Moving Dream Theory Beyond Freud and Jung

G. William Domhoff

University of California, Santa Cruz

NOTE: If you use this paper in research, please use the following citation:
Domhoff, G. W. (2000). Moving Dream Theory Beyond Freud and Jung. Paper presented to the symposium "Beyond Freud and Jung?", Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA, 9/23/2000.


The scientific studies of dreaming and dream content that have accumulated gradually over the past 50 years do not support any of the ideas about dreams that are specifically "Freudian" or "Jungian," but they do support the general notion that many dreams have meaning in the sense of coherence, correlations with other psychological variables, and connections with waking thoughts (Domhoff, 1996; Fisher & Greenberg, 1977; Fisher & Greenberg, 1996; Foulkes, 1985; Foulkes, 1999). The findings also allow for the possibility that at least some dreams are the "symbolic" product of the same processes of figurative thinking found in waking thought, but much work would have to be done on this issue before any strong claims could be made (Gibbs, 1994; Grady, Oakley, & Coulson, 1999; Lakoff & Johnson, 1980; Lakoff & Johnson, 1999).

Lest the conclusion that many dreams make psychological sense seems too obvious or banal as a small vindication for Freud and Jung, it needs to be noted that the idea has been under strong attack by the neurophysiologists and neurophilosophers who favor the "activation-synthesis" theory championed by Hobson and his co-workers (Churchland, 1988; Flanagan, 2000; Hobson & McCarley, 1977; Hobson, Pace-Schott, & Stickgold, 2000; Hobson, Stickgold, & Pace-Schott, 1998). They cling to the idea that dreams are poorly constructed reactions to brainstem stimulation even though that hypothesis has been shown to be false again and again since the 1960s (Antrobus, Kondo, & Reinsel, 1995; Cavallero, Cicogna, Natale, & Occhionero, 1992; Foulkes, 1962; Foulkes, 1982; Herman, Ellman, & Roffwarg, 1978; Vogel, 1978). These brainstem reductionists also claim that unusual structural features in dreams that may be metaphoric are merely due to physiological changes within Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, but that idea had been tested and discarded even before the theory was proposed (Foulkes, 1996; Pivik, 1978; Pivik, 1986). They insist that dreams are highly bizarre, but every other researcher who has looked at dream content through laboratory awakenings thinks they are for the most part reasonably good simulations of waking life (Dorus, Dorus, & Rechtschaffen, 1971; Foulkes, 1985; Hall, 1966; Meier, 1993; Snyder, 1970; Strauch & Meier, 1996).

The next two sections bring forward systematic findings to address every major claim made by Freud and Jung about dreams. This evidence comes from a wide range of areas within empirical dream research, including experimental studies in sleep laboratories, content analyses of dream reports, neuropsychological studies of the effects of brain lesions on dreaming, and correlational studies relating dream recall to cognitive and personality variables. Freud's claims are easily studied because all of them can be found in The Interpretation of Dreams (Freud, 1900). Locating all of Jung's hypotheses is more difficult because they are scattered throughout his collected works. I therefore have focused on his four main ideas, as brought together in an edited collection of his dream papers(Jung, 1974), and in a cataloguing of what he had to say about dreams by Mattoon (1978).

The Freudian Theory of Dreams

During the late nineteenth century it was generally believed by dream theorists that dreams were very brief, usually in reaction to an internal or external stimulus, or even that they occurred during the process of awakening. Freud (1900) tried to blend these perspectives by comparing dreams to "a firework that has been hours in the preparation, and then blazes up in a moment." He agreed that they last for only a brief time, and perhaps occur only during awakening, but added the idea that the thoughts underlying dreams develop slowly during the day. However, contrary to Freud, laboratory studies reveal that dreaming takes place longer, more frequently, and more regularly than he or any other theorist ever imagined before the serendipitous discovery of sleep stages in 1953 (Aserinsky & Kleitman, 1953; Dement, 1955; Dement & Kleitman, 1957).

