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Dream Interpretation and Psychoanalysis

By J Jones

In the first pages of his work New Introductory Lectures On Psychoanalysis, dated December 6th 1932, Sigmund Freud clearly asserts that the theory of dreams "occupies a special place in the history of psychoanalysis and marks a turning-point; it was with it that analysis took the step from being a psychotherapeutic procedure to being a depth-psychology" . The theory of dreams is the most characteristic and singular aspect of psychoanalytic science, "something to which there is no counterpart in the rest of our knowledge, a stretch of new country, which has been reclaimed from popular beliefs and mysticism."

Dream analysis, in psychoanalysis, provides the possibility to decipher the mystery of neurotic disorders, specifically hysteria, and secondly, it opens the road towards unconscious. Freud's phrase: "The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious" has become famous. (1)

The first great dream interpreted by Freud that leads him to his great discoveries were materialized in 1895. It is the famous dream of Irma's injection, which Freud almost thoroughly analyzed and published in his grandiose work The Interpretation of Dreams (1900). Dream was approached in a manner, which was to become specific for the practitioners of psychoanalysis: by means of the dreamer's associations.

Dream analysis (details are provided in the quoted book) reveals Freud's feelings of guilt towards Irma, one of his young patients, whose treatment had not yielded the expected results. Freud defends himself from these negative feelings in his dream, blaming his very patient who, apparently, were not a submissive and compliant patient, or dr. Otto, one of his colleagues, guilty of a careless medical intervention (an injection with an infected syringe).

After analyzing his dream, most coherent as it proved, Freud justly declared that dreams "are not meaningless, they are not absurd; they do not imply that one portion of our store of ideas is asleep while another portion is beginning to wake. On the contrary, they are psychical phenomena of complete validity - fulfillment's of wishes [my emphasis J.J.]." Dreams therefore require integration into the range of intelligible waking mental acts; "they are constructed by a highly complicated activity of the mind". (op. cit., chapter "A Dream is the Fulfillment of a Wish".)

This assertion in fact expresses a great opening towards the activity of abysmal psyche, and mostly the belief in psychic determinism, in the idea that all psychic deeds have their own meaning and connect to day activities, even in a somewhat less visible manner. Contrary to the general opinion of his time's scientific world, Freud thinks dreams are a coherent psychic activity, that can be analyzed in depth.

Nevertheless, the comprehensive definition of the dream includes other discoveries too, the proof of the original Freudian approach: "a dream is a (disguised) fulfillment of a (suppressed or repressed) wish". (op. cit., chapter Distortion in Dreams.)

This definition emphasizes two key aspects of the theory of dreams: 1. Dreams are a disguised fulfillment of a wish, and 2. This is repressed wish . We can therefore conclude that disguise is caused by repression. That is the reason why all dream researchers before Freud were not able to discover these facts: they only analyzed the manifest content of the dream, that is its outer shape at wakening time, its facade, not caring about latent thoughts giving rise to its becoming, thoughts we reach by means of the method of associations devised by Freud.

Freud goes even further to analyze the nature of distortion by the dream, partially the work of dream-censorship and partly of dream-work, a complex process by means of which latent thoughts are turned into dreams as such. Freud's analysis includes dream-work, and the end of his book also provides us his opinions concerning the psychology of the dream process: primary and secondary processes, repression, unconscious, etc.

That is why The Interpretation of Dreams represents the major work on dreams and unconscious life, not equaled so far! It remains an essential stage in the study of psychoanalysis! In spite of the importance of dream-analysis for the discovery of abysmal psyche functioning as well as for therapy as such, this crucial field of psychoanalysis has no more concerned psychoanalysts after Freud's research. The same work quoted at the beginning of the present article records Freud's own bitter remark: "In the earlier volumes [of Internationale Zeitschrift fur (arztliche) Psychoanalyse (2)] you will find a recurrent sectional heading 'On Dream-Interpretation', containing numerous contributions on various points in the theory of dreams. But the further you go the rarer do these contributions become, and finally the sectional heading disappears completely."

In spite of this constant lack of concern for dream theory, lack of regard nowadays materialized in schematic, abstract approach of dream in psychoanalytic therapy, the importance of this area of research is crucial. That is why we have to give it the place it deserves.

1. "[...] it is the securest foundation of psychoanalysis and the field in which every worker must acquire his convictions and seek his training. If I am asked how one can become a psychoanalyst, I reply: <<By studying one's own dreams>>." (New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis.)

2. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis .

Further resources

  • Read also how we deal with dreams in psychoanalysis here.
  • We explain deeply the dream interpretation method of Freud through our 12-lesson email course intended for beginners. More...


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