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Dream interpretation is the process of assigning meanings to dreams. Various systems of dream interpretation have assigned meanings in terms of future events (oneiromancy), in terms of chance events during the night, and in terms of unconscious mental activity — to name a few.
Dream interpretation was taken up as part of psychoanalysis at the end of the 19th Century; the manifest content of a dream (what is perceived in the dream) is analyzed to reveal the latent content of a dream (the underlying thoughts of the dream — why it was dreamt). One of the seminal works on the subject is The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud.
There has been much scientific research on dreams, and modern theories attempt to explain as many facts found in scientific research as possible. These include:
- The cause and purpose of dreams
- The content of dreams
- The varying frequencies of dreams (more before birth, fewer towards death; increased in premature births, etc.)
- The relationship between dreams and depression
- The possible evolutionary role of dreaming
In 1953, Calvin S. Hall developed a theory of dreams in which dreaming is considered to be a cognitive process . Hall argued that a dream was simply a thought or sequence of thoughts that occurred during sleep, and that dream images are visual representations of personal conceptions. For example, if one dreams of being attacked by friends, this may be a manifestation of fear of friendship; a more complicated example, which requires a cultural metaphor, is that a cat within a dream symbolizes a need to use your intuition. For English speakers, it may suggest that the dreamer must recognize that there is more than one way to skin a cat." This section is a stub. You can help by .
In his book The Interpretation of Dreams, first published at the end of the 19th century, Sigmund Freud argued that the foundation of all dream content is the fulfillment of wishes, conscious or not. The theory explains that the schism between ego and id leads to "censorship" of dreams. The unconscious would "like" to depict the wish fulfilled wholesale, but the preconscious cannot allow it — the wish (or wishes) within a dream is thus disguised, and, as Freud argues, only an understanding of the structure of the dream-work can explain the dream. In every dream in which he attempts to do so, he is able to establish a multitude of wishes on a variety of levels — conscious wishes for the immediate future ("I hope I pass this test" (V§D.δ)) to unconscious wishes pertaining to the far past (VI§F.II).
Freud listed four transformations applied wishes in order to avoid censorship:
- Condensation — one dream object stands for several thoughts
- Displacement — a dream object's psychical importance is assigned to an indifferent dream object
- Representation — a thought is translated to visual images
- Symbolism — a symbol replaces an action, person, or idea
These transformations help to disguise the latent content. The basis for all of these systems, he claimed, was "transference", in which a would-be censored wish of the unconscious is given undeserved "psychical energy" (the quantum of attention from consciousness) by attaching to "innocent" thoughts.
He claimed that the counterintuitivity of nightmares represented a clash between the ego and the id: the id wishes to see a past wish fulfilled, while the ego cannot allow it; he interprets the anxiety of a nightmare as the ego working against the id. (He further claimed that in nearly all cases these anxious dreams are products of infantile, sexual memories.)
Freud is careful to argue that the wishes are not revealed in dream analysis for the sake of conscious fulfillment, but instead for conscious resolution of the inner conflict. His relaxed attitude towards what could be seen as "depravity" in the unconscious is summed up in Plato's words: "the virtuous man is content to dream what a wicked man really does" (emphasis not added: I§F, VII§F; Plato Republic IX).
According to his theory, the most basic desires come from the "id", the childlike portion of the unconscious, and as such often contained material that would be unacceptable to the ego. As the text was written relatively early in his career, he does not use the terms "ego" and "id", but rather "preconscious" and "unconscious", respectively. These terms themselves are not introduced until the seventh chapter of the book, until which his system of dream interpretation is incrementally constructed and argued.
Freud arrived at his theory of dreams by research (though he rejects much of the prior work), self-analysis, and psychoanalysis of his patients (I, VI§H, VII§C); as his theory developed, Freud often used dream interpretation to treat his patients, calling dreams "[t]he royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind" (VII§E).
Dream analysis is central to Jungian analytical psychology, and forms a critical part of the therapeutic process in classical Jungian psychoanalysis. Although not dismissing Freud's model of dream interpretation wholesale, he believed that Freud's notion of dreams as representations of unfulfilled wishes, to be simplistic and naive. Jung was convinced that the scope of dream interpretation was larger, reflecting the richness and complexity of the entire unconscious, both personal and collective. Jung believed the psyche to be a self regulating organism in which conscious attitudes were likely to be compensated for unconsciously (within the dream) by their opposites.
