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Dream Interpretation

Freud called dreaming the royal road to the unconscious because dreams seemed so rich in material normally excluded from awareness. Freud believed that sleep was a pleasant experience, similar to returning to the womb, and people who were asleep wanted to stay asleep. Freud noticed that when a disturbance—a loud sound, for example—threatened to disrupt sleep, a dream would be built around it, perhaps as a way to stay asleep despite the interruption. He theorized that psychological disturbances would function the same way. A person would endeavor to stay asleep by fending off the disturbance, incorporating it into a dream. Therefore, by analyzing dreams, one could uncover psychological problems.

Why, in Freud's view, did dreams reveal unconscious worries and conflicts?

Sometimes the worry expressed by a dream is transparent:

It was a beautiful, sunny, Saturday October day. My boyfriend, Eddie, was coming over. We have been dating over three years and are very close. He and I spent the day together. It was getting late in the afternoon. Eddie and I went for a drive. While we were gone Eddie proposed to me. I accepted gladly. We went back to my house to tell my parents. My Mom and Dad were furious. They became so angry that they hired someone to kill Eddie. We had decided to get married on Sunday, the next day. Everywhere we went Saturday people would shoot at us. We were constantly running for our lives. We went to a car lot to buy a car. We were looking at cars, and all of a sudden we heard a shot. We ducked behind a car. We kept low and were afraid to get up. All of a sudden... That is all I remember because my roommate woke me up when she slammed the door. I tried to finish my dream, but I never could.

Interpretation: Eddie is my boyfriend. He and I have been dating for over three years. Eddie gave me a diamond ring for my birthday. We aren't engaged, yet. My Dad was a little upset when I got my ring. My parents are afraid we are going to rush into things. I think I had this dream because I've been worried about what my parents were thinking. My father is very protective and is always looking after me. He likes Eddie a lot, but he doesn't like the idea of me having a ring. [Author's files]

What did Freud believe about dream symbols?

Freud believed that dreams were full of sexual symbolism. He believed, for example, that umbrellas and purses were disguised references to male and female genitals, respectively, and that dreams of flying represented sexual activity. Most present-day psychologists do not accept this idea.

However, there is no doubt that symbols can occur in dreams. Here is an example from a student.

One night, I had a dream that was very unusual but understandable to me. In my dream I was driving down the road in a car, but I did not know what kind of car it was. Anyway, my gas gauge was on "EMPTY", and I was in the middle of nowhere. Then I came to a fork in the road, but I did not know whether to take the right or the left road. Only one of the roads had a gas station. Well, I took the right road and there was a gas station. Then I woke up.

How does the student's dream illustrate symbolism?

Interpretation: I took this dream as advice because I was about to quit school. So the right road meant there was no use quitting, and I should keep going on because there was a gas station to fill me up. But the left road was an empty and lonely road that would have led me nowhere. This dream was very meaningful to me. [Author's files]

This is a clear example of metaphor, a form of symbolism. "Reaching a fork in the road" is a figure of speech for making a big decision. The student's mind converted it into a concrete image.

Another example comes from a television documentary about the black baseball leagues (O'Connor, 1981). Black players were not allowed in the "regular" major leagues before World War II. Jimmy Crutchfield described a dream he had when he was a star in the black leagues:

I singled off a left-handed pitcher, and the ball crossed over second base. I started running, but I couldn't get to first base.

How might Freud have been "half right"?

Again a dreaming brain seems to have converted a figure of speech ("you can't even get to first base") into an image. The resulting symbolism relates to an important concern in the person's life. So Freud may have been half right. Dreams are not necessarily about sex symbols, but dreams can relate to major emotional themes in a person's life, using symbolism to express an attitude or thought.

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Copyright © 2007-2011 Russ Dewey