Sense and Nonsense in Dream Interpretation

Dr. V.K. Maheshwari, Former Principal

K.L.D.A.V(P.G) College, Roorkee, India

“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

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. Yet what happens in the dreams is often quite unlike the happenings of everyday life.

Psycho-analysts often try to interpret certain aspects of the dreams by taking into account the setting. As much of this is tied up with the theory of Freud, a brief discussion of this at least is essential , although most people will already be familiar with some of its aspects.

Freud’s work was solely related with internal stimuli. Essentially, for a person to continue to sleep undisturbed strong negative emotions, forbidden thoughts and unconscious desires have to be disguised or censored in some form or another. Otherwise, confronted by these, the dreamer would become distressed and they would eventually wake up. Therefore the dream, if understood correctly, could lead to a greater understanding of the dreamer’s subconscious.

According to Freudian 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 socialised 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.

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.

Let us now turn to the second part of Freud’s doctrine. Roughly speaking, Freud recognized three main parts of the brain functioning in the personality.

  • The Id
  • The Ego
  • The Super-ego.

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. These techniques can be analysed in two forms;

  1. Pseudo-scientific techniques- like Physiognomy, palmistry, serology ,astrology etc
  2. Scientific techniques,-  These can further be divided into three forms;

A-subjective techniques-Like biography, case study etc.

B-Objective techniques=Like questionnaire, rating scales etc.

C-Projective techniques- Like story writing, thematic apperception tests, Rorschach ink blot test, Free- association, word- association, Dream interpretation etc.

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 and 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 unrecognisable

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:

1: Condensation: 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.

The dream is reserved, paltry, and laconic when compared with the range and copiousness of the dream thoughts…. One is really never sure of having interpreted a dream completely; even if the solution seems satisfying and flawless, it still always remains possible that there is a further meaning which is manifested by the same dream. Thus the amount of condensation is—strictly speaking—indeterminable. (Freud, pp. 261-262)

2: Displacement: 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” (Freud, p. 283).

3: Symbolism: 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. – In the course of investigating the form of expression brought about by the dream-work, the surprising fact emerged that certain objects, arrangements and relations are represented, in a sense indirectly, by “symbols”, which are used by the dreamer without his understanding them and to which as a rule he offers no associations. 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. Symbols, which raise the most interesting and hitherto unsolved problems, seem to be a fragment of extremely ancient inherited mental equipment. The use of a common symbolism extends far beyond the use of a common language. (From: Two Encyclopaedia Articles).

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 and the other is the method of association.

During free association, the dreamer is steered toward focussing on the thoughts and emotions the dream produces and not its direct content. Freud believed this technique, once initiated, led to a flow of more thoughts and emotions associated with the dream. Many people believe free association to simply be saying whatever comes into the patients head. This is not so. The patient’s comments are founded on the links between, their dream, what they say to begin with about their dream, what they say after that, and so on and so on.

The technique of free association is essentially based on the 19th century doctrine of associational philosophers. They believed that ideas became linked through association similarity or through contiguity and the mental life could be understood entirely in terms of such associations .If ideas are linked in a casual manner, as is suggested by this theory, then we should be able to find links between manifest and latent phenomenon by starting out with the former and, through a chain of association, penetrate to the latter. 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 rediscover the original ideas  by going back over the 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 the idea in his mind and say aloud anything that comes into his mind associated with that original idea . The hope is that in due course a chain of association will lead to the latent casual idea.


First let us consider the use Freud makes of the theory of symbolism. Very much like the old dream books, Freud provides whole list of symbols standing for certain things and certain actions .However , where the old dream books had rather a rigid religious ethical dominance ,Freud  concentrate almost exclusively on libido and sexual relations. The male sex organ is represented in the dreams by a bewildering variety of symbols. Anything that is long and pointed- a stick, a cigar , a chimney a steeple , the stem of flower- is so interpreted because of the obvious physical resemblance. A pistol, a knife, forceps, a gun-these may stand for male sex organ, because they eject and penetrate; similarly a plough may become a sex symbol because it penetrate the earth. Riding a horse, climbing stairs, and numerous other common sense activities stand for intercourse. Hollow objects and containers are feminine symbols: houses, boxes, saucepans, vases- all represent the female genitals.


Certain symbols are chosen more frequently than others because they represent in a single objet a variety of conceptions. The moon, for instance, is such a condensed and over-determined symbol of woman; the monthly phases of moon resembles 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 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. Rhythm, change, fruitfulness, weakness, submissiveness, all of the conventional conceptions of woman, is compressed into a single visible object.

The conception of dream interpretation through symbolism seems to apply quite well to many of the dreams, but it does not seem to apply particularly well to many other dreams. The truth appears to be that any writer on dream interpretation seems to find it possible to quote a few dreams in support of his views, but that these theories cannot usually be applied to dreams quoted by people having a different theoretical outlook. 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 a relatively limited part of the field.


There is one further difficulty in accepting the symbolic interpretations presented by so many dream interpreters. How, it may be asked, do we know that a motor-car stands for the sexual drive; might it not simply stand for a motor-car? In other words, how can the poor dreamer ever dream about anything whatsoever, such as a house, a screw, a syringe, a railway engine, a gun, the moon, a horse, walking riding, climbing stairs, or indeed anything under the sun, if these things are immediately taken to symbolize something else? What will happen if you took a common place, every day event such as a train journey and regarding it as an account of a dream? All we can dream about, if we follow the Freudian theory is sex, sex, and sex again. The individuals may try to experiment of describing a football match or a walk in the fields or a day at the office without the use of phrases which would, according to Freud, have a sexual connotation. He would soon find that there is practically no object in common use, and no activity frequently indulged in, which cannot be made to symbolize some aspects of the sexual process.

One 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. You do not argue about Ohm’s law or the law of gravitation or the circulation of blood. You state a definite hypothesis,, make certain deductions from this hypothesis  and then proceeds to carry out experiments to prove or disprove your theory. That is the scientific method and that is precisely what is missing in all the work we have been summarizing so far.

The blame for this state of affairs must be squarely laid at the door of the analysts. Whose efforts have always been directed towards persuasion and propaganda, rather than towards impartial investigation and valid proof.






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3 Responses to Sense and Nonsense in Dream Interpretation

  1. Aline says:

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  2. Areusa says:

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