Dream interpretation

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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 the meaning of dreams.

In the Western world, the first major work on dream interpretation was the 2nd-century Oneirocritica by Artemidorus, which interpreted the meaning of many subjects of dreams. Dream interpretation was taken up as part of psychoanalysis at the end of the 19th century; the perceived, manifest content of a dream is analyzed 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.

Early history

The ancient Greeks constructed temples they called Asclepieions, where sick people were sent to be cured. It was believed that cures would be effected 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. Joseph is recorded as having interpreted dreams sent from God to the Pharaoh in Genesis, and indeed the Bible describes many incidents of dreams as divine revelation. Hieroglyphics depicting dreams and their interpretations are evident. Dreams have been held in considerable importance through history by most cultures.



In his book The Interpretation of Dreams, first published at the end of the 19th century, Sigmund Freud argued that the foundation of all dream content is the fulfillment of wishes, conscious or not. The theory explains that the schism between superego and id leads to "censorship" of dreams. The unconscious would "like" to depict the wish fulfilled wholesale, but the preconscious cannot allow it — the wish (or wishes) within a dream is thus disguised, and, as Freud argues, only an understanding of the structure of the dream-work can explain the dream. In every dream in which he attempts to do so, he is able to establish a multitude of wishes on a variety of levels — conscious wishes for the immediate future ("I hope I pass this test" (V§D.δ))

Freud listed four transformations applied to wishes in order to avoid censorship:

  • Condensation — one dream object stands for several thoughts.
  • Displacement — a dream object's psychical importance is assigned to an object 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.

These transformations help to disguise the latent content, transforming it into the manifest content, what is actually seen by the dreamer. The basis for all of these systems, he claimed, was "transference", in which a would-be censored wish of the unconscious is given undeserved "psychical energy" (the quantum of attention from consciousness) by attaching to "innocent" thoughts. The basis for these theories was accumulated by Freud through many years of clinical and case study research and summarized in a series of lectures at the University of Vienna during the early 20th century and replicated in the book A general introduction to psychoanalysis" published in 1920.

Freud further claimed that the counterintuitive nature of nightmares represented a clash between the super-ego and the id: the id wishes to see a past wish fulfilled, while the super-ego cannot allow it; he interprets the anxiety of a nightmare as the super-ego working against the id. (He further claimed that in nearly all cases these anxious dreams are products of infantile, sexual memories.)

Freud is careful to argue that the wishes are not revealed in dream analysis for the sake of conscious fulfillment, but instead for conscious resolution of the inner conflict. His relaxed attitude towards what could be seen as "depravity" in the unconscious is summed up in Plato's words: "the virtuous man is content to dream what a wicked man really does" (emphasis not added: I§F, VII§F; Plato Republic IX).

According to his theory, the most basic desires come from the "id", the childlike portion of the unconscious, and as such often contained material that would be unacceptable to the super-ego. As the text was written relatively early in his career, he does not use the terms "ego" and "id", but rather "preconscious" and "unconscious", respectively. These terms themselves are not introduced until the seventh chapter of the book, until which his system of dream interpretation is incrementally constructed and argued.

Freud arrived at his theory of dreams by research (though he rejects much of the prior work), self-analysis, and psychoanalysis of his patients (I, VI§H, VII§C); as his theory developed, Freud often used dream interpretation to treat his patients, calling dreams "[t]he royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind" (VII§E).


Dream analysis is central to Jungian analytical psychology, and forms a critical part of the therapeutic process in classical Jungian analysis. Although not dismissing Freud's model of dream interpretation wholesale, he believed that Freud's notion of dreams as representations of unfulfilled wishes, to be simplistic and naive. 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.[1]

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 dreamers 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 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.[2]

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.

He 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 recognise 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 conform to some predetermined idea. This prevents dream analysis 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 which he believed was a deviation, from the salience of the image. He describes 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 analysis.

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. Dreams were not to serve as lie detectors, 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 may contain ineluctable truths, philosophical pronouncements, illusions, wild fantasies, memories, plans, irrational experiences and even telepathic visions. Just as the psyche has a diurnal side which we experience as conscious life, it has an unconscious nocturnal side which 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 1954, Calvin S. Hall developed a theory of dreams in which dreaming is considered to be a cognitive process [1]. 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 analyze 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.

Contemporary psychoanalytic approach

New Age

Interpretation of dreams is also a part of contemporary pop and new age culture. Edgar Cayce is an example. Cayce claimed that through dreaming, people are given access to their spirit, and further, that all possible questions could be answered from the inner consciousness given the proper awareness [3]

A shamanistic model of dream work gained some popularity in the consciousness movement through the work of two dream researchers and authors, Ariadne Green and Stanley Krippner. In Ariadne Green’s model outlined in her book Ariadne’s Book of Dreams, dreams are viewed as coming from three interior worlds, the upper world, lower world and the middle world, honoring the indigenous shaman’s perspective on the terrain of the soul. Some dream characters are viewed as messengers who bring insights and gifts of wisdom from the divine realms while others enter the stage to bring new insights into the dreamer’s personality. Animals in dreams are viewed as powerful archetypes from the lower world that initiate the dreamer and lend spiritual power and healing potentials.

Web Based Dream Analysis

Dream sharing online and dream blogs have become popular. These allow people to post keywords or an entire dream and receive an analysis.[4].

See also


  • Freud, Sigmund, The Interpretation of Dreams
  • Freud, Sigmund, A general introduction to psychoanalysis, Boni & Liveright, NY, 1920.
  • James A. Hall, Jungian Dream Interpretation: A Handbook of Theory and Practice, Inner City Books, 1983, ISBN 0-919123-12-0
  • Elsie Sechrist with foreword by Hugh Lynn Cayce, Dreams, Your Magic Mirror, Warner Books, 1974, mass market paperback, ISBN 0-446-31384-X
  • Storr, Anthony, "The Essential Jung, Selected Writings" 1998
  1. (1998)Storr,Anthony,The Essential Jung, Selected Writings
  2. (1998)Storr,Anthony,The Essential Jung, Selected Writings
  3. Bro, Harmon. Cayce on Dreams. 1982
  4. Desy, Phylameana lila, Holistic Healing

External links

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