The Freud Museum


Theory: Freud & Dreams 9

How do we assess Freud's theory today?

Freud's theory, in a sense, occupies a middle position between two competing theories. These are:

(1) The theory that there is a universal 'lexicon' of dreams, based on 'archetypes' or some other such thing, and

(2) The theory that dreams are the meaningless effect of random nerve firings, which take place during REM or 'rapid eye movement' sleep.

The second of these theories is now the prevaling 'modern' view. However both are discussed in Chapter II of The Interpretation of Dreams. In fact Freud would agree with some versions of the second theory which state that dreams are the way we get rid of accumulated nervous tension that has built up during the day. For Freud dreams are not only an elaboration of 'meaning', but also a way to get rid of something. (See the excerpts from his essay 'Children's Dreams').

Although modern science has been unable to discover the neurological basis for Freud's 'dream work', recent research by Mark Solms and others has revealed that the neurology of dreams is more complex than previously thought. A whole set of brain mechanisms are involved - those responsible for instinctual behaviours, emotion, long-term memory and visual perception. It appears that the instinctual and emotional mechanisms near the centre of the brain initiate the process, just as Freud envisaged, and the dream is the culmination of a process of backward projection ontp the perceptual structures at the back of the brain. (Solms, M (2000) 'Freudian Dream Theory Today' in The Psychologist Vol 13 No.12 December 2000). Two brain structures seem most important; if they are damaged, then dreaming is obliterated. The first forms part of a network responsible for visuospatial perception; the secend is the system which 'instigates goal seeking behaviours and an organisms appetitive interactions with the world' (J Panksepp, quoted in Solms 2000). This system is activated by various somatic need detectors located in the hypothalamus, and it plays a pivotal role in states of addictive craving. In other words, modern research is beginning to see that dreams are instigated by goal seeking brain mechanisms which are connected to the pressing demands of instinctual tensions - just as Freud anticipated.

Other versions of the second view state that dreams happen in order to prevent us going into too deep a sleep (where we are defenceless). This would seem to be a direct contradiction of Freud's view that dreams are there to preserve sleep. However once again this view assigns to dreams a function in our lives which one would have thought does not fit easily with the idea of 'random' nerve firings. In addition one would like to know why these random firings are so often connected to events in our immediate past experience. It could be argued that Freud would only have to change his views slightly (from dreams as preserving sleep, to dreams as preserving a certain kind of sleep) to take account of this view.

The first theory is the popular view which interprets dreams according to symbolic equivalences: 'if you dream of X, then it means Y'. A 'house' represents your mind, 'flying' represents ambition, 'babies' symbolise ideas (a 'brainchild'), 'tigers' are a sign of energy and enthusiasm, a 'museum' warns you not to live in the past. Freud's theory largely undermines the naive assumption of symbolic equivalence. All dream elements are 'symbolic', but they have private meanings which can only be discovered through associations of the individual. 'Tigers' could symbolize lots of things.

There are other criticisms of Freud's theory which are of a slightly different order to the other two. These are that:

(3) Freud's theory does not account for the narrative structure of many dreams and does not properly consider the relation between elements in the manifest content, and

(4) Freud's theory is reductionist in its insistence that all dreams are 'fulfilments of wishes'.

As for the latter point, Freud concedes that there is a class of dreams that do not seem to be fulfilments of wishes. For instance in one of his own dreams he was back in a chemistry laboratory where he once worked, doing chemical analyses which he was not much good at and which made him feel quite miserable. He says that if in his waking life he felt quite proud of the 'analyses' he was now carrying out, the dream reminded him of all those unsuccessful analyses of which he had no right to be proud. So between pride and self-criticism, the dream seems to side with the latter and choose as its content a 'sensible warning' rather than an 'unlawful wish-fulfilment' In answer to this Freud says:

"It may be remembered that there are masochistic impulses in the mind which may be responsible for a reversal such as this. I should have no objection to this class of dreams being distinguished from 'wish-fulfilment dreams under the name of 'punishment dreams'. I should not regard this as implying any qualification of the theory of dreams which I have hitherto put forward.."

Whether we can agree that the theory remains intact with this new admission is another matter. Later on, in another paper, ("Remarks on the Theory and Practice of Dream-Interpretation" 1923) Freud distinguishes between 'dreams from above', and 'dreams from below', implying that something from the superego (another kind of 'wish' perhaps) is going into the construction of the dream (not just as 'censorship'). It should be remembered that in Freud's schema the superego is also largely unconscious.

At another point he attempts to justify the wish-fulfilling character of dreams in another way: "one cannot put the wish-fulfilling character of dreams on a par with their character as warnings, admissions, attempts at solution etc. without denying the concept of a psychical dimension of depth -- that is to say, without denying the standpoint of psychoanalysis." ("An Evidential Dream", 1913). It is only the 'day's residues which have these various other meanings, according to Freud. In the beginning was the wish."

As for the third criticism above, it could be said that, despite Freud's reluctance to do so there is no reason why Freud's theory cannot take into account narrative structure just as many literary critics now use psychoanalysis to understand literature. It could be pointed out that narrative structure is itself not something particularly 'obvious'. That is to say, it usually reveals itself as an underlying structure. We do not usually realise that the multiple storylines of a soap opera may represent different aspects of the same underlying theme (about 'friendship', or 'paternity', say). When the narrative structure starts to become obvious then we often lose interest in the story because we do not feel that we are 'carried along by it' any more.

(5) Finally it might be said that the existence in dreams of overtly sexual material - and the ocurrence of 'wet dreams' - undermines Freud's view about dream-distortion, repression and the part played by unconscious conflict in the formation of dreams. Freud might reply that surely this confirms the connection between dreams and endogenous instinctual stimuli pressing for discharge. Or he might say that overt sexual imagery may well be a cover for more threatening infantile sexual material from the unconscious - and it is this that is being distorted through the dream-work. Sometimes 'sex' is just a metaphor!


Freud's work on dreams is extensive. Not only in The Interpretation of Dreams but also many essays in the Introductory Lectures in Psychoanalysis on all aspects of dream theory, and other essays later in his life.

Although dream interpretation has become less important in the therapeutic application of psychoanalysis, nevertheless he always saw it as one of the keystones of his theory and the means by which anybody can achieve conviction about the reality of unconscious processes.

illustrations show the laboratory at the zoological station at Trieste; a picture of the Egyptian collection at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna; details from Dream caused by the flight of a bee around a pomegranate by Salvador Dali

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