Dream interpretation

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It was in his book The Interpretation of Dreams[5] (Die Traumdeutung; literally "dream-interpretation"), first published in 1899 (but dated 1900), that Sigmund Freud first argued that the motivation of all dream content is wish-fulfillment, and that the instigation of a dream is often to be found in the events of the day preceding the dream, which he called the "day residue." In the case of very young children, Freud claimed, this can be easily seen, as small children dream quite straightforwardly of the fulfillment of wishes that were aroused in them the previous day (the "dream day"). In adults, however, the situation is more complicated—since in Freud's submission, the dreams of adults have been subjected to distortion, with the dream's so-called "manifest content" being a heavily disguised derivative of the "latent" dream-thoughts present in the unconscious. As a result of this distortion and disguise, the dream's real significance is concealed: dreamers are no more capable of recognizing the actual meaning of their dreams than hysterics are able to understand the connection and significance of their neurotic symptoms.

In Freud's original formulation the latent dream-thought was described as having been subject to an intra-psychic force referred to as "the censor"; in the more refined terminology of his later years, however, discussion was in terms of the super-ego and "the work of the ego's forces of defense." In waking life, he asserted, these so-called "resistances" altogether prevented the repressed wishes of the unconscious from entering consciousness; and though these wishes were to some extent able to emerge during the lowered state of sleep, the resistances were still strong enough to produce "a veil of disguise" sufficient to hide their true nature. Freud's view was that dreams are compromises which ensure that sleep is not interrupted: as "a disguised fulfilment of repressed wishes," they succeed in representing wishes as fulfilled which might otherwise disturb and waken the dreamer.

Freud's "classic" early dream analysis is that of "Irma's injection": in that dream, a former patient of Freud's complains of pains. The dream portrays Freud's colleague giving Irma an unsterile injection. Freud provides us with pages of associations to the elements in his dream, using it to demonstrate his technique of decoding the latent dream thought from the manifest content of the dream.

Freud described the actual technique of psychoanalytic dream-analysis in the following terms:

Freud listed the distorting operations that he claimed were applied to repressed wishes in forming the dream as recollected: it is because of these distortions (the so-called "dream-work") that the manifest content of the dream differs so greatly from the latent dream thought reached through analysis—and it is by reversing these distortions that the latent content is approached.

The operations included:

  • Condensation – one dream object stands for several associations and ideas; thus "dreams are brief, meagre and laconic in comparison with the range and wealth of the dream-thoughts."
  • Displacement – a dream object's emotional significance is separated from its real object or content and attached to an entirely different one that does not raise the censor's suspicions.
  • Representation – a thought is translated to visual images.
  • Symbolism – a symbol replaces an action, person, or idea.

To these might be added "secondary elaboration"—the outcome of the dreamer's natural tendency to make some sort of "sense" or "story" out of the various elements of the manifest content as recollected. (Freud, in fact, was wont to stress that it was not merely futile but actually misleading to attempt to "explain" one part of the manifest content with reference to another part as if the manifest dream somehow constituted some unified or coherent conception).

Freud considered that the experience of anxiety dreams and nightmares was the result of failures in the dream-work: rather than contradicting the "wish-fulfillment" theory, such phenomena demonstrated how the ego reacted to the awareness of repressed wishes that were too powerful and insufficiently disguised. Traumatic dreams (where the dream merely repeats the traumatic experience) were eventually admitted as exceptions to the theory.

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