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“The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind. By analyzing dreams we can take a step forward in our understanding of the composition of that most marvellous and most mysterious of all instruments.” (Freud, 1900, S.E 5: 608).

The purpose of this essay is the discussion of Freud’s above statement on dream interpretation, introduced by him in one of his most essential works, “The Interpretation of Dreams” in 1900. The examination of this concept concerns firstly, a brief outline of the most important points of his theory on dreams in relation to the topographical model of the mind, and secondly a reference to changes and supplements that he made on the theory due to the introduction of his structural model. In a second level we should examine the fact that although in the early times of psychoanalytic history the dream was an essential tool for the exploration of the unconscious in psychoanalytic practice, changing times and new researches affected the role of dream in clinical practice and led to new considerations of its contribution to the revealing of various processes of the human mind. Therefore, nowadays, Freud’s statement is questioned and judged to the light of recent psychoanalytic approaches on dreams.

Dreams and their mysterious functioning have always been an interesting and intriguing area of discussion and research. One could suggest that they hold an exceptional position in the psychological activity of all human beings and they appear to be a universal phenomenon. There is no doubt that among the written work of authors that presented an interest in dreams, stands the work of Sigmund Freud. “The Interpretations of Dreams” in 1900 is an attempt to open the road to an understanding of dreams and it is considered as one of his most significant works. Therefore it is not surprising that Freud slightly altered his initial theory on dreams. His views contributed to the development of psychoanalysis and the exploration of the human mind and apparently continue to be essential and influential in the psychoanalytic training and literature.

Freud’s studies on neuroses and other psychopathological structures led him to the conclusion that there is a psychic meaning in symptoms that it is rooted to the unconscious mental life of the patient. The main purpose in the analytic treatment was to make the unconscious material of the patient conscious and therefore Freud encouraged his patients to freely associate on certain issues of their life. The mentioning of dreams by some of his patients revealed to him the significance of dreams to the study of the unconscious thoughts of the mind and came to consider the fact that the interpretation of dreams is the royal road to the apocalypses of this mysterious mental state (Freud, 1900).

 

Dreams and the Topographical Theory of the Mind

Freud’s explanation for the phenomena of dreaming in relation to the topographic theory can be summarized as follows.

Freud regarded the process of dreaming as a preservation of sleep. Generally a dream is a kind of self-deception as dreams present to the conscious a hallucinatory experience which represents a disguised fulfilment of a repressed instinctual wish of the unconscious. The aim of this hallucinatory experience is to discharge the energy of the instinctual drive, so that sleep would not be interrupted.  Every dream owes its content to both the past and the present. The part that belongs to the past is being constituted of infantile experiences, memories and also drives that seek satisfaction throughout life and most of them are repressed to the unconscious. On the other hand the part of the dream that belongs to the present contains a variety of current experiences, feelings, wishes and fantasies whether conscious or unconscious  (Freud, 1900).

A large number of dreams is formed by the contact of a current event in the day-life (day residue) of the dreamer and an infantile repressed wish of his past life. However, the wish-fulfilment is experienced by the dreamer in a disguise form. The final form of the dream is the manifest content of the dream which is a product of a process, called the dream work, whose aim is to transform the actual instinctual wish and the hidden meaning of the dream (latent content) into a distorted picture, a picture puzzle as it is described by Freud. The manifest content of the dream refers to aspects of the dream which the dreamer can easily recall from his memory consciously and they are presented to him in the form of irrational and confused pictures. All these aspects of the dream are products of the dreamer’s experience and they may represent disguised wishes and fantasies (Freud, 1900).

The major mechanisms of the dream work are condensation and displacement. Condensation is the mixture of two or more ideas or mental images, such as human figures, behind one mental content. The function of condensation provides a tremendous economy in time and energy. Displacement is a result of the transfer of the cathexis of energy from one idea to another and it works by a shift of psychical emphasis or value (op.cit).

