Dream Interpretation

Dream interpretation is the process of assigning meaning to dreams. In many ancient societies, such as those of Egypt and Greece, dreaming was considered a supernatural communication or a means of divine intervention, whose message could be unravelled by people with certain powers. In modern times, various schools of psychology have offered theories about the meaning of dreams.

One of the earliest written examples of dream interpretation comes from the Babylonian ‘Epic of Gilgamesh.’ Gilgamesh dreamt that an axe fell from the sky. The people gathered around it in admiration and worship. Gilgamesh threw the axe in front of his mother and then he embraced it like a wife. His mother, Ninsun, interpreted the dream. She said that someone powerful would soon appear. Gilgamesh would struggle with him and try to overpower him, but he would not succeed. Eventually they would become close friends and accomplish great things. She added, ‘That you embraced him like a wife means he will never forsake you. Thus your dream is solved.’

While this example also shows the tendency to see dreams as mantic (as predicting the future), Ninsun’s interpretation also anticipates a contemporary approach. The axe, phallic and aggressive, symbolizes for a male who will start as aggressive but turn into a friend. To embrace an axe is to transform aggression into affection and camaraderie. Later, a compendium of dream omens, the ‘Dream Book’ or Iškar Zaqīqu was assembled.

In ancient Egypt, priests also acted as dream interpreters. Hieroglyphics depicting dreams and their interpretations are evident. Dreams have been held in considerable importance through history by most cultures. 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.

Artemidorus of Daldis, who lived in the 2nd century, wrote a comprehensive text entitled ‘Oneirocritica’ (‘The Interpretation of Dreams’). Although Artemidorus believed that dreams can predict the future, he also presaged many contemporary approaches to dreams. He thought that the meaning of a dream images could involve puns and could be understood by decoding the image into its component words. For example, Alexander, while waging war against the Tyrians, dreamt that a satyr was dancing on his shield. Artemidorus reports that this dream was interpreted as follows: satyr = ‘sa tyros’ (‘Tyre will be thine’), predicting that Alexander would be triumphant. Freud acknowledged this example of Artemidorus when he proposed that dreams be interpreted like a rebus (an allusional device that uses pictures to represent words or parts of words).

In medieval Islamic psychology, certain hadiths (stories of Muhammad) indicate that dreams consist of three parts, and early Muslim scholars also recognized three different kinds of dreams: false dreams (a convincing dream about awakening from sleep), patho-genetic dreams (dreams sent from the subconscious), and true dreams. Ibn Sirin was renowned for his ‘Ta’bir al-Ru’ya and Muntakhab al-Kalam fi Tabir al-Ahlam,’ a book on dreams. The work is divided into 25 sections on dream interpretation, from the etiquette of interpreting dreams to the interpretation of reciting certain Surahs (divisions of the Qur’an) in one’s dream. He writes that it is important for a layperson to seek assistance from an Alim (Muslim scholar) who could guide in the interpretation of dreams with a proper understanding of the cultural context and other such causes and interpretations.

Al-Kindi (Alkindus) also wrote a treatise on dream interpretation entitled ‘On Sleep and Dreams.’ In consciousness studies, Al-Farabi wrote the ‘On the Cause of Dreams,’ which appeared as a chapter in his ‘Book of Opinions of the people of the Ideal City,’ a treatise on dreams, in which he was the first to distinguish between dream interpretation and the nature and causes of dreams. In ‘The Canon of Medicine,’ Avicenna extended the theory of temperaments to encompass ’emotional aspects, mental capacity, moral attitudes, self-awareness, movements and dreams.’ Ibn Khaldun’s ‘Muqaddimah’ (1377) states that ‘confused dreams’ are ‘pictures of the imagination that are stored inside by perception and to which the ability to think is applied, after (man) has retired from sense perception.’

A standard traditional Chinese book on dream-interpretation is the ‘Lofty Principles of Dream Interpretation,’ compiled in the 16th century by Chen Shiyuan. Chinese thinkers also raised profound ideas about dream interpretation, such as the question of how we know we are dreaming and how we know we are awake. It is written in the ‘Chuang-tzu’ (a Taoist text): ‘Once Chuang Chou dreamed that he was a butterfly. He fluttered about happily, quite pleased with the state that he was in, and knew nothing about Chuang Chou. Presently he awoke and found that he was very much Chuang Chou again. Now, did Chou dream that he was a butterfly or was the butterfly now dreaming that he was Chou?’ This raises the question of reality monitoring in dreams, a topic of intense interest in modern cognitive neuroscience.

In the 17th century the English physician Sir Thomas Browne wrote a short tract upon the interpretation 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. It was in his book ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ (‘Die Traumdeutung’; literally ‘dream-interpretation’), first published in 1899, that Sigmund Freud first argued that the motivation of all dream content is wish-fulfillment, and that the instigation of a dream is often to be found in the events of the day preceding the dream, which he called the ‘day residue.’ In the case of very young children, Freud claimed, this can be easily seen, as small children dream quite straightforwardly of the fulfillment of wishes that were aroused in them the previous day (the ‘dream day’).

