«The Psychology of Dreams»

The Psychology of Dreams

The Psychology of Dreams

Any study of modern dream analysis should begin with the theories of its founding fathers: the Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud (l856-1939) and his Swiss associate, Carl Gustav Jung (l875-1961). These theories are widely held to be the basis of all contemporary dream analysis.

Conscious v. Unconscious

The conscious mind-which operates while we are awake-is defined as comprising the thoughts and images that go through a person's mind during wakefulness, and of which he or she is fully aware. The unconscious mind refers to repressed thoughts, feelings, and memories of which the person is not fully aware. Psychologists believe that the unconscious influences emotions and behavior, but it cannot be accessed at will. Hypnosis, free association, and meditation may help to reach the unconscious, but the main means of access is through dreams.

Freud's interpretation

Sigmund Freud pioneered the use of dreams as a way of connecting with a person's unconscious mind. His classic text The Interpretation ofDreams (1899) essentially summarized the study of dreams over the centuries, and was extremely influential for two reasons: it established the concept that dreams and dreaming merited serious scientific study, and it addressed which questions to ask in relation to dream analysis.

Freud examined what the purpose of dreaming might be. He also considered how dreams might serve as vehicles for learning more about the workings of the human mind. He believed that the successful interpretation of dreams could have significant implications for the treatment of psychological problems, and that dreams could be used to monitor a patient's progress.

Deep desires

Freud argued that the mind operates on both a primary and a secondary level. During the act of dreaming, a "primary process" occurs, in which the dreamer's unconscious desires or fears are turned into symbols, which then appear in the dream. The "secondary process" refers to the repression of these impulses and symbols by the conscious waking mind.

For Freud, dreams were generally intertwined with the dreamer's deepest desires. Further, much of the basis of dreams, he asserted, derived from emotions or experiences that took place in childhood. Freud also claimed that dreams were often the mind's way of expressing sexual or erotic desires, and that many dream images were symbols of sexuality. Thus, in his interpretations, long objects were often related to the penis, and certain fruits were associated with breasts.

The id and the ego

Freud identified the id as the part of the mind that contains our primitive instincts, and the ego as the part of the mind concerned with morality, logic, and rationality. When we dream, he contended, the id enacts our unconscious desires.

The function of dream symbols, according to Freud, was to allow humans to continue sleeping while permitting the id to express animalistic desires. Thus the desires are enacted, but do not enter the conscious mind unless the dream symbols are interpreted.

Freud based many of his dream interpretations on the concept of the id and the repressed desires of the unconscious mind. By the 1920s, many scientists and psychologists disagreed with his theory. In their view, dreams did not unlock our hidden desires; rather, they were extensions and reflections of the dreamer's waking life. Freud eventually revised his ideas, making a distinction between dreams inspired by the id and dreams that were rooted in the experiences of a person's waking life.

Free association

Freud developed the idea of free association, an exercise thought to enable the dreamer to access his or her unconscious mind during waking life. Broadly speaking, the technique involves three stages. In the first stage, the dreamer focuses on a recent dream. In the second stage, the dreamer allows his or her mind to drift, and sees what words or images come to mind in association with the dream. In the third stage, the dreamer and the analyst try to establish if the "associated" words or images have any meaning for the dreamer, and whether they prompt the recall of a forgotten memory or the surge of a particular emotion.

Jung's interpretation

Carl Jung collaborated with Freud for a time, but they eventually parted ways due to academic differences. Jung agreed with Freud that dreams generally represent the dreamer's unconscious mind, but questioned whether dreams were solely the product of the dreamer's personal experiences.

Jung began to look for identical themes in the dreams of different individuals. He discovered notable similarities between the dream imagery, associations, and delusions of a broad range of his psychotic patients. Jung also had a keen interest in mythology, world religions, and the occult, and he noticed associations between key elements of those studies and recurrent themes in people's dreams. He believed that these common themes derived from a shared body of historical and cultural myths and stories throughout the world. Jung concluded that there must exist some form of "collective unconscious," an inborn store of information, linked with a human tendency to organize and interpret experiences in similar ways regardless of culture and background. In this way, Jung introduced the concept of a universal "archetype"-an innate idea or pattern that could emerge within dreams in the form of a basic symbol or image. Dreams, he argued, contained a range of such archetypes. Jung referred to dreams involving archetypes as "grand dreams."


