P1. According to psychotherapists, and as kick-started by Freud dream interpretation back in 1900, examining your dreams are said to yield insights into how your unconscious mind interacts with your everyday mind. The content of dreams has become a rich and relevant source of symbolism and metaphor in these investigations.
From Medical to Psychological
Freud of course was a medical doctor who specialized in neurology. Later on he studied hypnosis and worked largely with neurotic mental patients. One of the things he adopted and developed was the practice of “free association” where the patient would lie on the consulting couch in such a way as not to be able to see Freud directly. Then Freud would encourage these patients to say whatever came into their minds. In this way he began to realize that many patients discussed their sexual awareness in life and especially in their own infancy.
Freud also began to explore his patients dreams and wrote a book in 1900 called the Interpretation of Dreams. Many of the ideas in the book were very different to the medical theories of the time and Freud became rather famous as a result. However, as Thomas Mann the writer remarked, Freud may have been saying things new in the medical profession but actually he was only rediscovering many aspects of dreams and of the human mind that artists had already been exploring for centuries and already come to similar conclusions.
Freud Dream Interpretation
Freud’s basic ideas, that he inferred from his neurotic patients, were that the mind is made up of three aspects being
- The Id, which is the root of our desires and fears (which for Freud is centered on sexuality)
- The Super-Ego plays the self-critical and moralizing part of our minds (the voice of the parent)
- The Ego is our conscious “I” that also mediates between the wishes of the id and the censoring role of the super-ego
Freud and Jung both talked about the unconscious mind, but in very different ways. Freud thought of it as the repressed contents of consciousness. But Jung called this Freudian unconscious as the ‘shadow’. Jung also considered a ‘collective unconscious’ that surrounds the shadow. Jung’s collective unconscious has been misinterpreted by many, but simply refers to the animal nature that is common to all mankind.
If Freud was aware of lucid dreams he seems to have pretty much ignored them, until a much later edition of hid Interpretation of Dreams (actually published after his death) where he adds that
“There are some people who are quite clearly aware during the night that they are asleep and dreaming and who thus seem to possess the faculty of consciously directing their dreams”
Interpreting the Symbols of Dream
For Freud many of the symbols of dream are sexual in nature, but first of all he had a good reason why we forget our dreams. That is because they are generated by our “repressed” thoughts and desires so, of course, we wouldn’t want to remember such things.
Next point is that Freud is says our thoughts and actions are very much determined by what goes on in our unconscious minds. This is Freud the neurologist talking. And that in order for us to live in our civilized, but rather repressive, society we have to reign in our natural wishes. But rather like a pressure-cooker, we need to have a pressure release mechanism which shows up in our dreams. And this is why our dreams take on the nature they do and also why we can therefore examine our dreams to get insights into our unconscious minds.
The next issue is that the language of dreams is mostly through images and dream symbols, and these need to be interpreted through the medium of a psychotherapist. If it was as simple as a universal language of symbols then a dream dictionary suffice. But Freud recognized that the meaning of dream symbols are often unique to each individual, although at a general level, there are some general guidelines that can be used for dream symbols.
For example, there is the apocryphal story of Freud attending a meeting of his close followers where they were discussing the significant sexual meanings behind dream images. And, of course, the image of a cigar would immediately bring to mind a phallic symbol because it too is long and cylindrical, it too has a hot end that emits fragrant “smoke” and it is associated with being sucked upon. The meeting then all looked upon Freud who was in attendance and habitually sucking on one of his cigars that he was famous for. The meeting obviously sought some kind of explanation, to which Freud is said to have said, “Sometimes, Gentlemen, a cigar is just a cigar”. Meaning that any attempt at formulating a universal language of symbols will always have exceptions to the general rule.
Free Association Technique
Dream dictionaries can guide us initially, using Freudian ideas, but for real results, we need to engage the dreamer more directly using the “free association” technique that Freud advocated.
Each dream symbol can be examined in detail by the dreamer by asking them to describe the dream rather as they would describe the scene from a railway carriage as they travel on a journey.
By this technique, the dreamer is put in control of directing how the dream should be interpreted with minimal guidance from the dream interpreter.
For a fuller explanation see free association.