Freud also asserted that "a reference to the events of the day just past is to be discovered in every dream," but five detailed studies demonstrate that only about half of dreams contain even the slightest "day residue" that can be identified by the dreamer (Botman & Crovitz, 1989; Harlow & Roll, 1992; Hartmann, 1968; Marquardt, Bonato, & Hoffmann, 1996; Nielsen & Powell, 1992). As part of his emphasis on the large role of specific memories in shaping dream content, Freud believed that all significant speeches in dreams can be traced to memories of speeches heard or sentences read, but the analysis of hundreds of speech acts in dreams collected in sleep laboratories shows they are usually new constructions appropriate to the unfolding dream context, not reproductions (Meier, 1993). Indeed, speech acts are so appropriate to the dream context that bi-lingual participants in one sleep study reported that they spoke in the language understood by the dream character with whom they were talking(Foulkes, Meier, Strauch, & Kerr, 1993).

Freud's most famous and important claim was that "wish-fulfillment is the meaning of each and every dream." Although this hypothesis was based on his work with adult patients, he began his argument with several simple wishful dreams that he overheard from his pre-school children or learned of through the parents of the dreamers. However, a five-year longitudinal study in the sleep laboratory of 14 children ages 3-5 reveals on the basis of dozens of awakenings that young children have static and bland dreams, not at all like Freud's anecdotal examples (Foulkes, 1982; Foulkes, 1999).

Several of the young children's dreams discussed by Freud were sleeptalking episodes. The most famous concerned the phrase "stwaberries, stwaberries, Anna wants some stwaberries," which was uttered by his 19-month old daughter after being denied strawberries during the day because she had an upset stomach. It seems to be an ideal example of how dreams can express unfulfilled wishes. Once again, however, there are laboratory studies that cast doubt on Freud's claims. These studies suggest that many sleeptalking episodes in children and adults happen during one of the several micro-awakenings that occur each night and average 10-20 seconds in duration (Arkin, 1981; Boselli, Parrino, Smerieri, & Terzano, 1998; Mathur & Douglas, 1995). Sleeptalking episodes therefore cannot be used as evidence that young children dream. It is more likely, especially in the light of Foulkes' laboratory findings with children ages 3-5, that sleeptalking in young children occurs during the brief awakenings that went undiscovered until dream research moved into the sleep laboratory.

Freud began his argument for the wish fulfillment theory with children's dreams because he believed that the wishes in most adult dreams are disguised, making them less suitable as a starting point for an exposition of his views. This process of disguising is carried out by a set of cognitive processes unique to sleep called "the dream-work"-- condensation, displacement, regard for representability, and secondary revision. He further believed that the dream-work renders many adult dreams incomprehensible at the behest of a censoring agency, thereby making the anxiety-arousing wishes in them acceptable. Numerous clinical examples are brought forward to demonstrate how each of these processes works. Needless to say, perhaps, these examples are highly anecdotal in nature. It is ironic that Freud very frequently appeals to parallels that can be found in sexual slang, jokes, word etymologies, and proverbs in making his case. These appeals imply that the dream-work is not unique to sleep, but an instance of figurative thought (Gibbs, 1994; Lakoff, 1997).

The many attempts to demonstrate the operation of the dream-work in controlled studies have not proven to be very successful. Two sympathetic reviews of all available experimental studies could find no evidence for such processes (Fisher & Greenberg, 1977; Fisher & Greenberg, 1996). On the other hand, many studies contradict Freud's claim that the dreams produced by the dream-work are relatively meaningless unless subjected to interpretation using his method and theory. These studies, which correlate dream reports and a variety of personality measures, suggest that dreams provide a considerable amount of information about a person's interests and emotional concerns without the aid of interpretation.

Freud correctly anticipated that there would be objections to his wish fulfillment theory based on anxiety dreams and punishment dreams. In the case of anxiety dreams, he claimed they simply show that the censor has failed to disguise the wishes enough to make them acceptable. In the case of punishment dreams, he said that the wish came from the censoring agency within the personality. These ideas are plausible enough within the context of his basic assumptions, but they are also difficult if not impossible to falsify.

