It was in his book The Interpretation of Dreams (‘Die Traumdeutung'; literally ‘dream-interpretation’), first published in 1899 (but dated 1900), that Sigmund Freud first argued that the motivation of all dream content is wish-fulfilment,and that the instigation of a dream is often to be found in the events of the day preceding the dream, which he called the “day residue.” In the case of very young children, Freud claimed, this can be easily seen, as small children dream quite straightforwardly of the fulfilment of wishes that were aroused in them the previous day (the ‘dream day’). In adults, however, the situation is more complicated—since in Freud’s submission, the dreams of adults have been subjected to distortion, with the dream’s so-called ‘manifest content’ being a heavily disguised derivative of the ‘latent’ dream-thoughts present in the unconscious. As a result of this distortion and disguise, the dream’s real significance is concealed: dreamers are no more capable of recognising the actual meaning of their dreams than hysterics are able to understand the connection and significance of their neurotic symptoms.

Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud

In Freud’s original formulation the latent dream-thought was described as having been subject to an intra-psychic force referred to as ‘the censor'; in the more refined terminology of his later years, however, discussion was in terms of the super-ego and ‘the work of the ego’s forces of defense’. In waking life, he asserted, these so-called ‘resistances’ altogether prevented the repressed wishes of the unconscious from entering consciousness; and though these wishes were to some extent able to emerge during the lowered state of sleep, the resistances were still strong enough to produce ‘a veil of disguise’ sufficient to hide their true nature. Freud’s view was that dreams are compromises which ensure that sleep is not interrupted: as ‘a disguised fulfilment of repressed wishes’, they succeed in representing wishes as fulfilled which might otherwise disturb and waken the dreamer.

Freud’s ‘classic’ early dream analysis is that of ‘Irma’s injection': In that dream, a former patient of Freud’s complains of pains. The dream portrays Freud’s colleague giving Irma an unsterile injection. Freud provides us with pages of associations to the elements in his dream. Freud used the Irma dream to demonstrate his technique of decoding the latent dream thought from the manifest content of the dream. However, subsequent research has suggested that “Irma” represented an actual hysterical patient whom Freud had sent to his friend, Wilhelm Fliess, for surgery. Fliess believed that the nose and the female genitals were connected and that one could treat hysteria by operating on the turbinal bones of the nose. Fliess performed such surgery on Irma. However, he left a large piece of gauze in the wound, which festered and nearly killed Irma. In Freud’s dream, he tells us: “We were directly aware of the origin of the infection. This direct knowledge in the dream was remarkable. Only just before we had no knowledge of it, for the infection was only revealed by Leoold.” This is precisely what happened with Freud’s patient. This revelation about Irma has cast doubt on the substantial disguise that Freud claimed to occur in all dreams. In some proportion of dreams, the meaning is barely disguised, but the dreamer may not realize it.

Freud described the actual technique of psychoanalytic dream-analysis in the following terms:

You entirely disregard the apparent connections between the elements in the manifest dream and collect the ideas that occur to you in connection with each separate element of the dream by free association according to the psychoanalytic rule of procedure. From this material you arrive at the latent dream-thoughts, just as you arrived at the patient’s hidden complexes from his associations to his symptoms and memories…The true meaning of the dream, which has now replaced the manifest content, is always clearly intelligible. [Freud, Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1909); Lecture Three]

Freud listed the distorting operations that he claimed were applied to repressed wishes in forming the dream as recollected: it is because of these distortions (the so-called ‘dream-work’) that the manifest content of the dream differs so greatly from the latent dream thought reached through analysis—and it is by reversing these distortions that the latent content is approached.

The operations included:

  • Condensation — one dream object stands for several associations and ideas; thus “dreams are brief, meagre and laconic in comparison with the range and wealth of the dream-thoughts”.
  • Displacement — a dream object’s emotional significance is separated from its real object or content and attached to an entirely different one that does not raise the censor’s suspicions.
  • Representation — a thought is translated to visual images.
  • Symbolism — a symbol replaces an action, person, or idea.

To these might be added ‘secondary elaboration’ — the outcome of the dreamer’s natural tendency to make some sort of ‘sense’ or ‘story’ out of the various elements of the manifest content as recollected. (Freud, in fact, was wont to stress that it was not merely futile but actually misleading to attempt to ‘explain’ one part of the manifest content with reference to another part as if the manifest dream somehow constituted some unified or coherent conception).

Freud considered that the experience of anxiety dreams and nightmares was the result of failures in the dream-work: rather than contradicting the ‘wish-fulfilment’ theory, such phenomena demonstrated how the ego reacted to the awareness of repressed wishes that were too powerful and insufficiently disguised. Traumatic dreams (where the dream merely repeats the traumatic experience) were eventually admitted as exceptions to the theory.

Freud famously described psychoanalytic dream-interpretation as “the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind”; he was, however, capable of expressing regret and dissatisfaction at the way his ideas on the subject were misrepresented or simply not understood:

The assertion that all dreams require a sexual interpretation, against which critics rage so incessantly, occurs nowhere in my Interpretation of Dreams…and is in obvious contradiction to other views expressed in it.

On another occasion, he suggested that the individual capable of recognising the distinction between latent and manifest content “will probably have gone further in understanding dreams than most readers of my Interpretation of Dreams“.

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