Dr. V.K. Maheshwari, Former Principal
K.L.D.A.V(P.G) College, Roorkee, India
Manjul Lata Agrawal. M.A. (History) B.T.
Former Principal S.K.V, Delhi Cantt. Delhi.
Mankind has always been interested in dreams and many attempts have been made to interpret the meaning of them. The reasons for this interest are not difficult to find Dreams are odd and striking phenomenon similar to waking thought in some ways , but quite dissimilar in others . The objects which enter into the dreams are usually everyday kind of objects, similarly the places where the dream occurs is usually a familiar one.
Factual information is quite scant. When large numbers of dreams of people are examined, the settings in which the dreams occur, the characters appearing in them, the actions through which they go, and the emotions which they betray. Most dreams have some fairly definite setting, where the dreamer is in a conveyance such as an automobile, a train, an airplane, a boat or is walking along a street or road. Few dreams are set in recreational surroundings: amusement parks, at dances and parties, on the beach, watching sports events, and so on. More frequent than any of these settings, however, is the house or rooms in a house; Apparently the living-room is – the most popular, followed in turn by bedroom, kitchen, stairway, basement, bathroom, dining-room, and hall. Another are set in rural and out-of-doors surroundings. Men’s dreams tend to occur more frequently in out-of-door surroundings, women’s more frequently indoors.
Multiple Aspects of Dreams
By taking into account the setting, Psychoanalysts often try to interpret certain aspects of the dream. The dream occurs in a conveyance, for instance, is interpreted in terms of the fact that the dreamer is going somewhere, is on the move; movement represents ideas such as ambition, fleeing from something, progress and achievement, breaking family ties, and so forth. Trains, automobiles, and other vehicles are instruments of power, and are thus interpreted as symbols for the vital energy of one’s instinctual impulses, particularly those of sex.
Recreational settings are usually sensual in character, being concerned with pleasure and fun, and imply an orientation towards pleasure rather than work.
All kinds of emotions are attached to the actions and persons making up the dream, as well as to the settings. Quite generally unpleasant dreams are more numerous than pleasant ones, and apparently as one gets older the proportion of unpleasant dreams increases. The unpleasant emotions of fear, anger, and sadness are reported twice as frequently as the pleasant emotions of joy and happiness. Emotion in dreams is often taken to be an important aid in interpreting the dream. In this it differs very much from color; about one dream in three is colored, but the attempt to find any kind of interpretation whatsoever for the difference between colored and black-and-white dreams has proved very disappointing.
In addition to a setting, the dream must also have a cast. Sometime in dreams no one appears but the Dreamer himself. Sometimes two characters appear. Most of these additional characters are members of the dreamer’s family, friends, and acquaintances. Sometimes the characters in our dreams are strangers; they are supposed to represent the unknown, the ambiguous, and the uncertain ; sometimes they are interpreted as alien parts of our own personality which we may be reluctant to acknowledge as belonging to us. Prominent people are seldom found in dreams ; this may be because our dreams are concerned with matters that are emotionally relevant to us.
As far as actions in dreams are concerned, in dreams some cases are engaged in some kind of movement, such as walking, driving, running, falling, or climbing. Mostly these changes in location occur in his home environment. In another, passive activities such as standing, watching, looking, and talking are indulged in. There appears to be an absence of strenuous or routine activities in dreams – there is little in the way of working, buying or selling, typing, sewing, washing the dishes, and so forth. When energy is being expended in the dream it is in the service of pleasure, not in the routine duties of life. Women, generally speaking, have far fewer active dreams than men.
Probably the most common view of dreams which has been held by mankind is that the , dreams are prophetic in nature ; they warn us of dangers to be encountered in the future, they tell us what will happen if we do this or -that; they are looked upon as guide-posts which we may heed or neglect as we wish.
