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       Freud's Theories on             Dreams

Dream Interpretation

Part 2 Theories

Freud brought back the idea of dreams when society had lost all respect for them. In the early part of the 19th century, dream interpretation had fallen out of fashion, and almost no one practiced this art seriously. This was the time when the "rational" was given almost total dominance over our other abilities and dreams were thought to have no meaning atall, and to be simply the result of a heavy meal before bedtime, noises heard in the night and other trivial causes. Now while it is true that all of these things can effect our dreams, it is certainly not true that that is all there is to dreams!

By the latter part of the 19th century, however, Sigmund Freud would revolutionize the world of dream interpretation with his radical new ideas incorporating dreams and deep seated childhood fears.

Born in 1865, Freud revolutionized the world of psychiatry and dream interpretation with his work “The Interpretation of Dreams”.  Freud started to analyze the dreams of his patients, and he used this dream analysis to diagnose and treat their psychiatric ills.

Freud also studied dreams as a way to understand certain aspects of the personality, especially those aspects that lead to psychological problems and disorders.  He believed that nothing human beings did, happened by chance, and that every action, no matter how small or seemingly trivial, was at some level motivated by the unconscious mind.

In order for a civilized, modern society to function, certain primal needs and desires must be repressed, and Freud’s theory was that these repressed urges and desires were released by the unconscious during dream sleep.

To Freud dreams were a direct connection to the unconscious mind, and he studied that connection through the interpretation of symbols found in dreams.  Hebelieved that with the conscious mind acts as a guard on the unconscious, preventing certain repressed feelings from coming to the surface.  During sleep, however, this conscious guard is absent, and the subconscious mind is free to run wild and express its most hidden desires.

Freud was especially interested in the sexual content of dreams, and he often saw ordinary objects in dreams as representations of sexual desire.  To him, every long, slender item encountered in a dream, from a knife to a flagpole, was a phallic image, while any receptacle such as a bowl or vase, represented the female genitalia.

Freud believed in five stages of personality, and he saw dreams as manifestations of desired stemming from each of these five stages.  To him, personality formation consisted of:

Stage One – Oral/Dependency

This is our earliest time in life when we are totally dependent on our caretaker and when we explore the world through our muth, when feeding and by exploring objects.  Anyone who knows very young children will be aware that everything goes into their mouths! Freud’s theory was that we need satisfaction in each of these stages and therefore any needs not satisfied during the oral/dependency stage would cause the person to go through life trying to meet them.  Thus, to Freud, habits such as overeating, drinking to much and smoking were all oral fixations.  People suffering from these oral fixations often dreamed about their unmet needs and desires.

Stage Two – Anal/Potty Training

Freud believed that to a young child the contents of their potty (or nappy) were very important.  It was something they themselves had produced and felt to the child like a gift from him or her. He therfore felt great care should be taken with potty training. Freud held that improper potty training could traumatize a child, and cause him or her to become anal retentive, rigid and controlling.  Such traumatized children might develop obsessive compulsive disorders as well and this might be seen by recurring dreams of being out of control, such as dreams of falling.

Stage Three – Phallic Stage

According to Freud, the personality is completely developed by the time stage three rolls around.  The third stage of personality is identified with the Oedipus and Electra complexes.  The Oedipus complex represents the love a male child feels toward the mother, coupled with fear and jealousy of the male parent.  The Electra complex is the female version of Oedipus, in which the female child feels anger toward the mother and develops “penis envy”. Jeffrey Masson has written a credible and interesting book The Assault on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory in which he argues well that Freud's theory here came after he had realised that many of his patients had sufered from incest and had tried to get this publicly known, but society, particularly his peers would not accept this.  He believes Freud was in danger of being shunned and found this intollerable and so gave up on the truth of incest he had discovered and chose instead to believe that girls and women were jealous of boy's and men's penis's.

Stage Four – Latent Stage

Unlike the other stages, the latency period is a time of relative calm.  During this stage, the aggression and sexual urges are less intense, and little psychosexual conflict is exhibited. This is during the years that most children have been 'conditioned' into the society in which they were born and have not yet reached puberty.

Stage Five – Genital Stage

The genital stage is the period of sexual maturity and the creation and enhancement of life.  It is where reproduction, intellectual activity and artistic pursuits take place.

Freud believed that wish fulfillment was the source of dreams,  and that dreamers used dreams as a way to satisfy the fixations they had developed during childhood. Issues like power and control frequently manifested themselves in dreams.  The central part of Freud’s dream theory was that thoughts and desires repressed during the day were free to run wild during the dream stage.

Freud believed that what is hidden in the unconscious tends to be the nasty parts of ourselves.  Jung never believed this and went on to develop a system of understanding dreams rich in symbolism.

Since Freud’s death, many have criticized him for seeing sexual motivation behind every dream object.  Many have pointed out that Freud was born into the sexually repressed Victorian era, and his preoccupation with sexual matters could have been as much a product of the times in which he lived as a valid scientific theory. Even so, many of Freud’s dream interpretations have proven to have substance and are still used by some psychologists and dream researchers today.  With Freud it is easy to see his flaws but we need to take care not to throw out the baby with the bathwater as there also was a great deal of intelligence and insight in his work.  For an excellent book on Freud see Greatness and Limitations of Freud's Work by Erich Fromm and for a fuller understanding of him see our article on Freud and the Unconscious and visit Sigmund Freud - Life and Work

next The Animus and Anima - Archetypical symbols in dreams



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