However, Freud did not try to explain away, or even discuss, the repetitive nightmares that are the hallmarks of post-traumatic stress disorder. This fact is somewhat surprising because he had been impressed in the years shortly before he wrote his book on dreams by the role that childhood traumas seemed to play in creating neurotic symptoms in adults. It was not until the recurrent "war neurosis" dreams suffered by combatants in World War I were brought to his attention that he concluded "it is impossible to classify as wish fulfillments the dreams we have been discussing which occur in traumatic neurosis, or the dreams during psychoanalysis which bring to memory the psychical traumas of childhood" (Freud, 1920, p. 32). He said that such dreams reveal an attempt at mastering overwhelming external stimuli, an explanation that parallels what he originally thought about neurotic symptoms in the 1890s.

While this concession seems to undermine the theory that all dreams are wish fulfillments, Freud (1932, p. 29) claimed that the dreams arising from what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder do not "overturn the rule". He argued that they do not contradict his theory because they draw upon a deeper level of the mind, one "beyond the pleasure principle" that shapes most dreams. His only modification of his theory was to say that dreams are a "disguised" attempt at wish fulfillment (Freud, 1932).

But such a resolution of the problem is not really satisfactory. We now know that the dreams of post-traumatic stress disorder are far too frequent and persistent over time to be put aside so readily, and they seem to have parallels in the frightening repetitive chase and attack dreams experienced by a majority of people at one point or another in their lives (Domhoff, 1996; Hartmann, 1998; Kramer, 2000; Zadra, 1996). At the very least, traumatic dreams and recurrent dreams show that wish fulfillment dreams are only a subset of all possible dreams. They therefore stand as a refutation of the wish fulfillment theory as a general theory. We are left with a rather "cognitive" and mundane idea: just as we have some wishful waking thoughts, so, too, do we have some wishful dreams.

Freud thought people forget most of their dreams, at least in part due to a hypothetical cognitive process called repression, a process for which there is little or no convincing experimental evidence (Loftus & Ketcham, 1994). Moreover, investigations of the relationship between frequency of recall and various personality and cognitive variables cast doubt on the notion that any process of denial or self-censorship is involved in dream forgetting (Cohen, 1979; Goodenough, 1991). So do the results from several different laboratory studies which demonstrate that the classic memory variables -- recency, length, and intensity -- best predict which dreams reported after awakenings in the night are also recalled the next morning (Baekland & Lasky, 1968; Meier, Ruef, Zeigler, & Hall, 1968; Strauch, 1969; Trinder & Kramer, 1971) .

In what may be his most sweeping and elegant construction, building on the wish fulfillment theory and the fact that most dreams are forgotten, Freud theorized that dreams are the "guardians" of sleep, arising to deal with any bodily urges that may develop during the night. He used "dreams of convenience," such as going to the bathroom or getting dressed for school, as simple examples of how dreams preserve sleep by providing a hallucinatory satisfaction to an urge, but his greatest emphasis was on the role of dreams in preserving sleep in the face of sexual urges.

The plausible idea that dreams are the guardians of sleep is now contradicted by two very different kinds of findings. First, the frequency and regularity of dreaming in most people suggests that the process cannot be primarily a way to deal with urges that emerge episodically during sleep. Second, dreams cannot be the guardians of sleep if there are people who can sleep even though they do not dream, and we now have reason to believe there are such people, including young children (Foulkes, 1999), leucotomized schizophrenics (Jus et al., 1973), neurology patients suffering from parietal lobe injuries (Solms, 1997), and perhaps normal adults with weak visuospatial skills (Butler & Watson, 1985).