Two other mechanisms that contribute to the alteration of the latent content into manifest are the secondary revision and symbolism. Secondary revision is the process responsible for filling the gaps between the disconnected ideas or perceptions and for reconstituting the elements of the dream so as the manifest content to have a sequence. Symbolism is used as an expression of repressed material. Symbols stand for primary unconscious ideas from which they acquire their significance. Each dreamer has a preferred set of symbols and uses them regularly as a kind of mental fingerprint. According to Freud if the analyst is acquainted with the dream symbols, the personality and the circumstances of the dreamer’s life he could be in position to interpret the dream straightaway (op.cit)

However,  the most important part of the dream is the latent content which is consisted firstly, of unconscious wishes, which are prevented to reach consciousness,  secondly, of the latent dream-thoughts -recent preconscious feelings, ideas and impressions of waking life which have retained some cathexis from the previous day or from an earlier experience-, and thirdly, from sensory excitations such as somatic needs like thirst .The latent content of the dream is of major importance in the interpretation of the dream because contains its essential meaning, in other words it is the path to the unconscious material of the dream. Therefore, the aim of the dream interpretation is to discover the latent meaning of the dream by undoing the dream work in the manifest content. This process requires the free-associating of the patient to the aspects of the dream that he can recall by memory. These ideas and thoughts of the dreamer can lead to more genuine meanings and central subjects that the analyst can use, in combination with the patient’s psychopathology and the knowledge of symbolism, to reach the deeper repressed unconscious wishes of the patient and his true psychical reality (Freud, 1900-1901).

Ten years later Freud made some additions to his initial theory on the way that an analyst should handle the interpretation. He emphasized on the fact that the analyst should consider as important the art of dream interpretation in the psychoanalytic treatment and that the full interpretations of dreams can be achieved with the completion of the whole analysis. Specifically, he writes  “Dream interpretation should not be pursued in analytic treatment as an art for its own shake, but its handling should subject to those technical rules that govern the conduct of the treatment as a whole” (Freud, 1911,S.E 12: 94). Freud faced an amount of criticism and scepticism from the scientific world of his period because of the uncertain points of his theory. One of the major doubts that rose against his theory of dreams was that the interpretation of a patient’s dream is always a choice of the interpreter and it is influenced by his personal skills, experience and understanding. Freud answered to this criticism by admitting the fact that the personal factor of the interpreter can not be regarded as unimportant but it is the dreamer’s life, psychopathology and dream thoughts that lead the analyst to choose one kind of interpretation from others (Freud, 1916-1917).

Dreams and the Structural Theory of the Mind

In 1923 Freud came upon with two problems that challenged his first considerations on dream interpretation. Some patients although they were capable of free-associating during the treatment, were unable to uncover all the repressed elements of their dreams that were hidden behind the manifest content. It was found that the resistance on expressing unconscious material by the patient was unconscious itself. Therefore, the idea of conflict between conscious and unconscious which was central to the theory of dreams became questionable. Another problem that aroused was that there were some dreams, such as punishment dreams or dreams that appear in traumatic neurosis that do not obey in the concept of the wish fulfilment nature of dreams.

The answer to the above problems came with the introduction of the structural theory of the mind and the division of the mental apparatus into id, ego and superego. Briefly, conflicts that arouse between those structures result to unconscious resistance and anxiety. The ego functions in order to produce order and logic to the dream. The ego’s mechanisms of defence and anxiety are results of its opposition to the id impulses to gain satisfaction. The superego appears on the dream in the form of guilt, remorse and punishment for the satisfaction of the forbidden wish. Every dream however is a compromise between antagonistic forces originated from all the three psychic structures that seek satisfaction. The role of the dream as the guardian of sleep is related to the sleeping ego which partially permits the gratification of unconscious wishes in a way that the fulfilment of the wish is harmless to the maintenance of the sleep (Freud, 1923-1925).

Freud made a major conceptual issue on the subject of dreams. With his mementoes work open the road to a more scientific approach on dreams and his theory, as an introduction to the psychoanalytic conception of the mind, holds a great position among other texts in psychoanalytic training. He was the first who recognized the importance of transference in the analytic situation and the dream interpretation, he introduced the concept of the development of the ego and he gave a theory of a psychic organization, where dreams function as roads to the disclosure of the intra-psychic processes (Flanders, 1993). However, we should have in mind that Freud’s statement that the interpretation of dreams is the basic path to the unconscious is a conclusion of a theory that belongs to a pre-psychoanalytic period. Freud based the dream theory on the personal analysis of his own dreams and also on his experience with neurotic patients and the conclusions that he came on weren’t products of an analytic situation in the way that we know it nowadays. In early days the analyst’s chief aim was to arrive at an understanding of his patient’s unconscious wishes as soon as possible and dreams served this goal in the most effective way. Today we could say that the aim of analysis is the emotional and mental growth of the patient and the understanding of his inner conflicts, under the influence of the interplay of transference and countertransference in the analytic situation.