If we take this hypothesis at all seriously, then a study of the art of dream interpretation clearly becomes of the greatest possible importance. The pattern was set by an Italian scholar called Artemi- dorus, who lived in the second century of the Christian era. His book was called Oneirocritics, which means The Art of Interpreting. Essentially, books of this nature are based on the view that the dream is a kind of secret language which requires a sort of dictionary before it can be understood. This dictionary is provided by the writer of the dream book in the form of an alphabetical list of things which might appear in the dream, each of which is followed by an explanation of its meaning. Thus, if the dreamer dreams about going on a journey, he looks up ‘Journey’ in his dream book and finds that it means death. This may of course be rather disturbing to him, but he may console him- self by the consideration that it need not necessarily be his own death which is being foretold in this fashion.
Few people would take this kind of dream interpretation very seriously; it is obviously analogous to astrology, and palmistry, in its unverified claims and its generally unlikely theoretical basis.
Theory of Dream Interpretation
Freud’s argument of the meaningfulness of dreams is directly connected with his general theory that all our acts are meaningfully determined; a theory which embraces mispronunciations, gestures, lapses, emotions, and so forth.
The second part of Freud’s doctrine, view that the dream is always a wish fulfillment. – This is linked up with his general theory of personality
According to the Freudian theory dreams do not reveal anything about the future. Instead, they tell us something about our present un resolved and unconscious complexes and may lead us back to the early years of our lives.There are three main hypotheses in this general theory:
The first hypothesis is that the dream is not a meaningless jumble of images and ideas, accidentally thrown together, but rather that the dream as a whole, and every element in it, are meaningful.
The second point that Freud makes is that dreams are always in some sense a wish fulfillment; in other words, they have a purpose, and this purpose is the satisfaction of some desire or drive, usually of an unconscious character.
Thirdly, Freud believes that these desires and wishes, having been repressed from consciousness because they are unacceptable to the socialized mind of the dreamer, are not allowed to emerge even into the dream without disguise. A censor or super-ego watches over them and ensures that they can only emerge into the dream in a disguise so heavy that they are unrecognizable.
The idea that the dream is meaningful is, follows directly from the deterministic standpoint: i.e. from the view that all mental and physical events have causes and could be predicted if these causes were fully known.
Let us look at these three propositions in turn. The idea that the dream is meaningful is very ancient one. For Freud it follows directly from the deterministic point of view, i.e. from that point of view all mental and physical events have causes and could be predicted if these causes are fully known. This cause effect relationship is beyond the limits of time for example Hindus who believe in reincarnation and continuity of consciousness even relates it with previous birth events or experiences.
Freud’s argument of the meaningfulness of dream is directly connected with his general theory that all our acts are meaningfully determined; a theory which embraces mispronunciation, gestures, lapses, emotions, and so forth.
Roughly speaking, Freud recognized three main parts of the brain functioning in the personality : one, which he calls the id, is a kind of reservoir of unconscious drives and impulses, largely of a sexual nature; this reservoir, as it were, provides the dynamic energy for most of our activities. Opposed to it we have the so-called super-ego, which is partly conscious and partly un- conscious and which is the repository of social morality. Intervening between the two, and trying to resolve their opposition, is the ego(like the servant in between the two masters) i.e. the conscious part of our personality.
The Id works in keeping with the pleasure principle, which can be understood as a demand to take care of needs immediately. Just picture the hungry infant, screaming itself blue. It doesn’t “know” what it wants in any adult sense; it just knows that it wants it and it wants it now. The infant, in the Freudian view, is pure, or nearly pure id. And the id is nothing if not the psychic representative of biology.
According to Freud, the Id directs basic drive instincts. It is unorganized and seeks to obtain pleasure, or avoid pain, at times when increased arousal of tension takes place.
Freud described the Id as such: “It is the dark, inaccessible part of our personality, what little we know of it we have learned from our study of the dream-work… and most of that is of a negative character… We approach the id with analogies: we call it a chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations… It is filled with energy reaching it from the instincts, but it has no organization, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle”.
The Id, according to Freud, “’knows no judgements of value: no good and evil, no morality… [It is] the great reservoir of libido”. From the outset (i.e. birth) the Id includes all the instinctual impulses as well as the destructive instinct.