Freud's (1900) most controversial claim was that "impressions from the earliest years of our life can appear in our dreams, which do not seem to be at the disposal of our memory when we are awake." Once again, the memories can be varied in nature, but his greatest emphasis was on infantile sexual desires from "up to about the end of our third year." He demonstrated his point by interpreting the embarrassing "nakedness-dreams" experienced by many adults as "exhibition-dreams," based on childish desires to prance around naked. Such an assertion about early memories is highly unlikely in the light of modern-day research on memory (Howe, 2000; Loftus & Ketcham, 1994).

Freud's claims about the nature of dreams rest for the most part on his method of free association, in which the dreamer produces uncritical, unreflective trains of thought to each aspect of the dream. Freud assumed that these free associations reveal the "latent" wishes on which dreams are based. The discovery of latent content through free association then leads to the inference that the cognitive processes called the dream-work transform these latent wishes into the "manifest" dream content.

Because other methods have not been able to show support for Freud's theory, any remaining credibility it may have depends upon the validity of this method. However, there is no evidence that the method has any specific scientific usefulness even though it seems to be helpful in bringing people to talk about themselves, their emotional memories, and their current concerns. As Fisher and Greenberg (1977, pg. 66) note in their first assessment of Freud's work on dreams, "there is not a shred of empirical or reliable evidence that they provide a unique 'true' solution concerning what is contained in the dream." In addition, a large-scale attempt by Foulkes (1978) to make use of free associations to understand dreams collected in the laboratory setting ended with the conclusion that the method is "inherently arbitrary" (Foulkes, 1996)

On the other hand, and contrary to the claim that the method is free of any suggestive influence by the psychoanalyst, there is experimental evidence that subtle suggestions from an experimenter-therapist can falsely convince many people on the basis of dream interpretations that they were once lost or abandoned as young children (Mazzoni & Loftus, 1998; Mazzoni, Loftus, Seitz, & Lynn, 1999). These and many other findings on the power of suggestion in a therapeutic context (Ofshe & Watters, 1994) take on greater importance when Freud's (1900) several mentions of arguments with patients concerning the wishful and infantile basis of their dreams are added to the picture. What Freud saw as overcoming "resistance" can be understood from the vantage point of social psychology as a process of persuasion and conversion within the context of great respect for an authority figure who is seen as offering relief from suffering.

As can be seen from this brief overview of the relevant scientific literature on dreams, there is no reason to believe any of Freud's specific claims about dreams and their purposes. It is as likely that social influence processes led to Freud's "discoveries" as it is that free association uncovers the latent content of dreams. Moreover, the all-important wish theory is refuted by the dreams of post-traumatic stress disorder and the blandness of young children's dreams. The idea of dreams as guardians of sleep is contradicted by both the regularity of dreaming and the absence of dreaming in children and brain-lesioned patients. The lack of evidence for the processes called the dream-work suggests that they are at best forms of figurative thought familiar to us through jokes and slang (Hall, 1953a). Since there are many dreams without day residue, it cannot be the case that all dreams contain a reference to events from the previous day or two. These stark conclusions leave us with nothing that is explicitly "Freudian" in the search for a general psychological theory of dreams except that at least some dreams have psychological meaning.

The Jungian Theory of Dreams

Jung's theory of dreams is more general than Freud's, so the systematic findings developed in the sleep laboratory do not relate to it in one way or another. Basically, he presented four main ideas, which can be addressed with modern-day research on metaphor on the one hand and the large literature on dream content on the other.

Jung's (1963; 1974) best-known and most central idea in relation to dreams is that the most important ones are the products of a "collective unconscious." This collective unconscious contains the inherited experiential record of the human species in the form of "archetypes," which are best understood as highly energized patterns or concepts that must be expressed through the personality. However, as a comprehensive analysis and synthesis by Neher (1996) argues, the concept is unscientific because (1) it is based on the discredited notion of the inheritance of acquired characteristics; (2) it does not allow for the variation in specific archetypes that is a basic aspect of genetics; and (3) it is not grounded in a convincing elimination of the possible influence of socialization and culture in the personal, therapeutic, and cross-cultural examples on which it is based. In addition, as the first point in Neher's critique implies, it is not able to escape the charge of circularity because its origins are said to be in repeated human experience, which is the phenomenon it is supposed to explain. If experience is the basis for the collective unconscious, there is no need to invoke a "collective unconscious" to explain experiences that are more likely based on common human situations that recur in individual lifetimes.

