Dream interpretation is the process of assigning meaning to dreams. In many of the ancient societies, including Egypt and Greece, dreaming was considered a supernatural communication or a means of divine intervention, whose message could be unravelled by those with certain powers. In modern times, various schools of psychology have offered theories about dream interpretation.
Early history of Dream interpretation
Dreams and dream interpretation have been held in considerable importance through history by most cultures.
Dream interpretation in the Eastern Mediterranean
The ancient Greeks constructed temples they called Asclepieions, where sick people were sent to be cured. It was believed that cures would be affected through divine grace by incubating dreams within the confines of the temple. Dreams were also considered prophetic or omens of particular significance. In ancient Egypt, priests also acted as dream interpreters and Hieroglyphics depicting dream interpretations are evident. In the Bible, both Joseph and Daniel are recorded as having interpreted dreams sent from God, and indeed the Bible describes many incidents of dreams as divine revelation.
Dream interpretation in China
A standard traditional Chinese book on dream interpretation is the Lofty Principles of Dream Interpretation compiled in the 16th century by Chen Shiyuan (particularly the "Inner Chapters" of that opus). Chen placed dream interpretation firmly in Taoist doctrine, before moving on to offer a dream encyclopaedia.
Dream interpretation in Europe
Dream interpretation was taken up as part of psychoanalysis at the end of the 19th century; the perceived, manifest content of a dream is analysed to reveal its latent meaning to the psyche of the dreamer. One of the seminal works on the subject is The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud.
Dream interpretation and Psychology
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 foundation of all dream content is wish-fulfilment, and that the instigation of a dream is always to be found in the events of the day preceding the dream. 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 real significance of the dream interpretation is concealed: the dreamer is no more capable of recognising the actual meaning of their dream than the hysteric is able to understand the connection and significance of their neurotic symptoms.
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 defence'. 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 interpretation is that of 'Irma's injection':
Freud described the actual technique of psychoanalytic dream interpretation 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 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 through dream interpretation.
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 i.e self dream interpretation. (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"; 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".
Although not dismissing Freud's model of dream interpretation wholesale, Carl Jung believed Freud's notion of dreams as representations of unfulfilled wishes to be simplistic and naive (Freud returned the favour by publicly opining that Jung was fine for those who were looking for a prophet). Jung was convinced that the scope of dream interpretation was larger, reflecting the richness and complexity of the entire unconscious, both personal and collective. Jung believed the psyche to be a self-regulating organism in which conscious attitudes were likely to be compensated for unconsciously (within the dream) by their opposites.
Jung believed that archetypes such as the animus, the anima, the shadow and others manifested themselves in dreams, as dream symbols or figures. Such figures could take the form of an old man, a young maiden or a giant spider as the case may be. Each represents an unconscious attitude that is largely hidden to the conscious mind. Although an integral part of the dreamer's psyche, these manifestations were largely autonomous and were perceived by the dreamer to be external personages.
Acquaintance with the archetypes as manifested by these symbols through dream interpretation serve to increase one's awareness of unconscious attitudes, integrating seemingly disparate parts of the psyche and contributing to the process of holistic self understanding he considered paramount.
Jung believed that material repressed by the conscious mind, postulated by Freud to comprise the unconscious, was similar to his own concept of the shadow, which in itself is only a small part of the unconscious.
When talking about dream interpretation, Jung cautioned against blindly ascribing meaning to dream symbols without a clear understanding of the client's personal situation. Although he acknowledged the universality of archetypal symbols, he contrasted this with the concept of a sign — images having a one to one connotation with their meaning. His approach was to recognize the dynamism and fluidity that existed between symbols and their ascribed meaning. Symbols must be explored for their personal significance to the patient, instead of having the dream interpretation conform to some predetermined idea. This prevents dream interpretation from devolving into a theoretical and dogmatic exercise that is far removed from the patient's own psychological state. In the service of this idea, he stressed the importance of "sticking to the image" — exploring in depth a client's association with a particular image. This may be contrasted with Freud's free-associating that he believed was a deviation from the salience of the image. Freaud described for example the image "deal table". One would expect the dreamer to have some associations with this image, and the professed lack of any perceived significance or familiarity whatsoever should make one suspicious. Jung would ask a patient to imagine the image as vividly as possible and to explain it to him as if he had no idea as to what a "deal table" was. Jung stressed the importance of context in dream interpretation.
Jung stressed that the dream was not merely a devious puzzle invented by the unconscious to be deciphered, so that the 'true' causal factors behind it may be elicited. Dream interpretation was not to serve as a lie detector, with which to reveal the insincerity behind conscious thought processes. Dreams, like the unconscious, had their own language. As representations of the unconscious, dream images have their own primacy and logic.