Modern Perspectives on Dreams

Freud’s theory, viewed from the aspect of recent psychoanalytic standards, although is essential to the psychoanalysis of dream, remains limited. Thus, various issues and questions arise frequently from modern psychoanalytic thinkers, representatives of different psychoanalytic traditions.Those concern a) the centrality of the dream in the analytic situation, b) the increasing interest in the manifest content, c) the changing role of dream in clinical practice and d) the various functions of dreams. However one comes to realize that although the different views are originated and inspired by the work of Freud on dreams and seem to be completing to each other, they do not conclude to a general agreement for the position of dreams in the psychoanalytic situation. More analytically:

a) The most interesting question that arises is that of the centrality of dream in the understanding of the unconscious. Eighty years ago the interpretation of dreams was considered by Freud the most useful therapeutic tool in the psychoanalytic treatment. Nowadays, as psychoanalysis developed both in theory and technique there is a controversy between analysts who still think of dream interpretation as one of the most basic psychoanalytic tools in the treatment of patients, and clinicians who believe that the dream is no more essential to the uncovering of unconscious than other aspects of the patient’s material. Greeson (1970) suggests that an analyst can not achieve a genuine depth in the analysis of a patient if he is not able to understand the structure of the dream formation. He emphasises on the fact that the analyst should work with his patient’s dreams in a creative and productive way and use the patient’s contributions to the interpretation of his own dreams. He thinks of dream as a unique tool to the exploration of the unconscious in comparison with jokes, parapraxes and symptom formations because although the dream is bizarre in its form, it is free from defences and reveals in a more immediate and convincing way the individuality of each patient and the hidden aspects of his personality. Others point out that due to the withdrawal of emphasis on the id and the current interest on ego psychology the dream lost its initial value. Many candidates who are having a psychoanalytic training do not have the experience of analyzing their own dreams and yet they are unable to use effectively the dream in the analytic situation. They can not relate the translation of the dream with the wholeness of the psychoanalytic treatment and the other issues that the patient brings to the session. Therefore, there is a tendency to neglect the dream as unimportant. (Altman, 1969).

Those who contrast the above opinion seem to share the view that today dream is not in the core of the psychoanalytic thinking and practice. In the light of the structural theory, dream analysis is not unique as a method of investigation of the unconscious. There are not only dreams which are compromise formations between id, ego and superego but other mental phenomena such as symptoms slips, jokes or sexual preferences can reveal the inner conflicts and the unconscious (Brenner, 1969). Additionally, Waldhorn (1967) in a monograph called “The Place of Dream in Clinical Psychoanalysis” ads that the dream does not provide access to material that is otherwise unapproachable and secondly that dreams are not specifically useful for the recovery of repressed childhood memories.

b) Freud in most of his papers estimated the value of the latent content in dream interpretation and considered the manifest content of the dream as an element of the dream which is of secondary importance to the analyst. To be more specific, he suggested that “These latent dream thoughts contained the meaning of dream, while its manifest content was simply a make believe, a façade, which could serve as a starting point, for the associations but not for interpretation.” (Freud, 1925, S.E 19: 44). However lately, many psychoanalysts, after the development of ego psychology, showed an increasing interest in the manifest content. Spranjard (1969) points out that in some cases if someone pays attention in the manifest content of the dream can encounter with the fact that the nature of conflict can be expressed already to it. He also argues Freud’s statement that the ego does not appear in the manifest content and believes that in the dream the dreamer is always present even as a shadowy observer. The manifest content gives to the analyst the opportunity to be aware of the superficial and current conflicts of the patient and its contribution to the interpretation of dreams is as significant as its latent content.  Another interesting point of view comes from Eric Erikson (1954) who states that since psychoanalysis has given a new depth to the surface, a psychoanalyst should take into account all the dynamic meanings of human behaviour and the examination of the surface is an effective way to reach the core. In other words he suggests that the analyst should pay attention in the indicators (especially the verbal ones) that make their appearance in the manifest content of the dream and not be in a hurry to overpass the manifest content and search for the hidden meaning of the dream.

c) Despite the historic place of the dream in the development of Freud’s theory of the mind, nowadays, an important subject of debate among the psychoanalytic practitioners seems to be that of the current role of dreaming in theory and practice. A great number of psychoanalysts from various backgrounds try to deal in a systematic and scientific way with this issue. A strictly brief examination of the most important contributions follows.