Second, Jung argued that the archetypes of the collective unconscious express themselves through a set of inherited symbols that also appear in myths, religious ceremonies, and other waking practices. The interpretation of these symbols on the basis of both individual dreams and cultural parallels is the basic activity of Jungians in regard to dreams. However, Jung's observation of some commonality in dream content across individuals and cultures is more parsimoniously and plausibly encompassed by the idea that metaphorical concepts are acquired through both developmental experiences shared by all human beings and gradual linguistic socialization into the huge treasure trove of conceptual metaphors that are part of our cultural heritage (Gibbs, 1994; Gibbs, 1999; Lakoff, 1987; Lakoff & Turner, 1989). As part of their emphasis on inherited symbolism, Jungians claim that dreams emanating from the collective unconscious can occur in early childhood, an assertion based on dream reports from adults (Jung, 1974; Kluger, 1975; Mattoon, 1978). As shown in the discussions in the previous section concerning the cognitive impoverishment of children's dreams and the suggestive nature of psychotherapy, there is no reason to believe these retrospective reports.

Jung's third major idea is that most dreams, but especially those with roots in the collective unconscious, have a "compensatory" function: they express those aspects of the personality, including archetypes in the collective unconscious, not adequately developed in waking life. This idea is very difficult to support or refute in a definitive way because there may be subtle forms of compensation even in dreams that do not seem compensatory on the basis of objective methods. However, the idea seems to be contradicted by every relevant systematic study since the beginning of modern-day dream research in the late nineteenth century, when psychologists who wrote down their own dreams found there is considerable continuity between dream content and waking cognition (Calkins, 1893; Weed & Hallam, 1896). This finding is repeated in non-laboratory investigations summarized by Fisher and Greenberg (1977; 1996) and in two sleep laboratory studies in the 1960s that analyzed correlations between dream content and objective personality measures: young males with the most unpleasant dreams also tended to have the highest scores on MMPI psychopathology indicators (Foulkes, Larson, Swanson, & Rardin, 1969; Foulkes & Rechtschaffen, 1964).

The continuity between dream content and waking life is one of the most striking findings from content analysis studies by Calvin S. Hall and his co-workers (Hall & Nordby, 1972). For example, people dream most often about the individuals and interests that preoccupy them in waking life. They show the most aggression in dreams toward the people with whom they have the most conflict in waking life. The results are so consistent for these kinds of continuities that Hall adopted the term "continuity hypothesis" to contrast his findings with Jung's "compensation hypothesis." His blind analyses of the dreams of a child molester incarcerated in a prison hospital, a neurotic patient in psychotherapy, Franz Kafka, and numerous average people who kept dream journals provide the major evidence for this alternative hypothesis (Bell & Hall, 1971; Domhoff, 1996; Hall & Lind, 1970).

Fourth, and finally, Jung claimed there are gradual changes in dream content beginning in the middle years of adult life that reflect the psychological need for the "individuation" and "integration" of the personality, under the direction of the "self" archetype. However, there is considerable evidence that adults, unlike children as they grow up, are consistent in what they dream about over months, years, or decades. The evidence is of two types, cross-sectional and longitudinal. Several cross-sectional studies, most in the United States, but one in Canada, demonstrate that dream content shows consistency, not change, as people grow older, with the possible exception of declines in aggression and negative emotions (Brenneis, 1975; Cote, Lortie-Lussier, Roy, & DeKoninck, 1996; Domhoff, 1996; Hall & Domhoff, 1963; Hall & Domhoff, 1964; Howe & Blick, 1983; Zepelin, 1980; Zepelin, 1981). While the longitudinal studies are not large in number, they are very similar in their results for both ongoing dream journals (Domhoff, 1996; Domhoff & Schneider, 1998; Hall & Nordby, 1972; Smith & Hall, 1964) and two-week journals collected 10 to 17 years apart from 21 adult women (Lortie-Lussier, Cote, & Vachon, 2000).