The ego, unlike the id, functions according to the reality principle, which says “take care of a need as soon as an appropriate object is found.” It represents reality and, to a considerable extent, reason.
The Ego seeks to please the instinctive drive of the Id but only in realistic ways that will benefit in the long term. The Ego, says Freud, “attempts to mediate between id and reality”. The Ego comprises organized structure of one’s personality. In other words, the great majority of the Ego’s operative duties are at a conscious level (e.g. defensive, perceptual, intellectual-cognitive, and executive functions).
There are two aspects to the superego: One is the conscience, which is an internalization of punishments and warnings. The other is called the ego ideal. It derives from rewards and positive models .The conscience and ego ideal communicate their requirements to the ego with feelings like pride, shame, and guilt.
The Super-Ego aims for perfection. Freud said: “The Super-ego can be thought of as a type of conscience that punishes misbehaviour with feelings of guilt. In other words, the Super-Ego, in its role of moral authoritarian, is the opposite of the Id.
Where the Id is entirely about satisfying instinctive need with no regulation over morals to achieve that objective, the Super-Ego operates in accordance with social conformity and appropriateness. Due to these extremes, the Ego is constantly striving to regulate balance between the two. In all, the Super-Ego regulates our sense of right and wrong. It helps assimilate into the social structure around us via making us act in socially acceptable ways. It acts as our conscience, maintaining our sense of morality.
As stated above, Freud theorized that the Ego is constantly under the strain of causing discontent on two sides (i.e. the Id and Super-Ego). The role of Ego is like a servant in between two masters .Ego has a role to minimize conflicts whilst simultaneously pretending to care about the said same reality.
The Super-Ego is the Ego’s constant watchdog and if/when it (the Id) steps out of line, the Super-Ego punishes it with feelings of guilt, anxiety, and inferiority. However, the Ego will then employ mechanisms to defend itself such as denial, displacement, intellectualization, fantasy, compensation, projection, rationalization, reaction formation, regression, repression, and sublimation. These mechanisms are not undertaken at a conscious level, they kick in when the Id’s behaviour conflicts with reality .
As unconscious or Id cannot be probed directly , efforts are made to know about it through indirect or disguised techniques.
The Freudian concept can very simply linked up with his theory of dream interpretation. The forces of the Id (unfulfilled biological, anti-social desires) constantly trying to express themselves or to say trying to gain control of the Ego and to force themselves into consciousness . During the individual waking life , the Super-Ego firmly repress them and keeps them unconscious; during sleep however the Super-Ego is less watchful and consequently some of the desires start up in the Id and are allowed to escape in the form of dreams . However the Super-Ego may nod , but it is not quite asleep and consequently these wish-fulfilling thoughts require to be heavily disguised . This disguise is stage-managed by what Freud calls the dream work. Accordingly, it is necessary to distinguish between the manifest dream, i.e. the dream as experienced and perhaps written down, and the latent dreams ,i.e. the thoughts, wishes, and desires expressed in the dream with their disguises removed.
A dream is a disguised fulfilment of a repressed wish. The interpretation of dreams has as its object the removal of the disguise to which the dreamer’s thoughts have been subjected. It is, moreover, a highly valuable aid to psycho-analytic technique, for it constitutes the most convenient method of obtaining insight into unconscious psychical life. (From: On Psychoanalysis).
According to Freud the dream has two parts.
- The manifest content
- The latent content.
The manifest content can be thought of as what a person would remember as soon as they wake – what they would consciously describe to someone else when recalling the dream. Freud suggested that the manifest content possessed no meaning whatsoever because it was a disguised representation of the true thought underlying the dream.
On the other hand, the latent content holds the true meaning of the dream – the forbidden thoughts and the unconscious desires. These appear in the manifest content but will be disguised and unrecognizable.
