It was the connection between dreams and the "unconscious" element of the mind that was responsible for the impetus of
modern, scientific investigation into dreams begun by Sigmund Freud (1856 - 1939). His monumental work, The
Interpretation of Dreams, was published in 1899 with a 1900 publication date and in this he referred to dreams as "The
Royal Road to the Unconscious". What a glorious description. He was responsible for a major shift in dream research
and for presenting the idea that dreaming is an activity of the psyche and not simply a somatic process. His book vastly
altered the understanding of dreams and eventually resulted in the emergence of dreams as an acceptable and
respectable experience once again - although in a totally different way than had been done in the historical past.
Freud believed that dreams show us what lies behind the masks we present to the waking world. He believed that all
dreams have both a manifest (the dream story) and latent (hidden) content. He saw mental activity as a continuous
struggle between the "beast" in man and his higher, social, moderating influences. He claimed that the "beast" was
always disguised, (a wolf in sheep's clothing) and the clue to it's identity was contained in the latent content of the dream.
It was concealed because it was unacceptable to the conscious mind. Freud used free association to uncover latent
content and used the term condensation to describe the web of associations produced by this method. He believed that
several manifest elements are present to represent a single latent element; an inter-relationship that he described as
over-determination. Freud also gave us the concept of displacement, which occurs when the dreamer assigns
importance to a manifest element that is peripheral to the underlying latent content. This is done, he believed, to avoid
confrontation with issues the dreamer does not want to deal with.
Fifty years before the first sleep laboratories proved him right, Freud pictured the mind as being always active, both
awake and asleep. He saw it organised as a pyramid, with thoughts coming from three different levels in various states of
consciousness. The conscious mind (ego) he saw as operating in the here and now. It has free will, we can choose to
turn our attention this way or that, for example inwardly to mull over problems or outwardly to listen to conversations. In
our conscious thinking we form an image of reality and of ourselves. The Pre-conscious mind (super ego) houses
thoughts and memories not presently in use although with a little effort these can be brought into focus. These things are
at the edge of our awareness. The deepest layer, which Freud called the Unconscious mind (id), he saw as holding the
dark, primitive parts of ourselves, both our never-gratified childish wishes and the dangers and punishments we fear
might befall us for having those wishes. He saw it as an abyss full of repressed fear, guilt, hurt and unacceptable desires.
It houses those things that have been banished from our conscious mind. We cannot control them and so they possess
enormous power to influence our behaviour. Freud believed that, during sleep when they are released from waking
constraints, they rise into consciousness and supply the fire to forge our dreams. He saw this as a safety valve; in our
dreams we can feel the pleasure of having our forbidden wishes satisfied without the need to act them out in our
everyday reality. He believed that dream situations are so well disguised because they need to fool the conscious mind
into allowing the dream to continue - a dream that wakes us probably contained thoughts or images unacceptable to the
conscious mind, which will then immediately put a stop to the dream. The result is that the subconscious disguises the
latent content so effectively that it is unrecognisable even to the dreamer. He referred to this as dream distortion.
Thus Freud believed that dreams act out and yet conceal basic conflicts. He also proposed that all dreams contain some
reference to experiences of the preceding day, day residue, and these were always the first elements that he attempted
to identify during analysis. He believed that a significant thought with emotional content could latch itself onto an
indifferent experience encountered on the same day by means of some commonality. For instance; one may see a friend
and think how unwell they look. Later in the day one might be introduced to a complete stranger whose name is Mr
Graves. Thus, an association is formed and so the indifferent event, (meeting Mr Graves), is portrayed in a dream during
the first night's sleep following the event. The dream may well have nothing at all to do with Mr Graves but may be a
reflection on the friend who is unwell. Freud, however, is probably most famous for proposing the theory that many
dreams are concerned with wish fulfilment. In later years he asserted that all dreams were disguised wish fulfilment and
many of his peers felt this was an unfounded over generalisation. In later years Freud struggled to defend his hypothesis
in the face of mounting opposition. When confronted with dream examples that were difficult to interpret in this way, he
would say that the dream portrayed the dreamer's latent wish to prove him wrong! Even his patients began to disagree
with his interpretations, evidenced by Freud himself stating,
|With perfect uniformity my patient's contradict the doctrine that dreams are fulfilment's of wishes.
Because Freud worked backwards from the latent to the manifest content, his logic and interpretations were open to
question and many believed that his concepts and formulae for interpreting dreams were nothing more than tools that he
used to impose his own personal meaning. Later in his career Freud began to formulate his theories of sexual repression
and desire and was accused of reducing all dream analysis to this one fundamental issue, believing that the sexual instinct
over rode all other human instincts. Victorian England entrenched in Victorian attitudes about sexuality readily accepted
this theory but in the modern world where sexual matters are out in the open, this all-encompassing aspect of his theory
has fallen out of favour and Freud has often been accused of having been obsessed by sex. Despite this, he was a very
successful psychoanalyst who found that an underlying neurosis was always revealed in the dreaming life of his patients,
whether or not they themselves were aware of it. However, it is important to remember that Freud's clients were wealthy
individuals who were displaying neurotic tendencies and so it should come as no surprise that these tendencies would be
revealed in their dreaming life. However, we are not all neurotic and so it was perhaps unwise to extrapolate his findings
onto the wider population.
Despite the controversy surrounding Freud, his work remains the foundation stone for modern psychology and we have to
give him full credit for the fact that it was he who gave dream analysis scientific credibility in the 20th century.
Copyright J.C.Harthan, PhD (2002)
"Dreams are often most profound when they seem the most crazy."