Within this context of consistency, a study of dreams from women before, during, and after menopause is of special interest because it was designed to test ideas derived from Jungian theory concerning changes in dream content during and after menopause (Abel, 1994). The investigator created seven theoretical scales derived from Jungian theory that were used by three coders na•ve about Jungian theory and blind as to the age of the dreamer. Even more important for my purposes here, an expert on Jungian theory coded all dreams on a scale for the degree to which the dreams expressed archetypal symbols.

Thirty-two of the women were still menstruating, average age 39.6; 24 women were perimenopausal, average age 49.2; and 20 women were postmenopausal, average age 58.6. Women in the first group averaged 32 dream reports over a one-month period; women in the second group averaged 21; and women in the third averaged 16. This decline parallels the decrease in recall with age in a study of 2,328 adults ages 17 to 92 (Giambra, Jung, & Grodsky, 1996). In terms of dream content, the only significant content difference concerned an "initiation" scale within an overall "transition" scale, but the difference was not for the predicted group. Contrary to expectations, the codings by the Jungian expert did not show any difference in the degree of symbolic expression in the three samples.

Once again, then, the findings relevant to the theory under investigation provide no support for its specific claims. However, they do suggest that dreams are more than hapless reactions to periodic random firings from the brainstem.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Three general ideas remain from Freudian and Jungian theory after sifting through the scientific evidence developed by empirical dream researchers. First, dreaming is a cognitive process that draws on memory schemas, episodic memories, and general knowledge to produce reasonable simulations of the real world (Antrobus, 1991; Foulkes, 1985; Foulkes, 1999) , with due allowance for the occasional highly unusual or extremely memorable dream (Bulkeley, 1999; Hunt, 1989; Knudson & Minier, 1999; Kuiken & Sikora, 1993). Second, dreams have psychological meaning in the sense of coherency, correlations with other psychological variables, and correspondences with waking thought (Domhoff, 1996; Foulkes, 1985; Hall, 1953b). Third, the unusual features of dreams, such as unlikely juxtapositions, metamorphoses, and impossible acts, may be the product of figurative thought (Hall, 1953a; Lakoff, 1997) .

However, none of these ideas implies that dreams have any "purpose" or adaptive function, and least of all the functions proposed for them by Freud and Jung (Antrobus, 1993; Foulkes, 1993). Dreams are too rarely remembered or related to daily events, and too infrequently contain even the hint of solutions to problems, to have any use to the waking mind in any evolutionary sense, and there is no evidence that dreaming has any adaptive purpose during sleep. Dreaming may well be the accidental by-product of two important adaptations, thinking and sleeping (Foulkes, 1985; Foulkes, 1993; Foulkes, 1999)

Still, their frequent dramatization of emotional preoccupations and their parallels with the metaphoric dimensions of waking thought may be why some societies have cultural practices relating to dreams, especially in medicine and religion. In that sense, dreams have "emergent" uses that have been developed in the course of history and passed on through culture, but that is a long way from saying they have any built-in psychological function in the way Freud and Jung claimed.

The literature I have drawn upon to critique the Freudian and Jungian theories of dreams is often ignored, pushed aside, or explained away with unimpressive arguments. It deserves to be better known. If this literature were to be taken seriously, there would no longer be any Freudians or Jungians when it comes to understanding dreams. Nor would there be any brainstem reductionists, for that matter. By the rules of the scientific game, the ideas and findings carefully developed by empirical dream researchers should be the starting point for anyone who wants to develop a scientific theory of dreams (Domhoff, 1999; Domhoff, 2001).


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