In adults, however, the situation is more complicated—since in Freud’s submission, the dreams of adults have been subjected to distortion, with the dream’s so-called ‘manifest content’ being a heavily disguised derivative of the ‘latent’ dream-thoughts present in the unconscious. As a result of this distortion and disguise, the dream’s real significance is concealed: dreamers are no more capable of recognizing the actual meaning of their dreams than hysterics are able to understand the connection and significance of their neurotic symptoms.

In Freud’s original formulation the latent dream-thought was described as having been subject to an intra-psychic force referred to as ‘the censor’; in the more refined terminology of his later years, however, discussion was in terms of the super-ego and ‘the work of the ego’s forces of defense.’ In waking life, he asserted, these so-called ‘resistances’ altogether prevented the repressed wishes of the unconscious from entering consciousness; and though these wishes were to some extent able to emerge during the lowered state of sleep, the resistances were still strong enough to produce ‘a veil of disguise’ sufficient to hide their true nature.

Freud’s view was that dreams are compromises which ensure that sleep is not interrupted: as ‘a disguised fulfillment of repressed wishes,’ they succeed in representing wishes as fulfilled which might otherwise disturb and waken the dreamer. Freud’s ‘classic’ early dream analysis is that of ‘Irma’s injection’: in that dream, a former patient of Freud’s complains of pains. The dream portrays Freud’s colleague giving Irma an unsterile injection. Freud provides us with pages of associations to the elements in his dream, using it to demonstrate his technique of decoding the latent dream thought from the manifest content of the dream.

Freud described the actual technique of psychoanalytic dream-analysis in the following terms, suggesting that the true meaning of a dream must be ‘weeded out’ from dream: ‘You entirely disregard the apparent connections between the elements in the manifest dream and collect the ideas that occur to you in connection with each separate element of the dream by free association according to the psychoanalytic rule of procedure. From this material you arrive at the latent dream-thoughts, just as you arrived at the patient’s hidden complexes from his associations to his symptoms and memories… The true meaning of the dream, which has now replaced the manifest content, is always clearly intelligible.’ Freud listed the distorting operations that he claimed were applied to repressed wishes in forming the dream as recollected: it is because of these distortions (the so-called ‘dream-work’) that the manifest content of the dream differs so greatly from the latent dream thought reached through analysis—and it is by reversing these distortions that the latent content is approached.

The operations included: Condensation (one dream object stands for several associations and ideas; thus ‘dreams are brief, meager and laconic in comparison with the range and wealth of the dream-thoughts’); Displacement (a dream object’s emotional significance is separated from its real object or content and attached to an entirely different one that does not raise the censor’s suspicions); Visualization (a thought is translated to visual images); and Symbolism (a symbol replaces an action, person, or idea). To these might be added ‘secondary elaboration’—the outcome of the dreamer’s natural tendency to make some sort of ‘sense’ or ‘story’ out of the various elements of the manifest content as recollected. (Freud, in fact, was wont to stress that it was not merely futile but actually misleading to attempt to ‘explain’ one part of the manifest content with reference to another part as if the manifest dream somehow constituted some unified or coherent conception).

Freud considered that the experience of anxiety dreams and nightmares was the result of failures in the dream-work: rather than contradicting the ‘wish-fulfillment’ theory, such phenomena demonstrated how the ego reacted to the awareness of repressed wishes that were too powerful and insufficiently disguised. Traumatic dreams (where the dream merely repeats the traumatic experience) were eventually admitted as exceptions to the theory. Freud famously described psychoanalytic dream-interpretation as ‘the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind’; he was, however, capable of expressing regret and dissatisfaction at the way his ideas on the subject were misrepresented or simply not understood: ‘The assertion that all dreams require a sexual interpretation, against which critics rage so incessantly, occurs nowhere in my ‘Interpretation of Dreams’ … and is in obvious contradiction to other views expressed in it.’ On another occasion, he suggested that the individual capable of recognizing the distinction between latent and manifest content ‘will probably have gone further in understanding dreams than most readers of my ‘Interpretation of Dreams.”

Although not dismissing Freud’s model of dream interpretation wholesale, Carl Jung believed Freud’s notion of dreams as representations of unfulfilled wishes to be simplistic and naïve. Jung argued that Freud’s procedure of collecting associations to a dream would bring insights into the dreamer’s mental complex—a person’s associations to anything will reveal the mental complexes, as Jung had shown experimentally —but not necessarily closer to the meaning of the dream. 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.

