The Freud Museum


Theory: Freud & Dreams 8

Why is it so hard to interpret dreams?
Freud makes it all sound so easy, doesn't he? In fact once you try to interpret real dreams along Freudian lines it is very difficult and can be disheartening for students and practitioners alike. It's much the same with works of art, or even everyday cultural items such as clothing. Why should a man's suit (since the 19th century) be a sign of moral rectitude and sobriety, for instance? Why should the head of the Medusa be covered in snakes?

As an example of the difficulty take the following passage from The Interpretation of Dreams:

"[A] dream never tells us whether its elements are to be interpreted literally or in a figurative sense or whether they are to be connected to the material of the dream-thoughts directly or through the intermediary of some interpolated phraseology.

In interpreting any dream-element it is in general doubtful

(a) whether it is to be taken in a positive or negative sense (as an antithetical relation),

(b) whether it is to be interpreted historically (as a recollection),

(c) whether it is to be interpreted symbolically, or

(d) whether its interpretation is to depend on its wording".

For instance, if the dream element is 'water', the dream-thought might be 'fire'; or it might mean water you have swam in; it might signify 'purification'; or it might have something to do with 'warts'.

As if to reassure us, Freud says 'don't worry, its no more difficult than interpreting hieroglyphic scripts'!

One reason it seems a daunting task to interpret dreams is because we tend to try to find a complete and single interpretation. In fact it is not really possible to interpret a dream completely and reduce it to the form "I wish X...", since more than one wish is always represented in a dream and there are always multiple meanings and associations attached to each dream-element.

But Freud also said that there is something at the core of dreams which is the same for everybody. The 'kernel' of the dream which cannot be further analysed - the place in the dream where it reaches down, in a sense, into the vast unknown of our phylogenetic inheritance. An Oedipal knot of childhood desires and ambitions.
The 'core complex', as Freud put it, not only of the 'neuroses', but of humanity

However there is a class of dreams which are not so dependent on the associations of the dreamer for their interpretation. Freud calls these typical dreams, although even here he is quick to assert that the manifest content of a typical dream (eg. a dream of flying) can often mean very different things for different people. Patients in psychoanalysis typically dream of the analytic process itself.

Secondly Freud mentions symbolism in dreams. This is the case when the meaning of a dream-element is more fixed (and usually occurs not only in dreams but in art, literature, and popular language). This is what the general public often think about when they think of Freud's theory - 'when you dream of an umbrella it is really a penis' and so on. In fact the popular view in some ways is quite correct - Freud maintains that 'the very great majority of symbols in dreams are sexual symbols', and he lists numerous symbols which can be used to represent sexual processes and the genital organs of both sexes. Have a look at his essay "Symbolism in Dreams" (Introductory Lectures in Psychoanalysis) for more examples (or make up your own - remember, Freud only says something is a symbol when there is evidence in other areas apart from dreams).Some symbolic representations in dreams may be quite ideosyncratic, such as in the dream of 'putting on an overcoat'.

In the main, however, Freud saw his theory (requiring the individual associations of the dreamer to ascertain the meaning of dream-elements) as largely antithetical to this view. He says:

"[S]ince symbols are stable translations they realize to some extent the ideal of the ancient as well as of the popular interpretation of dreams, from which, with our technique, we have departed widely", and he goes on to say that "Interpretation based on a knowledge of symbols is not a technique which can replace or compete with the associative one". ('Symbolism in Dreams")

Apart from the plethora of sexual symbols, Freud does concede some degree of symbolic interpretation in other areas, but he also severely restricts their range of applicability. In the same essay he says: "The range of things which are given to symbolic representation is not wide: the human body as a whole [represented by a house], parents [represented by kings or queens], children or brothers and sisters [vermin], birth [associated with water], death [a journey], nakedness [clothes and uniforms] - and something else besides".

As Freud says, the idea of dream symbolism is at the core of most popular accounts of dreams, which can still often be seen in magazines and newspapers. The question 'Why do people want to interpret their dreams?' is perhaps an important one to ask (eg. we want to take control over something we do not seem to be in control of; we want to understand other people and predict their behaviour towards us; we have an obscure sense that there are parts of our minds of which we are not conscious). Our interest in dreams can perhaps be connected up to belief in horoscopes and other phenomena.

This still doesn't get round the problem of interpreting dreams in a Freudian sense.

The following advice can be given:

(1) Go about the process of interpretation in a piecemeal fashion, bringing out first one feature, then another, of Freud's theory.

(2) Use material from other sources (eg. literature, jokes, advertisements, newspapers and so on), and treat them like dreams to show aspects of the theory.

(3) Ignore the theory altogether and just discuss dreams or parts of dreams within a group (usually a teaching group). If the group leader follows the argument wherever it leads, you will be amazed how much material will be produced.

The main things to remember are (a) that everyone dreams, (b) everyone recognizes that some of the things in dreams are connected to what has happened to us in our waking lives, and (c) everyone has some obscure notion that dreams must 'mean' something. Dreams are a product of our own minds, so no matter how weird or 'alien' they seem they are a part of us and can tell us about ourselves. The 'interpretation' of dreams is the way Freud turns this 'alien' thing back into a familiar one - even if sometimes we would rather not hear what they mean!

Diving into water

Dreams and Oedipus

Butcher's wife's dream 

Daughter in a box

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