Freud was possibly the first Psychologist to suggest why we dream. He was mainly concerned with a research technique known as psychoanalysis, whereby he would listen to patients talk about experiences and then use them to diagnose and treat mental illness. Think of your stereotypical “film” Psychologist, with his patient lying on the couch. That is Freud’s art. He found that patients commonly reported dreams during sessions, and hence decided to use them as a scientific method to evaluate the mind. He began fully researching dreams towards the end of the 19th century, and concluded they were the key to understanding the subconscious – an important concept in his psychodynamic approach.
Freud believed that we sleep because we are tired of receiving and responding to external stimuli in the environment. This essentially means sleeping is a withdrawal from reality; we go to a dark room and cover ourselves with a duvet to minimise environmental stimuli. It would not be safe to completely withdraw from reality, however. We would risk going to sleep never to wake again, as we would never know when to. We need to have some level of alert during our sleep for emergencies; if a tiger was to start recklessly chewing your arm, you would definitely hope your body would wake (although knowing the nature of dreams, you’d probably wake to find your harmless puppy playfully nibbling your hand). We are very responsive to external stimuli – we just do not usually wake up because of them. That is why we dream of things that are actually happening (although usually exaggerated), as with the puppy/tiger example given above.
So what about dreams themselves? Freud believed the mind was categorised into three areas:
Superego: This is concerned with good morals, and works to counter primal instincts and urges. It strives to be socially acceptable, appropriate and well mannered. Consider this your “shoulder angel”, which works directly against the id. It’s your good conscience.
Ego: This is the conscious mind. It works according to the reality principle; it seeks to please the id without causing trouble or long term grief. It’s the balance between id and superego, and is responsible for other psychodynamic features like defence mechanisms.
Id: The id acts according to the pleasure principle and simply wants everything now. It is concerned with basic drives and instincts. Food, water, sex and other basic impulses are controlled by the id. It seeks only pleasure without pain, and is essentially your “shoulder devil”.
So what does this have to do with dreams? Well Freud believes that during the day, your superego often manages to control the ego; you act in a socially appropriate manner and behave as you should (most of the time anyway…) Essentially, the superego manages to suppress the id. When you sleep, your id needs a way to release all the socially unacceptable desires and urges – et voilà – dreams. Or not. It doesn’t quite end there. Sometimes, our primal urges can be disturbing and may cause psychological harm. So, the brain “censors” these urges and transcribes them to symbolic forms, which are more acceptable. This is why dreams are often “interpreted”. However, that is not the end of all of Freud’s ideas; he also believed that dreams themselves were split into two parts:
The manifest content: This is what, upon awakening, you would recall. If you were to describe a dream to a friend, it would be the manifest content you would tell them. It is basically the transcription (or censored version) of the true meaning of your dream. It has absolutely no meaning whatsoever, as it is only a way to disguise your underlying forbidden desires.
The latent content: This is what your dream really means. The unconscious desires are included here, and may actually make appearances in the manifest content. However, if they were to do so, they would be unrecognisable and have no context – meaning you’ll forget them much more easily.
The process by which the brain censors dreams, or put more technically, converts manifest content to latent content, is also explained by Freud. He calls the process “dream work”. He believed the brain has three methods to convert the content:
Condensation: As the name suggests, two or more latent thoughts are condensed into one manifest dream or image.
Displacement: This is where desires or emotions are displaced from the intended person/object onto a meaningless object in a manifest dream. So if you have an unconscious love for a person, it may be displaced onto an object, like a new car, in the manifest dream.
Symbolism: Where symbols are used to disguise similar sounding or looking concepts or objects. So for example, Freud believed anything resembling an erection symbolised it (tree trunks, sticks, rockets, lamps – practically anything long). Anything which had ‘space’ inside often represented a vagina (wardrobes, chests, ovens, vases, pots, pans, fireplaces… you get the idea). In fact, something as innocent as walking up the stairs could be interpreted in a sexual manner.
For those familiar with Freud, you will already know that Freud had a small… okay, massive obsession with sex. Most of his theories incorporate genitals and sex, with one theory managing to describe (in essence) incestial fantasies (follow this link for further information). So his idea of dream interpretation often included way too much sex. It is true that the human mind naturally thinks about sex a lot, but to presume most of our dreams are sex related is just unrealistic. I will now present some of the most common dreams, and modern interpretations of what they may indicate, rather than Freud’s idea that hugging a tree means you hold penises close to your heart (literally or metaphorically, we just won’t go there…)