Dream Analysis: Sigmund Freud

Dreams have fascinated the human race for thousands of years. Dream analysis/ dream interpretation is a therapeutic technique that is popular for its use in the psychoanalysis approach given by Sigmund Freud.

History of dream analysis:

As early as Babylonia and Egypt, people believe that dreams are predictive and enfold heavenly meaning. In Aristotle’s view, dreams are psychological phenomena, reflecting the life of a person’s spirit while sleeping. During the middle of the 19th century, the first scientifically-based dreams research took place, but this did not come to widespread prominence until Freud published “The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900.”. Jung adapted Freud’s theory, proposing that “dreams are expressions of creativity that seek resolution rather than repressed drives”. Since then, a wide range of other therapy types has incorporated dream analysis in one way or another, including Gestalt therapy, art therapy, and cognitive-behavioral therapy.  

How did dream analysis develop?

When Freud famously started analyzing himself, he used his dreams quite frequently in the process. Always a vivid dreamer, Freud had by this time also noticed the impact of dreams on his patients, including psychotic patients whose hallucinations were similar to dreams. Between his own experience and that of his patients, he concluded that “dreams are almost always expressions of unfulfilled wishes”.

Believing sincerely in the importance of dreams and realizing no one had written much, if anything, about the subject, Freud spent two years writing ”The Interpretation of Dreams”. Originally published in German under the title ”Die Traumdeutung in 1900”, initial sales of the book were slow and disappointing and largely ignored by the scientific community.

By 1910, Freud’s other work was becoming well-known and so the book became more popular. It was translated into English and Russian in 1913 and six more languages by 1938. Seven more editions were also printed during his lifetime.

“Dreams are the royal road to the unconscious. In dreams the ego’s defenses are lowered so some of the repressed material comes to awareness, in distorted form through dreams. Dreams performs important functions for the unconscious mind and serve as valuable clues to how the unconscious mind operates”.

Freud (1900)

On 24 July 1895, Freud had his own dream that was to form the basis of his theory. He had been worried about a patient, Irma, who was not doing as well in treatment as he had hoped. Freud, in fact, blamed himself for this and was feeling guilty.

Freud dreamed that he met Irma at a party and examined her.  He then saw a chemical formula for a drug that another doctor had given Irma flash before his eyes and realized that her condition was caused by a dirty syringe used by the other doctor. Freud’s guilt was thus relieved.

Freud interpreted this dream as wish-fulfillment. He had wished that Irma’s poor condition was not his fault and the dream had fulfilled this wish by informing him that another doctor was at fault. Based on this dream, Freud (1900) went on to propose that a major function of dreams was the fulfillment of wishes.

Content of dream by Freud:

As per Freud, while one is asleep his defenses are lowered and as a result, repressed material which are painful unconscious wishes, needs, fears, sexual and aggressive impulses erupt into the surface. Such manifestations of the motivation are so unacceptable and painful to the client even in dreams that they are expressed in disguised or symbolic form instead of being revealed directly. Thus, we have 2 contents of the dream: latent and manifest content.

Latent Content– Hidden, symbolic, and unconscious motives, wishes, and fears.

Manifest Content– The real dream as it appears to the client.

Dreamwork: Process of converting latent content into manifest content.

The client is also asked to freely associate some elements of the manifest content of the dream. Dream besides being the royal road to the unconscious also provides an understanding of the current condition of the client.

Four basic propositions :

  1. There is a technique that makes dream interpretation possible;
  2. All dreams have meanings that in some specific way are related to the mental activity of wakeful life;

3. There are specific processes of masking the dream, the analysis of which reveals the psychic forces that generate the dream; and

4.(Although not stated clearly) there is a specific psychological model that underlies what is postulated in the previous statements.

Dreams were divided into two classes :

The first class was believed to be influenced only by the present (or the past), and was unimportant in respect of the future; it included the enuknia (insomnia), which directly reproduce a given idea or its opposite; e.g., hunger or its satiation; and the fantasy, which elaborates the given idea well, a nightmare.

The second class of dreams, on the other hand, was determinative of the future. To this belonged:

  1. Direct predictions received in the dream (chrematismos, oraculum);
  2. The foretelling of a future event (orama, visio);
  3. The symbolic dream, which requires interpretation (oneiros, somnium).
Freud opens The Interpretation of Dreams with the following words: “In the pages that follow I shall bring forward proof that there is a psychological technique which makes it possible to interpret dreams, and that, if that procedure is employed, every dream reveals itself as a psychical structure which has a meaning and which can be inserted at an assignable point”.