Freud was the first who suggested that dreams are taking place in a scene different from that of waking life, in a kind of mental space (Freud, 1900). Later, Klein (1927) and Winnicott (1971) considered the development of play of children, with its emotional and symbolic meaning, as very significant to the understanding of dream function. Briefly described, Winnicott (1971) suggested that the capacity to play reflects the capacity of the mother to hold, contain and mirror the psychic reality of the child. If the mother meets with these needs supports the child to develop a growing capacity to face the reality of separateness with the object and create an illusion of a concrete object, a transitional object. This experience leads to the development of a transitional space where the child can play, dream and fantasize. Bion’s (1970) model on mental functioning, described as a mathematical metaphor, indicates that a mother, who is capable to contain the projective identifications of her child and his anxiety, when she becomes internalized, provides the child with a mental space where thoughts, emotional development and dream-work performance can take place.

Modern psychoanalytic writers continue to give emphasis on the importance of this mental space and indicate that the dream, as a psychic experience, apart from a wish-fulfillment is also a capacity to use the dream mechanisms. This capacity depends on the existence of an adequate environment and a successful completion of maturational processes. There is a distinction between the process of dreaming and the space where the dream is contained and becomes an experiential reality. The incapacity to contain the dream leads in acting out of patients (Khan, 1972). Many writers using clinical material observed the changes that take place when patients are unable to possess the dream space and therefore the capacity to face the separation from the internal parents. A dream which seems to be a wishful fantasy can indicate depressive and guilt feelings which stem from an unbearable event of separation of an object (Sondre, 2000). In patients with severe personality disorders we meet with difficulties in gaining access to their own mental experiences, therefore the patient’s dreams reveal an inability to experience images and objects inside themselves and understand their own psychological state of being (Fonagy, 2000). Hanna Segal (1980) discuss Freud’s theory on dreams as it takes for granted that the ego is capable of performing the psychic work which is needed for dreaming and of having a certain capacity for symbolization. However, observation of psychotic patients reveals an incapacity for dreaming, a failure to distinguish between hallucination and reality and also a poor symbolization. The absence of an internal mental sphere in which the dream could be contained led to the appearance of psychotic and concrete dreams. In those patients we meet either with evacuative dreams, where the aim of the dream is to get rid of the self and the bad objects, or predictive dreams, where the patients failed in the process of evacuation and the unwanted parts of the self remain as a bad object in the psyche. Those patients have the tendency to acting out their dreams.

Other writers discussed the relationship of dreams with the capacity to symbolize or mentalize. According to Fonagy (2000) in borderline patients their bizarre dreams contain a residue from primitive stages of development where mental states lack a symbolic quality in their representation. Therefore the analyst should be very careful not to over-interpret them as the material of these dreams may have little substance. Sara Flanders (2000) points out that a temporary breakdown of the symbolic capacities of a patient and therefore the capacities to dream, indicates a failure of the mind to represent symbolically all the internal and external information and can result to concrete manifestations such as various symptoms like for example an eating binge.

Freud became aware of the influence of transference in the interpretation of dreams after he analyzed Dora’s case in 1905. Most analysts nowadays find that the experience of their relationship with patients during the analytic session is a very essential matter in the understanding and the interpretation of their dreams. Today it is generally known that the intrapsychic functions of the patient, for example the dream experience, are influenced by interpersonal relationships and functions such as the transference in the analytic situation. Therefore, the initial experience that a dreamer has in relation to the events of the dream might change in character during the course of the analysis. (Stewart, 1973). According to Fain and David (1963:249) “the dream no longer appears as a foreign body in the session but on the contrary in harmony with it. This state is aided and activated by the constant presence of the psychoanalyst in the conceptual world of the patient”. If we accept Lewin’s (1955) concept that the dream is a wish fulfillment but is also a communication then we should accept the importance of the analyst as a kind of maternal figure who listens and has the ability to receive and elaborate the psychic communications, feelings and projective identification of the patient (Gammill, 1977).There is also a fundamental relationship between the patient’s capacity to create a dream and the state of the analyst’s countertranseference. Some patients try to project on the analyst unconsciously issues and behaviors that they can not dream about. The analyst’s difficult task is the working through and putting into words these issues in order to transform them and offer the patient a way to think of and dream about them (Sedlak, 2000). Finally, Perelberg (2000) suggests that sometimes patient’s dreams are predictive of the future analytic situation because these dreams contain a meaning for the transference relationship which is going to be understood as the analytic course is unfolded and the analyst’s experience of being with the patient is enriched.

