Classroom Lecture Notes: Freud on Dreaming

by G. William Domhoff

These are my own notes that I use when teaching classes about dream research. They may be of use to those looking for some general information about Sigmund Freud's ideas on dreams.

Also see my notes on the similarities and differences between Freud and Jung.

Freud's Theory of Dreaming

Dreams are things which get rid of psychical stimuli disturbing to sleep, by means of hallucinatory satisfaction." Their "function" at the psychological level is wish fulfillment. Their "function" or "adaptive purpose" at the physiological level is preservation of sleep. In his final formulation, they are a disguised attempt at wish fulfillment.

Freud's general theory begins with the concept of repression, a cognitive process through which we deny wishes, fears, and thoughts that are threatening to us(make us anxious). Repression creates an unconscious, an aspect of us that is outside of our waking awareness.

But repression is not completely successful. There is a "return of the repressed":

  • in dreams
  • in jokes
  • in slips of the tongue (Freudian slips)
  • in symptoms, which are individual "symbols"
  • in cultural symbols, which are collective "symptoms." (Most of culture, and especially religion, is a "group defense mechanism" for Freud.)

It is the comprehensive nature of Freud's theory that was a large part of its attraction. Dreams are like neurotic symptoms, and they sometimes embody cultural symbols that express our hidden desires in a collective way. In fact, dreams are the individual equivalent of a neurosis in all of us.

There are three key aspects to Freud's specific theory of dreams:

latent contentdream-workmanifest content
the repressed wishescondensation, displacement, dramatization, elaborationdream as we experience it, often unintelligible

The dream-work carries out these transformations at the behest of the "censor," which makes sure the partial satisfaction of wishes does not disturb sleep. If the dream-work does not sufficiently disguise the repressed wishes, then the dreamer becomes anxious and wakes up. In other words, sometimes dreams fail in their adaptive function of preserving sleep.

Bigger issues in Freud's theory

Assuming for the moment that repression exists, what causes it to occur? From 1896 to1926, Freud said "Society." We repress what our culture demands that we repress. In this view, the family serves as "the psychic agent of society," teaching us the prohibitions within our culture. But Freud changed his mind about this theory in 1926 based on new evidence and further reflection. He now said that anxiety causes repression.

If anxiety causes repression, the question becomes, what causes anxiety. Freud first answered this question developmentally, "missing someone is the key to anxiety." This formulation led to "attachment theory" in developmental psychology. Once attachment to a caretaker occurs, then separation anxiety ("missing someone") can develop. This theory was further developed by the British psychoanalyst John Bowlby and then by his student and co-worker, Mary Ainsworth, who brought it into developmental psychology.

The idea that anxiety causes repression opens the way to developmental studies of repression. Perhaps repression now can be studied by seeing if the "deception" that young children learn to employ in dealing with others is later used to create "self-deception."

At a more abstract level, which Freud called his "metapsychology," he said in the 1920s that we are anxious due to the clash between the "life instinct" and "death instinct." His followers did not like this theory. Most present-day Freudians with an academic focus, such few as there are, therefore start with attachment theory, separation anxiety, wishes, and the development of repression and other "defense mechanisms." As for the psychoanalysts, they start with the idea that the basic conflict is between sexual and aggressive instincts, which was Freud's pre-1920 theory of the instinctual clash.

For a sympathetic summary of all studies on dreams that relate to Freudian dream theory , see Chapter 7, Seymour Fisher and Roger Greenberg, Freud Scientifically Appraised, 1996. They conclude that there is little or no support for any of Freud's ideas on dreams.

Specific problems for the dream theory

  1. Critics said that some dreams showed no sign of wish fulfillment. They first pointed to anxiety dreams and punishment dreams. Freud of course countered that anxiety dreams were "failed" dreams where the dream-work had not sufficiently done its job, forcing the night watchman to ring the alarm and wake the person up. For punishment dreams he claimed that the wish came from what he came to think of as the "super ego," the system of conscience and ideals within the personality structure.

