Interpretation of Dreams

29.04.2020 |

Episode #4 of the course The theories of Sigmund Freud by Psychology Insights Online


“The virtuous man contents himself with dreaming that which the wicked man does in actual life.” ―Sigmund Freud

In yesterday’s lesson, I introduced you to psychoanalysis and described the importance of both Free Association and dream interpretation in therapy sessions. Today, I’ll focus more exclusively on Freud’s perspective on the relevance of dreams.

If you are anything like me, you can probably recall the occasional bizarre dream that just does not seem to make any sense. You may have wondered, “Does it mean anything?” Freud would contend that dreams serve as a window into the unconscious. Indeed, for Freud, interpreting dreams played a vital role in unpacking the causes that underlie symptoms of mental illness in patients.

In 1900, Sigmund Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams, a book that many scholars contend is his magnum opus. In it, Freud asserts that dreams are not simply meaningless ramblings of the mind (a common position of scientists of that time), but rather are “the royal road to the unconscious.” He theorized that all of us harbor desires that are often inappropriate and are thus repressed into the unconscious. Dreams allow us to express these thoughts and feelings without censure. In essence, a dream can be thought of as wish fulfillment, whereby unconscious desires are permitted to be expressed without disturbing our conscious minds or waking us from sleep. How exactly would Freud and other psychoanalysts make sense of dreams? They would start by separating manifest content from latent content.

Freud postulated that the manifest content of a dream was composed of the pieces of information that could be recalled. For example, let’s say that you have a dream in which you are alone in a lake, treading water, with no one else around. These are the images that you can remember; however, Freud would say that the dream has deeper meaning. The manifest content serves to disguise its true significance and more importantly, allows us to keep sleeping without being too disturbed by the reality of the dream. Of more relevance for the psychoanalyst, the latent content of the same dream is its true hidden meaning.

Back to our dream example. The psychoanalyst may interpret treading water as representing a deep-seated fear of being rejected by a spouse or loved one and ending up alone. From here, the psychoanalyst can then work with the client to address these fears.

You can think of psychoanalytic dream interpretation as reversing a process, taking a constructed dream and deconstructing the narrative. To do this, Freud outlined four ways that latent content underlies the manifest.

The first is called Condensation. This occurs when a single latent content idea (e.g., being left alone) is represented by the merging of multiple images (e.g., swimming alone, in deep water, no other people around, etc.) into a single dream sequence.

The second process is Displacement. With displacement, significant feelings from latent content (e.g., fear of being abandoned) are shifted to a less significant image in manifest content (e.g., treading water).

Next is Secondary Revision, which describes the process of filling in gaps between pieces of manifest content to create a more logical dream sequence.

Lastly is Considerations of Representation, whereby all latent content is transformed into visual images in our dreams, with these images actually “representing” abstract thoughts.

Today’s task: In this lesson, you have learned the basics of how Freud believed dreams tapped into the unconscious. Famously, Freud also conducted self-analysis on dozens of his own dreams. For today’s task, choose one of your own recent dreams and try to analyze it. In doing so, see if you can link the imagery of the dream (manifest content) to potential greater underlying meaning (latent content). This could be associated with recent events or possibly related to things that happened many years ago. See if you can identify any links between these thoughts/emotions and how they may influence your life today.

Tomorrow, we are going to delve deeper into Freud’s views of psychology and discuss his theory of personality. See you then!


Recommended book

The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud


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