d) As it has already mentioned, Freud in “The Interpretation of Dreams” suggested that dreams function as compromise formations between repressed wishes seeking gratification and the opposing pressure of processes in the preconscious which modify this wishes in a form of hallucinatory wish-fulfilments. Recently many psychoanalytic writers although they take into account the classical concept of dream formation, tend to believe that dreams have more than one function and purpose. For example, dreams although reflect the unconscious concerns of the dreamer they also express his plans, his personal purposes and policies for dealing with his concerns and express the patient’s sense of self. Particularly Weiss (1986) points out that dreams are concerns (normal thoughts) which the dreamer is unable to solve consciously as a result of his repressions. Dream serves a kind of self preservation, self guiding or self punishing. Kohut (1977) postulated the self-state dream which is representation of the healthy sectors of the patient’s psyche which react with anxiety when the condition of the self is disturbed by a change or a threat.

Another point of view approached by various writers is the synthetic, adaptive and organizational functions of dreams. De Monchaux (1978) seems to consider the post traumatic dreams which are often repeated, as an attempt of the dreamer to make a synthesis of the trauma into his whole self because when it is considered as a separate element leads to a split of the self. Breger (1977:24)  agrees with the adaptive function of dreams “…dreams serve to integrate affectively aroused material into structures within the memory systems that have previously proved satisfactory in dealing with similar material” and Palombo (1978a) adds to the adaptive nature of dreams their function of matching new elements of perception with permanent fragments in memory in a continuous process. Finally according to Fosshage (1983:654) “the supraordinate function of dreams is the development, maintenance and when necessary, restoration of psychic processes, structure and organization”. A contradictory point of view is that of Blum (1976) who disagrees with those who see the dream as a possibility of creative achievement, problem solving and self actualization and he stress that these accomplishments are the results of the ego preconscious and conscious efforts. Dream is a state which provides a clearer picture of aspects of personality organization and gives us a detailed monitoring of the object representations, the libidinal aims and conflicts in the transference. It gives also the opportunity to study the ego and the superego functions. Finally, the recent research on REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep and dreaming comes to adapt Freud’s view that the function of dream is only to protect sleep and release the energies of instincts. New empirical findings show that the physiologic need for dreaming is present in the organism since childhood. Although Freud’s hypothesis that dreams are attempts to discharge the energy of the instinctual and repressed drives through a hallucinatory wish-fulfillment, experiments suggest that human beings are able to function well for large periods without dreaming. (Fisher, 1978).

To conclude, dream interpretation as a royal road to the unconscious is a concept that still influences the psychoanalytic framework, however in our times psychoanalysts tend to elaborate, enrich and modify Freud’s initial idea. The psychoanalytic study of the dream illuminates unconscious elements of the personality but further reveals the individuality of each patient, the self in relation to others, the psychoanalytic process, the general clinical situation, and the working of an active mind. The meaning of the dream can not be considered apart from the context of the psychoanalytic situation, the transference or countertransference and the entire mental and emotional life of the individual.  Dreams can be used to study life events, developmental issues, and psychopathological states such as depression, psychosis and personality disorders or to examine traumatic experiences, feelings, defences and character traits. However, from my point of view a psychoanalyst should be aware of the wholeness of the analytic process and use a variety of psychotherapeutic tools corresponsive with the patient’s individuality and needs.

It seems to me that dream interpretation in the psychoanalytic field can develop its effectiveness firstly, by an integration of psychoanalytic data with data from other methodological observations, secondly, by a clarification of the methodology of interpretation-for example how the associative material of the patient on his dreams gives rise to specific conclusions of the clinicians- and thirdly, by a new definition of the concept of unconscious. Eighty years later from his era, Freud would agree that the nature of the repressed issues and therefore the content of dreams is changed, as most people nowadays live in more liberate societies and cultures, where sexual and aggressive drives are more easily expressed and less repressed.

Last but not least, one can observe that in spite of the attempts that have been made to understand the world of dreams, opened up by Freud, analysts still come across with mysteries in the dream analysis. However, the review of the psychoanalytic literature on dreams indicates that dream interpretation, with its limitations and its possibilities, is always reflective of the nature and the changes of the psychoanalytic process.

 

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