The Interpretation of Dreams

by Sigmund Freud

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The Unconscious Freud makes an important distinction between the conscious and the unconscious mind. The concept of the ‘‘unconscious’’ was not itself Freud’s invention and had already been in use at the time of his writing. However, Freud developed his theory of the unconscious far beyond any previous understanding of it. He makes a distinction between ‘‘manifest,’’ or conscious, dream content—the surface- level content of the dream, which can be described by the dreamer upon waking—and the ‘‘latent,’’ or unconscious, ‘‘dream thoughts,’’ which are only revealed upon analysis. He demonstrates that, through dream analysis, it is possible to access the workings of the unconscious mind, which is less accessible in the waking thought process.

Childhood Experiences One of Freud’s original insights was his assertion of the importance of early childhood experiences on the unconscious mind, as expressed in dream thoughts. He observed that, while dreams draw manifest material from the ‘‘remnants’’ of the previous day, this material could always be linked back to associations drawn from early childhood. More specifically, Freud asserted that the wishes expressed through dreams are always rooted in infantile desires that have been repressed and yet remain an active part of the unconscious psychical life of the adult. Thus, childhood experiences play a significant role in the unconscious mind of the adult dreamer. For example, in analyzing his own dreams, Freud recalled significant events from his childhood, including interactions with his mother and father, as well as a formative friendship with his nephew (who was a year older than he) during his youth.

Psychoanalysis: The ‘‘Talking Cure’’The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) followed Freud’s book Studies in Hysteria (1895), which was co-written with Josef Breuer. In Studies in Hysteria, Freud and Breuer put forth their findings that patients suffering from hysteria experienced some relief from their symptoms through a method one patient (given the pseudonym ‘‘Anna O.’’ ) termed the ‘‘talking cure.’’ In a hypnotic-like state, the patients in these case studies described significant childhood experiences that had first brought on their symptoms. Freud and Breuer observed that, through the process of the patient describing these memories, some of the symptoms of hysteria were dispelled. They concluded that hysterics ‘‘suffer mainly from reminiscences.’’ This was the beginning of what developed into Freud’s method of psychoanalysis, in which his patients were encouraged to describe dreams and childhood experiences that could be clues to their unconscious desires and fears. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud extended this method, based on his finding that many patients in the process of ‘‘free association’’ spoke of their dreams.

Censorship and Free Association Freud makes much of the process of ‘‘censorship,’’ which functions to conceal unconscious desires from the conscious mind of the individual. Thus, desires and wishes that are deemed unacceptable or inappropriate are ‘‘censored’’ from the conscious thoughts. Further, although unconscious desires are expressed through dream thoughts, the work of censorship functions to distort the content of dreams so that, even in sleep, the wishes and desires of the individual are disguised. Freud later referred to the psychic agent of ‘‘censorship’’ as the ‘‘superego.’’

Freud’s method of dream analysis essentially functions to undo the process of censorship to bring to light the buried desires of the individual. The process of treating patients, including the dream analysis, thus requires that the patient be put in a state of mind that relaxes the process of censorship—catches the censor off guard, so to speak. In earlier work, Freud and Breuer used hypnosis to this effect. However, Freud found that, if the patient lies down on a couch and is put in...

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as unguarded a state as possible, a similar result could be reached without hypnosis. Freud called this state one of ‘‘unguarded self-reflection’’ and the process one of ‘‘free association,’’ whereby the patient was encouraged to freely express whatever mental associations came to mind in the course of analysis.

The Language of Dreams Freud’s aim in The Interpretation of Dreams is to demonstrate that dreams are by no means nonsensical or meaningless but in fact operate in a rational fashion, according to the ‘‘language’’ of dreams. To make sense of dreams, however, the analysis must involve a process of translating the dream into a comprehensible language of ‘‘dream thoughts.’’ Freud compares the language of dreams to that of hieroglyphics, which communicate in a series of images that can be translated into spoken language. He further compares the process of dream analysis to that of deciphering a particular word-image puzzle called a ‘‘rebus,’’ which is the presentation of a series of apparently unrelated visual symbols, each of which must be interpreted individually to represent a word or sound and then recombined to form a coherent sentence. Freud asserts that the dream analysis similarly requires a process of isolating individual elements of the dream to tease out the multiple associations that each evokes in the dreamer. He explains that dreams only appear to be absurd, trivial, and nonsensical when they are assumed to operate according to the same logic used in waking life. He asserts that the logic upon which dreams operate is not, contrary to surface-level appearance, ‘‘more negligent, more unreasonable, more forgetful, more incomplete, say, than waking thought’’; rather, the logic of the language of dreams ‘‘is qualitatively something completely different from’’ waking thought processes ‘‘and so at first not comparable to it.’’ However, when translated through dream analysis, the thought process of dreams reveals glimpses of the rich unconscious life of every dreamer.