This article is a brief overview of Sigmund Freud’s dream theory. The majority of this information is pulled from Sigmund Freud’s book, The Interpretation of Dreams.
What are Dreams made of?
Sigmund Freud believed that “all material making up the content of a dream is in some way derived from experience” (The Interpretation of Dreams, Pg. 44). In saying this, Freud is suggesting that all dreams are composed of elements rooted in physiological processes.
Freud said that elements that compose a dream are:
- External sensory Stimuli: When the body experiences real external stimuli during sleep. A few examples of this can include, an alarm clock, a strong odor, a sudden temperature change, or getting stung by a gnat. Often times, these sensory stimuli will make their way into dreams, and become a part of the dream’s narrative.
- Internal (Subjective) sensory excitations: Imaginative visual phenomena, or in Freud’s term “hypnagogic hallucinations.” “These are images, often very vivid and rapidly changing, which are apt to appear—quite habitually in some people—during the period of falling asleep.” (The Interpretation of Dreams, Pg. 63).
- Internal Organic Somatic Stimuli: Sensations produced by the internal organs during sleep. Freud suggested that this form of stimuli can be used to identify and diagnose diseases. For example, “dreams of those suffering from diseases of the heart are usually short and come to a terrifying end at the moment of waking; their content almost always includes a situation involving a horrible death.” (Interpretation of Dreams, Pg. 66).
- Physical Sources of Stimulation: Thoughts, interests and actions engaged in the day before sleep. Freud said that “the the most ancient and the most recent students of dreams were united in believing that men dream of what they do during the daytime and of what interests them while they are awake.” (The Interpretation of Dreams, Pg. 70).
Freud believed that dreams can be highly symbolic, thus making it difficult to uncover the waking elements that compose them. This is why dreams can appear random and independent from our conscious experience, and according to Freud, lead us to believe that dreams have a supernatural cause.
According to Freud, there are always physiological and experiential elements at play behind the curtains of a dream, and these elements can be identified with proper methods. This is the fundamental principle in Freud’s approach to dream analysis.
What is the purpose of a dream?
The purpose of a dream under Freud’s ideology is to bring repressed wishes and deep desires to the surface so that the dreamer can confront and reconcile their repressed feelings. Freud wrote that dreams are “disguised fulfillments of repressed wishes.” (The Interpretation of Dreams, Pg. 255).
In Freud’s view, the primary purpose of a dream is to “release the pressure” of the dreamer’s repressed fears and desires. Freud also specifies that wish fulfillment dreams are not always positive, and that they could be “the fulfillment of a wish; a fulfilled fear; a reflection; or merely the reproduction a memory. (The Interpretation of Dreams, Pg. 148).
Freud’s Method of Dream Interpretation
– Sigmund Freud
“I shall bring forward proof that there is a psychological technique which makes it possible to interpret dreams, and that, if that procedure is employed, every dream reveals itself as a psychical structure which has a meaning and which can be inserted at an assignable point in the mental activities of waking life.”
According to Freud, all dreams can be traced to a waking element, thus it is possible to decipher and interpret dreams with scientific precision. From this stance, Freud developed a surprisingly simple method for interpreting dreams:
1. Psychological Preparation of the client: “We must aim at bringing about two changes in him: an increase in the attention he pays to his own psychical perceptions and the elimination of the criticism by which he normally sifts the thoughts that occur to him. In order that he may be able to concentrate his attention on his self-observation it is an advantage for him to lie in a restful attitude and shut his eyes.” (The Interpretation of Dreams, Pg. 126).
“We are not in general in a position to interpret another person’s dream unless he is prepared to communicate to us the unconscious thoughts that lie behind its content.” (The Interpretation of Dreams, Pg. 259).
2. Ask Specific Questions: After the client is comfortable, fully relaxed, and able to describe the dream without conscious effort, you can begin asking about certain components of the dream. It is important to ask questions regarding specific instances in the dream, rather than about the whole dream.
“If I say to a patient who is still a novice: ‘What occurs to you in connection with this dream?’ as a rule his mental horizon becomes a blank. If, however, I put the dream before him cut up into pieces, he will give me a series of associations to each piece, which might be described as the ‘background thoughts’ of that particular part of the dream.” (The Interpretation of Dreams, Pg. 126).
3. Have the Client Derive their own Meaning of Components of their Dream: With the understanding that all dream content is derived from waking phenomenon, it is possible to then identify certain dream symbols and feelings and connect them to the patient’s waking events.
In order to uncover the waking elements behind a dream, it is necessary to encourage the client to explore their thoughts freely and without shame. For example, if a client describes a weapon used in a nightmare, ask questions to uncover the root of that weapon. After doing so, it is possible to move on to the next dream experience (or item) and begin piecing together the common threads within the dream. This process will eventually lead to a broader understanding of the dream as a whole.
Examples of Typical Dreams
In his book “The Interpretation of Dreams,” Freud is very careful about giving meaning to common dreams, as he says that, “we have seen that, as a general rule, each person is at liberty to construct his dream-world according to his individual peculiarities and so to make it unintelligible to other people.”
Embarrassing Dreams of being Naked
Prior to explaining the meaning of this dream, Freud points out the odd element in the dream where the onlookers of the naked dreamer, are rarely surprised by the dreamer’s nakedness. The onlookers are typically rather “stiff faced,” and not concerned with the dreamer’s nakedness.
Freud considers when this sort of situation could have taken place in the dreamer’s waking life. He is then led to the conclusion that the most common time we are able to be inadequately dressed around strangers, and not have them surprised by our behavior, is when we are young. Thus, the underlying meaning behind this dream is a wish fulfillment, as nudity has an almost “intoxicating effect on many children, even in their later years.” (The Interpretation of Dreams, Pg. 262).
Surprisingly, the meaning of this dream is a desire to return to the “paradise” of childhood, and to get past the adult pains of being inhibited.
Dreams of the Death of Persons of Whom the Dreamer is Fond
These typically involve the death of a parent, sibling, or child. Freud approaches this dream, as he does all dreams, with the understanding that this dream is the expression of a wish that the dreamer desires to have fulfilled.
If the dream leaves no room for the dreamer to be painfully affected by the death, Freud proposes that the dream does not mean that the dreamer wishes for someone to die. Rather, he suggests that the dreamer wishes to see this person of whose death occurs.
If the dreamer is painfully affected by the death, this means that the dreamer subconsciously wishes that this person may die. Freud is then careful, as he knows this interpretation may instigate a rebuttal. He then goes on to explain that this wish for the person’s death, may not be a “present” wish, and may have taken place long ago.
Freud gives the example of a depressed pregnant woman who had wished for her baby to die during a low point in her pregnancy. Many years later, this mother had dreamt of the death of her adult child. The causation of this dream, was the wish the mother had long ago for her baby to die.
Sigmund Freud’s physiologically based theory of dreaming was a major cause of the falling out between him and Carl Jung. Carl Jung, who took a more metaphysical approach to dreaming, could not continue to believe in Freud’s idea of dreams. Eventually, Jung ventured out to build his own dream theory which included more metaphysical components.
Do you agree with Freud? Leave a comment below.
- Zhang W, Guo B. Freud’s dream interpretation: a different perspective based on the self-organization theory of dreaming. Front Psychol. 2018;9:1553. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01553
- Freud, S., & Strachey, J. (2010). The Interpretation of Dreams: The Complete and Definitive Text (1st ed.). New York , New York : Basic Books.