Jung believed that dreams might contain ineluctable truths, philosophical pronouncements, illusions, wild fantasies, memories, plans, irrational experiences and even telepathic visions. Just as the psyche has a diurnal side that we experience as conscious life, it has an unconscious nocturnal side that we apprehend as dreamlike fantasy. Jung would argue that just as we do not doubt the importance of our conscious experience, then we ought not to second-guess the value of our unconscious lives.
In 1953, Calvin S. Hall developed a theory of dream interpretation in which dreaming is considered to be a cognitive process. Hall argued that a dream was simply a thought or sequence of thoughts that occurred during sleep, and that dream images are visual representations of personal conceptions. For example, if one dreams of being attacked by friends, this may be a manifestation of fear of friendship; a more complicated example, which requires a cultural metaphor, is that a cat within a dream symbolizes a need to use one's intuition. For English speakers, it may suggest that the dreamer must recognise that there is "more than one way to skin a cat", or in other words, more than one way to do something.
Faraday, et al.
In the 1970s, Ann Faraday and others helped bring dream interpretation into the mainstream by publishing books on do-it-yourself dream interpretation and forming groups to share and analyse dreams. Faraday focused on the application of dreams to situations occurring in one's life. For instance, some dreams are warnings of something about to happen – e.g. a dream of failing an examination, if one is a student, may be a literal warning of unpreparedness. Outside of such context, it could relate to failing some other kind of test. Or it could even have a "punny" nature, e.g. that one has failed to examine some aspect of his life adequately.
Faraday noted, "one finding has emerged pretty firmly from modern research, namely that the majority of dreams seem in some way to reflect things that have preoccupied our minds during the previous day or two."
Web-based dream interpretation
Dream interpretation online and dream blogs allow people to post keywords or an entire dream and receive an interpretation. Though popular, web-organised studies of dream interpretation has grown very slowly, as witness by the relatively low-volume IASD board and the under-staffed DreamWiki.
Primitive instinct rehearsal theory of dreaming
Two researchers have postulated that dreams have a biological function, where the content requires no interpretation and that content provides an automatic stimulation of the body's physiological functions underpinning the human instinctive behaviour. Dreams are therefore seen as part of the human, and animal, survival and development strategy.
Prof Antti Revonsuo (Turku university, Finland) has limited his ideas to those of ‘threat rehearsal’, where dreams exercise our primary self-defence instincts, and he has argued this cogently in a number of publications.
Keith Stevens extends the theory to all human instincts, including threats to self, threats to family members, pair bonding and reproduction, inquisitiveness and challenges, and the drive for personal superiority and tribal status. He categorises dreams, using a sample of 22,000 Internet submissions, into nine categories, demonstrating the universal commonality of dream content and instinct rehearsal. It is postulated that the dream function is automatic, in response to the content, exercising and stimulating the body chemistry and neurological activity that would come into play if the scenario occurred in real life, so that the dream does not have to be remembered to achieve its objective.
It is argued that, once a dreamer has experienced a threat through dream interpretation (either to self or a family member), his ability to confront and overcome a real life threat is then enhanced, so that such dreams, in both humans and animals, are an aid to survival. The threat rehearsal can be specific, for instance, an attack from a savage dog, but it can also be general, in that the threat response physiology is activated and reinforced whilst dreaming.
For human reproduction, the theory states that dreams of pairing, bonding and mating stimulate the reflex to reproduce the species, with an emphasis on dreams that promote the principle of selection; the desire of the individual to find the best mate and to achieve the optimum genetic mixing. In that respect, the dream function conflicts with human values of fidelity and mating for life. Specifically, young women dream often of being pregnant and giving birth, overwhelmingly positive dreams that directly stimulate the urge to reproduce.
In terms of status, dreams of being superior to others, or conversely to being inferior, come in the two extremes. They stimulate the dreamer’s determination to improve their status within their immediate human hierarchy, either through the positive physiology of success, or the negative physiology of failure. Hence, dreaming promotes competition, the survival of the best and fittest, and a steady advance of the human species.
Finally, other dreams stimulate the determination to explore and enquire, through the extremes of exhilarating dream achievements (positive physiology) or frustrating obstructions and barriers. The latter stimulates a determination not to give up in a quest, so that, in life, the individual and the species move forward. For the dreaming wildebeest, it may be a rich pasture over the hill; for the human dreamer it may be splitting the atom.
Back to the top of Dream Interpretation