a stranger than towards a family member.
In a given dream, some details may seem very vivid, while others fade from memory almost instantaneously. This phenomenon is not related to the random whims of memory. The act of forgetting a detail is a deliberate trick of the mind that’s used to help create the illusion that the detail, or more accurately the emotion underpinning it, is trivial and unimportant. Similarly, a detail that stands out as important may be completely inconsequential; the mind simply latches on to the detail because it’s psychologically safe.
Since dreams are a highly visual mode of processing abstract thoughts and feelings, certain situations must be dramatized to adapt readily into dream form. Displacement commonly involves imagery, but dreamers and psychoanalysts should also pay special attention to any dialogue in the dream that uses an unusual or puzzling phrase. An image or phrase that stands out in this way is a signal that there is some form of psychological excitement around it—and the purpose of the dream is to uncover the source of the excitement and, ideally, resolve it.
Conscious awareness is just a single element of a vast, complicated, and mysterious inner life.
Dream theory recognizes that much of the content in the human mind is off limits, so to speak, located in the far reaches of the unconscious mind. The secret content of the unconscious is the surprising source of most people’s emotions, behaviors, and wishes. Generally, people hold the mistaken belief that their conscious minds exert agency, guiding all their decisions. But human consciousness isn’t always in full control. The unconscious has a great deal of agency, even though it’s largely inaccessible. It’s like a demanding CEO who strategizes behind closed doors.
Another useful analogy is that the unconscious is like the ocean in that it’s much too vast to be fully mapped. Some terrain may become more familiar over time, but no explorer, no matter how intrepid, can hope to know it all. Some areas are so deep and dark that it’s impossible to know what mysterious creatures are lurking there. The creatures, in this analogy, are powerful psychological forces like deep fears and secret desires that may never make their way to the surface of conscious awareness.
While the unconscious is the place where emotions like fear and desire commonly reside, it’s not the place where those issues get resolved. For that to happen, the issue must be processed on some higher level of consciousness. A dream pushes issues that tend to reside in the unconscious more towards conscious awareness.
Most unconscious desires relate to sex.
The type of material that’s most commonly censored from or distorted in dreams relates to erotic desire. Since repressed desires fuel most dreams, it follows that much of that censored content is of a sexual nature. Taboos, or behaviors that are considered forbidden, are generally agreed upon by polite society; sexual proclivities are inborn, whereas sexual prohibition is a powerful social force that influences the psyche. While different kinds of thoughts and behavior may be coded as taboo, including primal drives like violence, more taboos relate to sexual desire than any other category. The mind automatically suppresses many sexual impulses as a concession to polite society.
Psychoanalysts work with their patients to uncover the secret sexual content of dreams. Since sexual content is highly censored even in dreams, the material becomes heavily codified and displaced, particularly through the use of symbols. While the meaning behind these symbols is rarely obvious, the imagery isn’t necessarily particular to the individual dreamer’s mind. Dreamers who speak the same language tend to code sexual thoughts in similar ways, drawing upon a shared vocabulary of symbols, even if they don’t realize it. These connections are rarely self-evident to people who aren’t experts. For example, most people wouldn’t recognize hats, landscapes, relatives, and complicated machines as loaded sexual symbols, but a trained psychoanalyst knows that, in dreams, these items are all stand-ins for genitalia.