    But World War I forced a new kind of dream on his attention very forcefully, the traumatic or "war neurosis" dreams of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In 1920 Freud decided that this kind of dream did not fit his theory. Nonetheless, he said the exception did not overturn the rule because these kind of dreams came from "beyond the pleasure principle," from a layer of the psyche concerned with mastering stimuli. PTSD dreams led him to revise his theory to say that dreams are a disguised attempt at wish fulfillment.

    (For us, the idea of PTSD dreams as an attempt to "master stimuli" may fit a little better with recent neuropsychological findings." Dreams often feature problems we are "stuck" on. They are often about "unfinished business."

  2. The concept of "repression" is controversial. Many would say it has not been demonstrated. Academic psychologists and some clincians are on one side, led by Elizabeth Loftus, with most clinicians on the other side.

  3. It has not been possible to study the dreamwork outside of the clinical setting. Some believe that the dreamwork, if it exists, is actually the figurative thinking that we employ when awake. We will discuss this when we come to the work of Hall and Lakoff.

  4. "Manifest" dream content seems to "express" more than it disguises, that is, it seems more understandable than Freud believed. This raises questions about whether dreams are "disguised" attempts at wish fulfillment.

  5. If some adults, and children under age 5, do not dream, as work to be presented later in the course suggests, then dreams may not have the function of preserving sleep.

  6. Are the interpretations the product of the social psychology of the therapeutic process, which is much like a highly suggestive conversion process in which the client adopts a new narrative of self and joins a new in-group, those who have been analyzed? This question is worthy of extended discussion because it relates to all clinical theorists.

Freud's answer: We do not suggest, we analyze. If we are right in our analyses, which we offer to patients as interpretations, and the patient accepts and incorporates the interpretation, then there will be a positive change in the person in that more psychological energy will be available for everyday living. This energy change is the "confirmation" of the correctness of the interpretation.

However, a rejection of an interpretation does not always mean the analyst is wrong, says Freud, which is what annoyed Freudian critics. And indeed, Freud did talk about patients showing what he called "resistance," a defense mechansim used in the therapeutic setting. Today we would say in everyday parlance that the patient is "in denial." But how do we know that? The critics said Freud was saying he was right either way. If the patient agreed and had more energy, that proved the intepretation was right, but if the patient rejected the interpretation, the patient was showing "resistance" because he/she did not want to give up the partial pleasure his/her neurosis gave to him'her.

Freud answered his critics in a more complex way in a paper in the late 1930s. It discusses when a "yes" really means "yes," when "yes" doesn't really mean "yes, when "no" does mean "no," and when "no" doesn't mean "no." In other words, there are four possibilities--yes can mean yes or no, and no can mean yes or no. Here's what that means.

If the analyst makes a dream interpretation and the patient seems to accept it, and then shows a positive emotional reaction -- like, as I said in a previous paragraph, having more energy for everyday life -- then the "yes" means "yes." However, if the person gives a simple yes in a compliant way, and his/her neurosis does not change for the better, then the interpretation was wrong, or at least premature, and therefore "yes" does not mean "yes." So, says Freud, agreement by the patient does not always mean the analyst is right.

On the other hand, if the analyst makes an interpretation and the patient denies it, that is, says "no, that's no right," then the analyst accepts the "no" if it is a simple "no" and there is no protest or emotional reaction. However, if the patient vehemently rejects the interpretation, that is, shows "resistance," and then goes on to accidentally support the interpretation through things like Freudian slips within the therapeutic context, or more importantly, by having dreams that on analysis support the denied interpretation, then "no" does not mean "no." It is akin to a line in Shakespeare that goes something like "Me thinks thou protests too much."

Okay, let's turn to present-day critics of Freud, who say that strong denials are not a sign of some underlying resistance that is verified by subsequent events. Instead, they say that the ongoing discussion of the issue between a therapist who is privately convinced he/she is right leads to an eventual "conversion" of the patient to a new viewpoint. These critics base their claims on interviews with patients, transcripts of psychotherapy records, and depositions and records from court cases starting in the 1980s and running into the early 1990s.