Jung described archetypes as primeval images and ideas that contain meaning for all people at all times. He claimed that archetypes were not only expressed in dreams, but in forms of folklore such as fairy tales and legends as well.

The archetypes are personalized according to each individual's experience, but readily recognizable examples include the wicked witch, the wise old man, the beautiful woman, the cheat, the hero, and the magician. According to Jung, dream symbols can only be properly understood when related to their archetypal meanings, In Jungian interpretation, therefore, it is essential to have knowledge of the range of archetypes, and to consider what each archetype might represent to the dreamer.

Jung v. Freud

Jung was convinced that Freud's method of free association led the dreamer away from the dream, and could cause the dreamer to lose touch with the important symbols contained therein. He therefore developed a technique which he termed "direct association," which required dreamers to reflect on and make associations with specific aspects of the dream rather than dwelling on the dream as a whole.

Jung's Dreamwork

In his quest to unravel the meanings of dreams, Jung analyzed every dream occurrence in three distinct contents: the personal, the cultural, and the archetypal.

Jung believed that dreams exercised an almost religious function, because they helped to guide people on journeys of self-discovery. He contended that dreams could contribute to a process that points individuals in the direction of spiritual enlightenment. For Jung, therefore, the dream was not just a reflection of repressed desires or a form of wish fulfillment, but also a conduit through which people could make a connection with their "higher" or wiser selves. The dream could also reveal the roots of a person's present problems, and might contain clues about how to solve them.

Spiritual growth

Jung chose the basement of a beautiful house as his image of the place that most humans inhabit. The house, with its fascinating and diverse rooms, represents the enormous potential for creative and spiritual growth possessed by all human beings. Many of us, however, confine ourselves to the basement, and do not realize our potential by exploring the rest of the house. For Jung, dreams were a means of gaining access to the other rooms of the house, and dream interpretation was the means of exploration.

Coded messages

Like Freud, Jung thought dreams were highly symbolic, and stressed that they should not be taken at face value. Dreams impart coded messages, he contended, but these are only released in segments that our conscious minds can understand and assimilate. Jung believed that the more people understood about dreams and their various layers of meaning, the more they would understand various aspects of their personal and emotional lives.

Perls and the personal

The founder of Gestalt therapy, Fritz Perls (1893-1970) believed that all dream symbols were projections of the dreamer's own world, and of the way in which the dreamer wished to lead his or her life. Moreover, the symbols expressed elements of the dreamer's psychology unacknowledged by the dreamer in waking life. He thus rejected Jung's idea of dream symbols as part of some universal language, seeing them as the highly personalized creations of each dreamer. He also rejected Freud's notion that held that dreams represent instinctive or repressed desires, instead believing them to reflect the dreamer's waking experiences.

For Perls, the dream reflected unresolved personal and emotional issues not yet dealt with in waking life. The therapeutic value of dreams consisted in establishing the exact personal meanings behind the dream images; this would help the dreamer solve his or her emotional difficulties. To help interpret dream imagery, Perls developed a series of role-play exercises, in which the dreamer took the part of each character or object which featured in the dream.

Perls's approach to dream analysis differed markedly from those of Freud and Jung, in that his dreamers were asked to conduct their own interpretation instead of relying on that of the dream analyst. He thought it necessary that a dreamer interpret his or her own dreams, using his or her own life experience. The therapist, or members of a therapeutic group, could contribute suggestions, but the dreamer must discover the dream's significance him- or herself, without the imposition of any outside meaning.

Meaningless dreams

Medard Boss was one of the principal founders of existential psychology, a theory which holds that each person chooses his or her life's direction, and expresses that choice through all aspects of his or her behavior. In 1958, Boss wrote The Analysis of Dreams, in which he maintained that the events in a dream should not be broken down into symbols; rather, they should be taken at face value. Dreams are simply a representation of life, he asserted, and because life is meaningless, dreams also have no meaning.

Some psychologists agree with Boss's non-symbolic approach to dream study, but see dreams as having a function. In this view, dreams are a means of disposing of memories that would otherwise clutter our minds with too many emotions and experiences.


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