Why did Freud Interpret Dreams in a Sexual Way?

Part of our 'ask any question' series.

This post is part of our ‘ask any question‘ series for psychology students and teachers. Do you or one of your students have a question about Freud or psychoanalysis? Send them in and we will do our best to answer them!

A patient arrives for her weekly session of psychoanalysis.

She hangs up her coat, lies down on the couch as her analyst takes her seat just behind, and begins:

“I had a dream last night.”

Psychoanalytic treatment involves hundreds of dreams. Psychoanalysts rarely ask for them; their patients usually bring them spontaneously as the treatment unfolds and they begin to perceive the strange hold of the unconscious over their lives.

An owl and a lego door

“I dreamt of an owl flying through a lego door,” our patient tells her analyst.

In the popular imagination, this is where Freud would have stepped in to offer a sexual interpretation. This is the familiar image of Freud as a pervy old man who gave everything a sexual meaning: “Ze owl ist ein phallic symbol, ja!” (the more absurd the better).

It’s an image we’re clearly supposed to find either delightful or repulsive (or both, the Freudian in me is tempted to say), and for some people it summarises everything that’s wrong with Freud: there he goes again, forcing his own warped interpretations onto his patients!

But when we turn to what Freud actually said about dreams, something doesn’t add up.

Instead of telling his patients what he thought their dreams meant, Freud was asking them.

Instead of providing answers, he was asking questions. Freud applied the method of free association to his patients’ dreams, inviting them to say whatever came to mind in relation to each element of the dream.

If our analyst is a Freudian, she’ll recognise that “I dreamt of an owl flying through a lego door” is just the manifest content of the dream.

The next step is to ask for the dreamer’s associations:

  • What does she think about owls?
  • What does she associate to flying?
  • What does the lego door make her think of?

The patients’ associations make up the dream’s latent content, and this is where things get interesting.

Freud argued that you can only find the motive for the dream at the level of the latent content. And what you find there is a wish.

So is this where things get sexual? Why no!

Freud discusses hundreds of dreams in The Interpretation of Dreams, but in most cases the hidden wish turns out to be something other than sex.

There are wishes of getting a promotion. Of being able to fly. Of not being Jewish. Of being ‘big’.

Even the example he uses to introduce his method, the dream of ‘Irma’s Injection’, turns out to be about professional ethics – hardly the sexiest of topics!

It may be ‘sex’, but not as we know it!

If there’s anything striking about Freud’s dream book, it’s the peculiar absence of sex. Even with the notorious ‘sexual symbols’, whereby any elongated object is a penis and any cavity is a vagina, it turns out that all the symbols have more than one significance, and when they appear in a particular dream it is the combination of meanings that is important. It may be ‘sex’, but not as we know it!

This raises some fascinating questions about the relationship between sexuality and language, but I won’t get into those here.

Back to the owl dream

Suppose our dreamer supplies the following associations to the word ‘owl’:

1. I was watching a nature documentary last night.
2. There was a bit where an owl catches a mouse, but the mouse gets away.
3. I thought owls were supposed to be wise.
4. My father was a wise man.
5. I adored him for it.
6. My mother didn’t.
7. But she kept coming back to him.
8. God I hated her for it.
9. She wouldn’t let go.

First of all, let’s take a moment to appreciate that the work of interpretation has enabled our patient to talk about something she might never have talked about before. Next, let’s note that a single chain of associations has brought out a complex tangle of thoughts and emotional attitudes.

What’s interesting here isn’t whether the father is represented by the owl or the mouse. Much more interesting is how the dream transformed these thoughts into the image of an owl flying through a lego door.

In Freudian lingo, the latent content has been distorted, combined and ciphered into a manifest dream by an unconscious process Freud called the dream work.

The dream-work is how the wish gets woven into the fabric of the dream.

At one level, the latent wish usually turns out to be linked to the ‘unfinished business’ of the day before: that pen you lost, the bus that was late, the half-formed thought you had as you passed your old school.

But we also find another kind of wish in the dream: a forbidden wish. And we can see in the example of the owl dream that it is a wish that sits squarely on the terrain of the infamous Oedipus complex: relations between mum and dad.

Is this a sexual wish? Time will tell. Will our analyst tell the patient that her dream has something to do with forbidden things concerning mum and dad? Not likely. But if she’s been listening carefully, she might simply repeat the words that popped up at both the manifest and latent levels: “let go” (lego) and “adore” (a door).

A visit to the Freud Museum can help your students sort Freud-fact from Freud-fiction.

Facilitated group visits are a great way to get a deeper insight into Sigmund Freud, Anna Freud and psychoanalysis.

The Freud Museum is very popular with A-level groups, particularly those studying psychology or religious studies.

More info

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