Electric Dreams

Frued and the Interpretation of Dreams Part I Theory

Mathew Parry

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Parry, Mathew (1995).  Freud and the Interpretation of Dreams Part I: Theory.
Electric Dreams 1(19).  1995 Vol. 1 Issue 19.


     Freud's theory of dreams is based on a number of premises, the first of which is that dreams
are essentially a method of protecting sleep.  Sleep, he reasoned, was a necessary physical rest
period that we need to function properly and therefore the mind needs to react to stimuli in such a
way as to protect sleep rather than waking us to find the source of the stimulus.

     Freud cites as an example the work of Maury who had various stimuli given to him while he
was sleeping;

   He was given some eau-de-cologne to smell in his sleep.
   He  dreamt he was  in Cairo,  in Johann  Maria Farina's
   shop, and some further absurd adventures followed.  Or,
   he was  pinched lightly  on the  neck; he  dreamt of  a
   mustard plaster  being  applied to him and  of a doctor
   who had  treated him as  a child.  Or again, a  drop of
   water was dropped on his forehead; he dreamt he  was in
   Italy, was sweating  violently and  was drinking  white
   Orvieto wine.

     The way external stimuli are incorporated into dreams is an experience  common to everyone (usually involving alarm clocks).  The important point is that the dream is the mind's reaction to the external stimulus.  Freud then reasoned from this that other dreams where there is no external stimulus are the mind's reaction to internal stimuli.  A dream is a reaction to those thoughts, desires, wishes, problems or fears which might otherwise disturb our sleep.

     Now the representation of the stimuli by the mind comes in a very different form to that which it actually is, as can be seen from external stimuli.  Freud then made a distinction between the dream as we experience it, which he called the `manifest dream contents', and the stimuli which acted together to produce the dream,  the`latent dream thoughts'.  The process by which the latent thoughts are transformed in to the manifest dream content is known as the `dream work'.  The role of interpretation is then to take the manifest dream and unravel the dream work enacted to produce it to reveal the latent thoughts.

     From his experiences with patients Freud found that there were four dream work processes.

(1) Condensation.
    This is the process by which two or more associations to
the latent dream thought are compressed into one image.  To take
an example from one of my own dreams;

   We [My father  and I] stopped  on a beach surrounded by
   cliffs on all sides, even in the water a cliff rose up.
   I waded into  the water and  picked up some  milk [in a
   bottle, not a  carton] from  the side of the  cliff. We
   disagreed on where to sit and dad decided we should dig
   a hole to sit in.

     On interpreting this I found that there were four memories compressed into this scene.  First, the cliffs surrounding us on all sides is a memory of a water hole near a campsite my family often went to when I was a child.  Second, the beach reminded me of one by a creek where my father and I went hiking once. Third, the milk bottle is a reference to our habit of putting milk and butter in the creek while camping to keep it cold (it is also a phallic symbol, but I'll come to that in part II).  Finally the hole we dig in the beach to sit in is a memory of a holiday I had with my father on the Gold Coast here in Australia where I dug a contour into the sand on one of the beaches to make myself more comfortable.

     The link between each of these associations is obviously that they are each memories of times when I was close to my father.  Putting this together with the first section of the dream I deduced that the latent dream thoughts were a concern that I don't see my father much since I moved to Sydney and  a desire to go camping with my father and be close to him more often.

(2) Displacement.
    Freud saw this as a process of censorship, that is, we don't want to admit to the real object of the latent thought and so the desire is displaced onto another object which alludes to it.  Freud saw this process also working in the waking life of neurotics with perversions who displace their object of sexual desire onto something else that alludes to it, such as cross-dressing or ejaculating while kissing; These sort of displacements can also occur in dreams.  Freud illustrated the point with an anecdote;

   There was a blacksmith in a village who had committed
   a capital offense.  The Court decided that  the crime
   must be punished; but as the  blacksmith was the only
   one in the  village and  was indispensable, and as on
   the  other  hand  there  were  three  tailors  living
   there, one of them was hanged instead.
(3) Symbols.
    This occurs when complex or abstract thoughts are converted into an image.  Freud cites the examples of the concept of `possession' (in German `besitzen') being represented by sitting (`sitzen') on the object, or of the concept of `adultery' (`ehenbruch') being represented by a broken leg (`beinbruch').

So in trying to interpret a rather vague concept into an image the mind can often use a linguistically similar word that is more concrete and readily converted into images as a symbol for the desired concept.

     In my own opinion using symbols is also a quite normal way for the mind to function, as is testified to by the fact that we can communicate using language and writing. Or, on the more abstract level of dreams, poetry often uses symbolic allusions which are readily understood.  A classic example of this are the quite obvious sexual references in `The song of Solomon' in the Bible.   Another way to make the use of displacement and symbols seem more intuitively reasonable is through an experience that I am sure that all of us have had; You dream that you are at a certain place that you know, but when you wake up you realize that the dream scene had little resemblance to the actual place in reality. It doesn't matter that the dream scene looked little like the actual place because your mind had labeled it as that place and so it was that place. Its appearance doesn't really matter, its the meaning that your mind attaches to it that counts.  Likewise it doesn't matter that it looks like you are watering a rabbit or dressing a mannequin because your mind has labeled them as (probably)  having a child and having sex respectively.

(4) Reversal.
    Freud held that the mind often treats opposites as the same thing and will often replace one for the other in a dream, for example `weakness' can become `strength' or `small' `large' in dreams.  To support this belief he uses examples of this occurring in language. In ancient Egyptian for example `ken' meant both `strong' and `weak'. The two meanings were only differentiated by inflection in speech and in writing by the addition of a pictograph of a man either standing or squatting.

It was only later that the two distinct words `ken' (`strong') and `kan' (`weak') were developed. Or, to take an example from English, the word `with' once had
meanings of both `combining' and `separating' which can still be seen in words such as `withdraw' and `withhold'.  The mind then has no problem with using interchangeably opposites such as `strong-weak', `light-dark' or `big-small'.

     In part II I'll explain Freud's method for interpreting dreams through free association and give some examples of symbols that Freud found again and again to have the same or similar meaning for his patients, such as the infamous phallic symbol.