Connecting the Freud’s theory of personality and his theory of dream interpretation is quite simple: the forces of the id are constantly trying to gain control of the ego and to force themselves into consciousness. During the individual’s waking life, the super-ego strongly represses them and keeps them unconscious; during sleep, however, the super-ego is less watchful, and consequently some of the desires start up in the id and are allowed to escape in the form of dreams. However, the super-ego may nod, but it is not quite asleep, and consequently these wish-fulfilling thoughts require to be heavily disguised. This disguise is stage- managed by what Freud calls the DreamWorks. Accordingly, it is necessary to distinguish between the manifest dream, i.e. the dream as experienced and perhaps written down, and the latent dream, i.e. the thoughts, wishes, and desires ex- pressed in the dream with their disguises removed.
The process by which the latent content is transformed into the manifest content is known as the “dream work”. The dream work can disguise and distort the latent thoughts in the following four ways:
Mechanism acting in the dream work is said to be that of condensation. The manifest content is only an abbreviation of the latent content. As Freud puts it ‘The dream is meager, paltry, and laconic in comparison with the range and copiousness of the dream thoughts.’ The images of the manifest content are said by Freud to be over-determined: i.e. each manifest element depends on several latent causes and consequently expresses several hidden thoughts.
This is the process in which the dreamer hides their feelings or urges by contracting it or underplaying it into a brief dream image or event. Thus the meaning of this dream imagery may not be apparent or obvious. Two or more latent thoughts are combined to make up one manifest dream image or situation. Dreams can put layers of complex meaning within very simple manifest content.
This is characterized when the dreamer’s repressed urges or suppressed desires are acted out metaphorically. Where complex or vague concepts are converted into a dream image. For this, the mind may use the image of a similar sounding (more recognizable) word instead or use a similar looking less intrusive object. According to Freud, dream symbols are for the most part sexual in meaning thus many dreams (but not all) have a sexual correlation. Their translation has to be provided by the analyst, who can himself only discover it empirically by experimentally fitting it into the context. It was later found that linguistic usage, mythology and folklore afford the most ample analogies to dream-symbols.
It is a process whereby the emotional content is detached from its proper object and attached instead to an unimportant or subsidiary one. This occurs when the desire for one thing or person is symbolized by something or someone else. Instead of directing the emotion or desire toward the intended person or object it is transferred onto a meaningless / unrelated object in the manifest dream. Dream content is not used in dream thoughts in the same way it manifests in the dream. “That which is clearly the essential thing in the dream thoughts need not be represented in the dream at all. The dream, as it were, is eccentric; its contents are grouped about other elements than the dream thoughts as a central point”.
Critical Appraisal of Freud’s theory,
The central piece of Freud’s whole theory, the one bit that is original and not derivative, is the notion that symbols and other dream mechanisms are used to hide something so obnoxious, so contrary to the morality of the patient, that he cannot bear to consider it undisguised, even in his dream. This notion seems so contrary to the most obvious facts that it is difficult to see how it can ever have been seriously entertained.
The task of the analyst and interpreter on this view is to explain the manifest dream in terms of the latent dream. Freud uses two methods.
The first is the method of symbolic interpretation. The other method, – of much greater general interest and importance, is the method of association.
Freud uses the theory of Symbolism, very much like the old dream books, Freud provides whole lists of symbols standing for certain things and certain actions. Freud concentrates almost exclusively on sex and sexual relations. The male sex organ is represented in the dream by a bewildering variety of symbols. Anything that is long and pointed – a stick, a cigar, a chimney, a steeple, the stem of a flower – is so interpreted because of the obvious physical resemblance. A pistol, a knife, forceps, a gun – these may stand for the penis because they eject and penetrate; similarly a plough may become a sex symbol because it penetrates the earth. Riding a horse, climbing stairs, and many, many other common-sense activities stand for intercourse. Hollow objects and containers are feminine symbols: houses, boxes, saucepans, vases – all these represent the vagina.
A more reasonable alternative theory is based on the method of free association. The technique of free association is based on the belief that ideas became linked through similarity or through contiguity and that mental life could be understood entirely in terms of such associations. In other words, what is suggested is this : starting out with certain unacceptable ideas which seek expression, we emerge finally with unintelligible ideas contained in the manifest dream. These, having been produced by the original latent ideas, are linked to them by a chain of associations, and we shall be able to re-discover the original ideas by going back over this chain of ideas. In order to do this, Freud starts out by taking a single idea from the manifest dream and asking the subject to fix that idea in his mind and say aloud any- thing that comes into his mind associated with that original idea. The hope is that in due course a chain of associations will lead to the latent causal idea.