Classification of dreams:

  • External (objective) sensory stimuli- The mind is remained in constant communication with the external world even during sleep.The sensory stimuli that reach us during sleep may easily become the source of dream. Ex: when the light of a candle screened with red paper was allowed to fall on the face,the person dreams of thunder ,of heat and of storm at sea which he might have witnessed on television someday.
  • Internal (subjective) sensory stimuli- Unlike objective stimuli ,they are independent of external accidents.They are afforded by hypnogic hallucination (waking up). Vivid and changeable pictures with many people occur constantly during period of falling asleep ,which may linger for a while even after the eyes have been opened ,which were identical to dream images. Ex: when a person is on strict diet ,and suffering from hunger ,in hypnogic state sees a plate and hand taking some food with fork ,later in dream he found himself at table abundantly supplied with food and heard the clatter of dinner fork.
  • Internal (organic) physical stimuli- Claims that influence of our own pathological state influences the content of dream. Ex: Those suffering from disease of lungs dreams of suffocation,of being crushed,and of flight or other familiar situation.
  • Purely psychical sources of excitation– People dream of what they do during the day and the things that interest them during waking state. Ex: Crush

Why Dreams Are Forgotten After Waking:

  • Factor of intensity (In the waking state we commonly very soon forget a great many sensations and perceptions because they are too slight to remember, and because they are charged with only a slight amount of emotional feeling. This is true also of many dream-images; they are forgotten because they are too weak, while the stronger images in their neighbourhood are remembered).
  • Most dream-images are unique experiences, one forgets things  easily that have happened only once, and remember more readily     things which occur repeatedly.
  • Dreams in most cases, lack sense and order. Dream-compositions, by their very nature, are insusceptible of being remembered, and they are forgotten because it falls to piece the very next moment.
  • On waking the attention is immediately besieged by the inrushing world of sensation, so that very few dream-images are capable of withstanding its force. They fade away before the impressions of the new day like the stars before the light of the sun.
  • The difference of the general sensation in the sleeping and the waking state is unfavourable to mutual reproduction.
  • The different arrangement of the material in the dream makes the dream untranslatable, so to speak, for the waking consciousness.

Freudian Dream Symbols:

  • According to Freud, the number of things represented by symbols in dreams is not great: The human body, parents, children, siblings, birth, death, nakedness, and a few others.
  • The person as a whole is often represented in the form of a house – houses with smooth walls are men, and those with projections and balconies to which one might cling are women.
  • Parents appear in dreams as kings, queens, or other highly respected persons; children and siblings are symbolized as small animals or vermin(insects).
  • Birth is almost always represented by some reference to water: Either one plunges into water or climbs out of it, rescues someone from water or gets rescued from water (indicating a mother-relationship to that person).
  • Death is replaced in dreams by taking a journey; nakedness is symbolized by clothing, especially uniforms.
  • The richest collection of symbols, however, is reserved for the sphere of sexual life.
  • According to Freud, the great majority of symbols in dreams are sex symbols.
  • The number three is a symbolic substitute for the entire male genital, whereas the penis alone is represented by long and upright objects such as sticks, umbrellas, poles, trees, or the Washington Monument.
  • It can also be symbolized by objects that can penetrate the body and cause injury – think of knives, daggers, lances, swords, and firearms (especially revolvers).
  • Also substituted for male genitalia are objects out of which water flows, such as faucets and fountains, or objects that can be elongated such as telescopes and collapsible pencils.
  • Jewels and treasure may represent a beloved person, while sweets frequently stand in for sexual delight.
  • The female genitals are symbolically represented by objects which enclose a space capable of being filled by something: For example, pits, caves, bottles, boxes, trunks, jars, suitcases, pockets, ships, the mouth, churches, and shoes.
  • Wooden and paper objects are symbols of women, whereas breasts are represented by apples, peaches, and fruits in general.
As much fun as all of this, always keep in mind that a Freudian analysis of dreams is not simple; it takes many years of training to understand the factors that need to be taken into account to conduct a proper interpretation of dreams.
And after all, as Freud himself once said, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”


Although research indicates that there are benefits to dream analysis, some limitations do exist.

  • Some believe that dreams are purely biological phenomena and therefore contain no symbolic meaning.
  • The activation-synthesis hypothesis, coined by psychiatrists Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley, states that dream content is created by commands sent from the brain that never get carried out. In other words, dreaming is simply another form of thinking that happens while we sleep. This point of view calls into question how much “unconscious material” is truly contained in dreams.
  • When used in conjunction with psychoanalysis, dream analysis is subject to the same limitations as Freudian theory.
  • One major critique of psychoanalysis is that the theory is based on case studies, the results of which are hard to generalize to a larger population.
  • Another criticism is that the theory does not meet scientific standards. For example, the idea that dreams are based on wish fulfillment has not been backed by research.
  • Another complaint about psychoanalytic theory is its negative and deterministic view of humanity, asserting that humans are inevitably driven by unconscious forces. This belief does not account for free will, a central concept in humanistictheories.

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3 thoughts on “Dream Analysis: Sigmund Freud

  • November 14, 2022 at 2:30 pm

    There are many clients expressed the murder of parents in the dream by the near dear,birth of child in the dream even when she has undergone the hysterectomy!
    Please send me the answer for the same


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