Jung proposed two basic approaches to analyzing dream material: the objective and the subjective. In former, every person in the dream refers to the person they are: mother is mother, girlfriend is girlfriend, etc. In the latter, every person in the dream represents an aspect of the dreamer. Jung argued that the subjective approach is much more difficult for the dreamer to accept, but that in most good dream-work, the dreamer will come to recognize that the dream characters can represent an unacknowledged aspect of the dreamer. Thus, if the dreamer is being chased by a crazed killer, the dreamer may come eventually to recognize his own homicidal impulses. Gestalt therapists extended the subjective approach, claiming that even the inanimate objects in a dream can represent aspects of the dreamer.

Jung believed that archetypes such as the animus (the feminine part of a man), the anima (the masculine part of a woman), the shadow (an unconscious aspect of the personality which the conscious ego does not recognize in itself) 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 dreamer’s 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.

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. Jung cautioned against blindly ascribing meaning to dream symbols without a clear understanding of the client’s personal situation. He described two approaches to dream symbols: the causal approach and the final approach. In the former, the symbol is reduced to certain fundamental tendencies. Thus, a sword may symbolize a penis, as may a snake. In the latter, the dream interpreter asks, ‘Why this symbol and not another?’ Thus, a sword representing a penis is hard, sharp, inanimate, and destructive. A snake representing a penis is alive, dangerous, perhaps poisonous and slimy. The final approach will tell you additional things about the dreamer’s attitudes. Technically, Jung recommended stripping the dream of its details and presenting the gist of the dream to the dreamer. This was an adaptation of a procedure described by Wilhelm Stekel, who recommended thinking of the dream as a newspaper article and writing a headline for it. Harry Stack Sullivan also described a similar process of ‘dream distillation.’

Although Jung 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 recognize 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 1953, Calvin S. Hall developed a theory of dreams in which dreaming is considered to be a cognitive process. 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 recognize that there is ‘more than one way to skin a cat,’ or in other words, more than one way to do something.

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. Faraday noted that ‘one finding has emerged pretty firmly from modern research, namely that the majority of dreams seem in some way to reflect things that have preoccupied our minds during the previous day or two.’ In the 1980s and 1990s, Wallace Clift and Jean Dalby Clift further explored the relationship between images produced in dreams and the dreamer’s waking life. Their books identified patterns in dreaming, and ways of analyzing dreams to explore life changes, with particular emphasis on moving toward healing and wholeness.

Two researchers have postulated that dreams have a biological function, where the content requires no analysis or interpretation, that content providing an automatic stimulation of the body’s physiological functions underpinning the human instinctive behavior. So dreams are part of the human, and animal, survival and development strategy. Prof Antti Revonsuo (Turku university, Finland) has limited his ideas to those of ‘threat rehearsal,’ where dreams exercise our primary self-defense instincts. Keith Stevens extends the theory to all human instincts, including threats to self, threats to family members, pair bonding and reproduction, inquisitiveness and challenges, and the drive for personal superiority and tribal status. He categorizes dreams, using a sample of 22,000 Internet submissions, into nine categories, demonstrating the universal commonality of dream content and instinct rehearsal. It is postulated that the dream function is automatic, in response to the content, exercising and stimulating the body chemistry and neurological activity that would come into play if the scenario occurred in real life, so that the dream does not have to be remembered to achieve its objective.

It is argued that, once a dreamer has experienced a threat in a dream (either to self or a family member), his/her ability to confront and overcome a real life threat is then enhanced, so that such dreams, in both humans or animals, are an aid to survival. The threat rehearsal can be specific, for instance, an attack from a savage dog, but it can also be general, in that the threat response physiology is activated and reinforced whilst dreaming. For human reproduction, the theory states that dreams of pairing, bonding and mating stimulate the reflex to reproduce the species, with an emphasis on dreams that promote the principle of selection; the desire of the individual to find the best mate and to achieve the optimum genetic mixing. In that respect, the dream function conflicts with human values of fidelity and mating for life. Specifically, young women dream often of being pregnant and giving birth, overwhelmingly positive dreams that directly stimulate the urge to reproduce.

Regarding status, dreams about being superior or inferior to others are thought to stimulate the dreamer’s determination to improve his status within the immediate human hierarchy, either through the positive physiology of success or the negative physiology of failure. Hence, dreaming is believed to promote competition and the reproductive success of those best suited to the environment. Finally, other dreams stimulate the determination to explore and inquire, through the extremes of exhilarating dream achievements (positive physiology) or frustrating obstructions and barriers. The latter stimulates a determination not to give up in a quest, so that, in life, the individual and the species move forward. For the dreaming wildebeest, it may be a rich pasture over the hill; for the human dreamer it may be splitting the atom.

One Comment to “Dream Interpretation”

  1. New work by Jung, published recently as The Red Book, chronicles Jung’s personal journey in dreamwork. Marc Bregman, found of North of Eden Archetypal Dreamwork, teaches about Jung’s work from the Red Book. Follow these teachings on his blog http://www.carl-me.com.

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