Nevertheless, the idea of using the method of association in exploring the contents of the mind is a highly original and brilliant one, and much credit must go to the man who first introduced it into psychology.
Making use, then, of these methods of symbolic interpretations and of association, both discovered long before his time, Freud proceeded to analyse the nature of the dream. He discusses his discoveries in terms of so-called- mechanisms which are active in the dream. The first of these mechanisms he calls that of dramatization. This simply de- notes the fact, already familiar to most people, that the major part in dreams is played by visual images, and that conceptual thought appears to be resolved into some form of plastic representation. Freud likens this to the pictorial manner in which cartoons portray conceptual problems. The cartoonist is faced with the same difficulty as the dreamer. He cannot express concepts in words, but has to give them some form of dramatic and pictorial representation.
Let us list some of these objections. In the first place, the notion which is expressed symbolically in one dream may be quite blatantly and directly expressed in another.
A second objection is that the symbols which are supposed to hide the dream-thought very frequently do nothing of the kind. Many people who have no knowledge of psycho-analysis are able to interpret the sexual symbols which occur in dreams without any difficulty at all. After all, let us face the fact that there are many slang expressions in use referring to sexual activities and sexual anatomy, and that these slang terms are only too often identical with Freudian symbols.
A last point of criticism has been raised by Calvin S.Hall, He asks why there are so many symbols for the same referent. In his search of the literature he found 102 different dream- symbols for the penis, ninety-five for the vagina, and fifty five for sexual intercourse.
According to C.S.Hall- Plausible theory , , symbols in dreams are not used to hide the meaning of the dream, but quite on the contrary, are used to reveal not only the act of the person with whom the dreamer is concerned, but also his conceptions of these actions or persons.
The same objective fact – say sexual intercourse may have widely different meanings to different people. One conception might be that of a generative or reproductive activity; another one might be that of an aggressive physical attack. It is these different conceptions of one and the same objective fact which are expressed in the special choice of symbolism of the dream. Dreaming of the ploughing of a field or the planting of seeds is a symbolic representation of the sex act as being generative or reproductive. Dreaming of shooting a person with a gun, stabbing someone with a dagger, or running down with an automobile, symbolizes the view of the sex act as an aggressive attack
The use of symbols, then, is an expressive device, not a means of disguise, and it is note-worthy that in waking life, symbols are used for precisely the same reason: a lion stands for courage, a snake for evil, and an owl for wisdom. Symbols such as these convey in terse and concise language abstruse and complex conceptions.
Certain symbols, on this theory, are chosen more frequently than others because they represent in a single object a variety of conceptions. The moon, for instance, is such a condensed and over-determined symbol of woman; the monthly phases of the moon resemble the menstrual cycle ; the filling out of the moon from new to full symbolizes the rounding out of the woman during pregnancy. The moon is inferior to the sun; the moon is changeable like a fickle woman, while the sun is constant. The moon controls the ebb and flow of the tides, again linking it to the family rhythm. The moon, shedding her weak light, embodies the idea of feminine frailty.
This suggests that all theories of dream interpretation may have a certain limited amount of truth in them, but that they do not possess universal significance, and apply only to a relatively small part of the field. There is one further difficulty in accepting the symbolic interpretations presented by so many dream interpreters.
It will be clear that there is practically nothing that we can do or say on our journey which is not a flagrant sex symbol. If, therefore, we wanted to dream of a railway journey, the thing would just be impossible. All we can ever dream about, if we follow the Freudian theory, is sex, sex, and sex again.
The critical thinker may feel at this point that while the discussion may have been quite interesting at times, it has not produced a single fact which could be regarded as having scientific validity. Everything is surmise, conjecture, and interpretation; judgements are made in terms of what seems reasonable and fitting. This is not the method of science, and that is precisely what is missing in all the work we have been summarizing so far.