Jung believed that archetypes such as the animus, the anima, the shadow and others manifested themselves in dreams, as dream symbols or figures. Such figures could take the form of an old man, a young maiden or a giant spider as the case may be. Each represents an unconscious attitude that is largely hidden to the conscious mind. Although an integral part of the dreamers psyche, these manifestations were largely autonomous and were perceived by the dreamer to be external personages. Acquaintance with the archetypes as manifested by these symbols serve to increase one's awareness of unconscious attitudes, integrating seemingly disparate parts of the psyche and contributing to the process of holistic self understanding he considered paramount.
Jung believed that material repressed by the conscious mind, postulated by Freud to comprise the unconscious, was similar to his own concept of the shadow, which in itself is only a small part of the unconscious.
He cautioned against blindly ascribing meaning to dream symbols without a clear understanding of the client's personal situation. Although he acknowledged the universality of archetypal symbols, he contrasted this with the concept of a sign — images having a one to one connotation with their meaning. His approach was to recognise the dynamism and fluidity that existed between symbols and their ascribed meaning. Symbols must be explored for their personal significance to the patient, instead of having the dream conform to some predetermined idea. This prevents dream analysis from devolving into a theoretical and dogmatic exercise that is far removed from the patient's own psychological state. In the service of this idea, he stressed the importance of "sticking to the image" — exploring in depth a client's association with a particular image. This may be contrasted with Freud's free associating which he believed was a deviation, from the salience of the image. He describes for example the image "deal table". One would expect the dreamer to have some associations with this image, and the professed lack of any perceived significance or familiarity whatsoever should make one suspicious. Jung would ask a patient to imagine the image as vividly as possible and to explain it to him as if he had no idea as to what a "deal table" was. Jung stressed the importance of context in dream analysis.
Jung stressed that the dream was not merely a devious puzzle invented by the unconscious to be deciphered, so that the 'true' causal factors behind it may be elicited. Dreams were not to serve as lie detectors, with which to reveal the insincerity behind conscious thought processes. Dreams, like the unconscious, had their own language. As representations of the unconscious, dream images have their own primacy and logic.
Jung believed that dreams may contain ineluctable truths, philosophical pronouncements, illusions, wild fantasies, memories, plans, irrational experiences and even telepathic visions. Just as the psyche has a diurnal side which we experience as conscious life, it has an unconscious nocturnal side which we apprehend as dreamlike fantasy. Jung would argue that just as we do not doubt the importance of our conscious experience, then we ought not to second guess the value of our unconscious lives.This section is a stub. You can help by .
An article in Scientific American, November 2003  put forth the theory that dreams provide sensory stimulation to the brain when the eyes, ears, etc. are still developing. Testing showed that REM-deprived (but not sleep-deprived) cats tended to develop visual problems. Also, analysis showed a direct correlation between immaturity of an animal at birth and its required REM sleep. For example, the platypus, which is born without eyes and must cling to its mother for weeks, needs the most REM of all mammals; the dolphin, which at birth is a self-sufficient swimmer, gets almost none.
The article also suggested that since humans wake more quickly from REM than normal sleep, dreams could have evolved to keep us alert for predators in the night. Nightmares may be a specialized form of this; a human makes a sudden, reflexive movement when awoken from a nightmare, which can (by pure chance) collide with a beast that would otherwise have killed him.
- Freud, "Introductory Lectures" 1966, W.W. Norton, p.334
- Freud, Sigmund, The Interpretation of Dreams.
- Freud, Sigmund, A general introduction to psychoanalysis, New York: Boni & Liveright, 1920.
- James A. Hall, Jungian Dream Interpretation: A Handbook of Theory and Practice, Inner City Books, 1983, ISBN 0-919123-12-0.
- Stephen Palmquist, Dreams of Wholeness: A course of introductory lectures on religion, psychology and personal growth, Hong Kong: Philopsychy Press, 1997/2008. ISBN 962-7770-50-7
- Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism website
- Archive for Research in Deep Theory website
- Dream Psychology - full text of Sigmund Freud's work on dream analysis.
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