Here's how these social psychologists see compliance developing in the therapy setting (it is an exercise in social influence and persuasion, in case you have had that psychology course):

  1. We begin with the people who feel they need help. They feel anxious and uncertain. They are not sure what to think, or what to believe, about themselves due to their anxieties. In that sense, their identities are now insecure.

  2. They go to a therapist recommend by a family physician or friend. The therapist is seen as an "expert" and has degrees and credentials, and of course the new patients are hoping to feel better, so they show eager respect for this "authority figure," which establishes an authority/subject relationship. In this kind of context, there is compliance with authority..see Stanley Milgram, Obedience To Authority, and Elliot Aronson, The Social Animal (Chapter 2).

  3. There comes a point when the patients resist an interpretation, but the therapist persists because there is this something called "resistance," based on defense mechanisms and the partial pleasure derived from holding on to the symptoms. (On this score, there is evidence in The Interpretation of Dreams and in some of his famous case histories, that Freud debated and argued with his patients about interpretations of dreams and symptoms. That is, he did actively try to combat and overcome resistance if he thought he was on the right track, which is certainly ammunition for the social psychology critics.) Since the therapist is a respected authority, this creates a situation of "cognitive dissonance." Who to believe, oneself or the therapist?

  4. Then comes (1) a dream that seems to support the therapist; or (2) a memory "recovered" under hypnosis. Since neither dreams nor hypnosis are seen as susceptible to suggestion by most people, and least of at, until recently, by therapists, the dream or recovered memory can become a basis/occasion to accept the therapist's "version" of the past and the current "self" This is where the feeling that dreams come from "somewhere else," and specifically "the unconscious" in our culture, can play a big role in the subtle social psychology of the therapy situation.

  5. If the person is also in a support group, as was often the case in some recent therapy approaches, although not in the classical Freudian one, then processes of "social conformity" can operate as well in bringing about the "conversion." The classic source is Solomon Asch, Social Psychology, 1952, but again see Aronson, The Social Animal, Chapter 2. In effect, people already in the group "model" the new identity for the new members. Some of these more experienced members of the group may have actually experienced the events/ problems "suggested" to new patients by the therapist, making the setting all the more realistic and graphic as people tell their stories to each other.

  6. The result is a new "social identity," or what could be called a new "version" or "narrative" of "self," such as "I am a survivor of certain events." This new version of self leads to a new vocabulary and membership in a new "in-group," a group with special knowledge.

Two good recent sources on this model, with case examples from the 1980s and plenty of references:

Richard Ofshe and Ethan Watters, Making monsters: False memories, psychotherapy, and sexual hysteria. New York: Charles Scribner, 1994. This book looks at some of the key cases in the recovered memory controversy based on interviews and court documents.

Marybeth F. Ayella, Insane Psychotherapy: Portrait of a Psychotherapy Cult. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998. The leaders of this psychotherapy cult, as the author calls it, actually had written a book on dreams, although dreams were not a major part of their program. Ayella was able to make use of transcripts of therapy, interviews wih former patients, court depositions, and treatment records.

How could the social psychology model be challenged?

It is not easy to decide which side to believe in such an argument. Many patients and former patients are offended by it because they feel they were helped by therapy, which is no doubt true, at least in many cases. And most clinicians reject it. What sort of studies could be done that do not rely on interpretations of the past?

One approach would be to use longitudinal studies in personality/developmental psychology which show how traumas, hurts, and the development of defense mechanisms leads to predicted outcomes. There is work of this kind by attachment theorists and others as well.

What is the best approach for dream researchers? Blind analysis. That is, make predictions about the dreamer based strictly on the dreams,with no knowledge of the dreamer. Then see if the predictions are accurate or not. We will be trying this approach when we discuss Hall. Examples of case studies using this approach can be found in later readings.

Go back to the Dream Library index.

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