Dreaming LifeDreaming Life

Sigmund Freud, who lived from 1856 to 1939, is famous for his theories about the unconscious and the effects that the unconscious has on dreams.

Freud was not the first person to postulate the existence of the unconscious - a level of awareness that appears to exist beneath the level of consciousness.

However, Freud was probably the first person to claim that the unconscious has a profound effect on dreams as well as on behavior in waking life.

Freud believed that dreams are produced by the unconscious and that studying your dreams can help you gain a better understanding of your unconscious, which, in turn, can help you cope with problems in your waking life.

In his book, The Interpretation of Dreams, which was published in 1899, Freud stated, "The interpretation of dreams is the royal road of the unconscious activities of the mind."

Freud was the first psychologist to provide a logical, orderly description of the way the mind worked.

His ideas about how to interpret dreams and about how to use free association, which he developed from working with hypnosis, play a fundamental role in modern psychoanalysis.

Sigmund FreudFreud believed that your mind retains every experience that it has.  As a result, you end up with so many memories that it is impossible for you to remain conscious of all of them.  Instead, your memories are stored so that they can be retrieved later. You retrieve a memory when something new happens that you associate with that memory.

For example, if you heard a piece of music for the first time during a particular event in your life, for example, on the day you were married,  when you hear that same piece of music again, you will recall that event.

In later years, dream researchers such as Francis Crick, Graeme Mitchison and Jie Zhang have studied how the brain creates associations and forms memories, and how this affects dreaming.

Freud thought that you forget things because you do not want to remember them.   The role of psychoanalysis is to help you uncover forgotten memories.  Dreams are the tool to help you do this.

To Freud, dream interpretation consisted of translating the language of the unconscious - where repressed memories are stored - into the language of the conscious mind.

According to Freud, the unconscious mind takes real thoughts and memories and distorts them in the following ways:

Displacement - taking an important idea that creates strong emotions and replacing it with a related, but emotive idea.  Freud wrote of a patient who dreamed about walking up and down stairs.  He believed that this dream was really about her thoughts of having sex with someone of a lower class.

Freud has become known for assuming that dreams usually have hidden sexual meanings; that every dream image - a shoe, a gun, a tunnel - is a sexual symbol.  In fact, Freud believed that when interpreting a dream, you should first look for obvious meanings rather than hidden ones.

Freud believed that dreams are created by the unconsciousFor example, when interpreting a dream about a gun, you should first check if the dreamer has had a waking life experience involving a gun before assuming that the gun is a phallic symbol.

However, it is important to understand that Freud was a product of his place and time.  He lived in Victorian Europe, when the middle and upper classes were very sexually repressed.  Doctors thought that masturbation was dangerous. The word "Victorian" has become a synonym for prudish.

Representability - the use of figures of speech to represent ideas. Dreams often rely on puns or metaphors.  For example, a dream about baking bread could have to do with worries about money ("dough").

In recent years, studies have shown that people with schizophrenia are often unable to understand metaphor and take idiomatic expressions literally. This is similar to what happens in dreams.  Modern dream researchers, including J. Allan Hobson have noticed a connection between the dreaming state and schizophrenia.

Condensation - using one image to represent more than one thing. For example, you could have a dream about a friend who represents himself as well as a quality in yourself or in another person.

A parent in a dream can represent your own parent as well as the abstract concept of authority.

Secondary Revision - The dreamer rearranges the details of the dream so that it makes a (somewhat) logical, coherent story.

Freud's approach to dream interpretation involved the following steps:

  • Examining the dream's manifest content, which consists of the sensations and events that took place in the dream. The dreamer simply describes what happened in the dream, without making any attempt to figure out the dream's meaning.
  • Looking for the day's residues - These are dream images that are related to things that you experienced the previous day. For example, if you watch a movie about zombies before you go to bed, you may have a dream about zombies that night.
  • Uncovering the latent content - the true meaning of the dream.  With the aforementioned zombie dream, for example, a dream that you are being chased by zombie  could mean that you are afraid to face something in your waking life, or that you are feeling threatened by something.

Freud called the process of dream analysis the dreamwork. During the dreamwork, the dream interpreter tries to ascertain how the day's residues and the latent content of the dream led to the creation of the manifest content.

Id, Ego and Superego

While Freud is known for developing the idea that the mind is divided into three parts: the id, the ego and the superego, he did not write about these three parts of the mind until after The Interpretation of Dreams had already been written.

Freud first discussed the three-part structure of the mind in an essay called Beyond the Pleasure Principle, which was published in 1920. He elaborated on it at length in his book, The Ego and the Id, which was published in 1923.

According to Freud, the id is the basic, animalistic part of the mind that seeks immediate pleasure and tries to avoid pain.

The ego is the intelligent, reasoning part of the mind. It tries to fulfill the wishes of the id in a practical way that will lead to long-term gain. For example, while your id would want to take something regardless of the consequences, your ego would consider practical ways of earning money so that you can buy the thing that your id wants.

The superego is the conscience.  Your superego controls your behavior based on your sense of right and wrong.  The superego represses the id, preventing you from doing things that would give you immediate pleasure but are immoral.

In the book Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud expands on the concept of a tripartite mind structure so that it applies to society as well as individuals.  Civilization plays the role of a collective superego that represses the id (the selfish instincts of individual members of society), so that society can function.