There is always a necessity of having control groups in psychological investigations. No control group has ever been used in experimental studies of dream interpretation by psychoanalysts, yet the necessity for such a control would be obvious on reflection. According to Freud’s theory, the manifest dream leads back to the latent dreams in terms of symbolization and in terms of free association. This is used as an argument in favour of the view that the alleged latent dream has caused the manifest dream, but the control experiment is missing. What would happen if we took a dream reported by person A and got person B to associate to the various elements of that dream? Having performed this experiment a number of times, I have come to the conclusion that the associations very soon lead us back to precisely the same complexes which we would have reached if we had started out with one of person B’s own dreams. In other words, the starting point is quite irrelevant; so a person’s thoughts and associations tend to lead towards his personal troubles, desires, and wishes of the present moment.
Actually, it would not be quite correct to say that no experimental work on dreams had been done. There are a number of promising leads, but, as might have been expected, these have come from the ranks of academic psychologists and not from psychoanalysts themselves. Of particular interest is the work of Luria, a Russian psychologist who attacked the problem of dream interpretation as part of a wider problem, namely the experimental investigation of complexes. His technique consisted in implanting complexes under hypnosis and observing the various reactions, including dreams, of the subjects after they had recovered from the hypnotic trance.
This method of investigation has considerable promise, but unfortunately very little has been done with it. Realizing, then, that nothing certain is known, can we at least propound a general theory which summarizes what we have said and is not contradicted by any of the known facts? Such a theory might run as follows : The mind tends to be constantly active. In the waking state most of the material for this activity is provided by perceptions of events in the outer world; only occasionally, as in problem-solving and day-dreaming, are there long stretches of internal activity withdrawn from external stimulation. During sleep such external stimulation is more or less completely absent, and consequently mental activity ceases to be governed by external stimulation and becomes purely internal.
In general this mental activity is very much concerned with the same problems that occupy waking thought. Our wishes, hopes, fears, our problems and their solutions, our relationships with other people – these are the things we think about in our waking life, and these are the things we dream about when we are asleep. The main difference is that mental activity in sleep appears to be at a lower level of complexity and to find expression in a more archaic mode of presentation. The generalizing and conceptualizing parts of the mind seem to be dormant, and their function is taken over by a more primitive method of pictorial representation. It is this primitivization of the thought processes which leads to the emergence of symbolism, which thus serves very much the function Hall has given it in his theory.
This symbolizing activity is, of course, determined to a large extent by previous learning. In general, symbols are relative to the education and experience of the dreamer, although certain symbols, such as the moon, are very widely used because they are familiar to almost all human beings.
Until evidence of a more rigorous kind than is available now is produced in favour of this hypothesis, we can only say that no confident answer can be given. If and when the proper experiments are performed, due care being given to the use of control groups and other essential safeguards. At the moment the only fit verdict seems to be the Scottish one of ‘not proven’.
Many other alternative theories could be formulated and would have to be tested before anything decisive could be said about the value of the Freudian hypothesis. In the absence of such work, our verdict must be that, such evidence as there is leads one to agree with the many judges who have said that what is new in the Freudian theory is not true, and what is true in it is not new.
“A dream is a work of art which requires of the dreamer no particular talent, special training, or technical competence. Dreaming is a creative enterprise in which all may and most do participate.” – Clark S. Hall
Fisher, S., & Greenberg, R. P. (1996). Freud scientifically reappraised: Testing the theories and therapy. John Wiley & Sons.
Freud, S. (1900). The interpretation of dreams. S.E., 4-5.
Freud, S. (1915). The unconscious. SE, 14: 159-204.
Freud, S. (1920). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE, 18: 1-64.
Freud, S. (1923). The ego and the id. SE, 19: 1-66.
Freud, S. (1961). The resistances to psycho-analysis. In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIX (1923-1925): The Ego and the Id and other works (pp. 211-224).
Tulving, E. (1972). Episodic and semantic memory. In E. Tulving & W. Donaldson (Eds.), Organization of Memory, (pp. 381–403). New York: Academic Press.