A few months ago, I was rewatching the 1984 horror film, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and I was struck by a line of dialogue. It occurred in a scene in which the film’s protagonist, Nancy, was brought into a sleep clinic by her mother to investigate why Nancy seemed to believe that she was being attacked by a supernatural dream stalker. While Nancy slept, her mother spoke with the sleep specialist and asked him what exactly dreams were. The specialist responded by saying, “The truth is, we still don’t know what they are or where they come from.” This line might be the most honest and accurate appraisal of our current state of understanding on the subject I’ve heard. We don’t yet know what exactly dreams are, or at least, we haven’t come to agreement over what they are. So, keeping in mind that there still isn’t a consensus, what might dreams be? Are they meaningful? What’s their role in therapy?
We’ll start with the theorist who has had the greatest impact on our cultural understanding of dreams, the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud.
What Did Freud Think?
Freud believed that dreams were thoughts and sentiments that the mind purposely distorted to keep the dreamer from becoming aware of their true meaning. Well, that's what he thought most dreams were, anyway. Perhaps no other figure in the history of psychology suffers from quite as much oversimplification and misrepresentation as Freud, and while I’ll try to avoid the latter, the former is going to be kind of unavoidable. Having that preface out of the way, Freud believed in a dynamic unconscious, meaning that he thought the mind actively worked to keep certain upsetting mental events (usually unacceptable wishes and desires) out of awareness, so as to keep us from becoming overwhelmed by shame or anxiety. However, when we sleep, the mechanisms (defenses) for keeping us unaware of these mental events become weakened, and they get through. However, there is a back-up mechanism that, while less effective than our waking defenses, is able to distort the content of our dreams, making them incomprehensible. This is known as dream-censorship, and may account for the surreal nature of dreams.
Why Bother with Dreams?
So, if the messages in dreams are distorted for a reason, why was Freud interested in interpreting them? Well, just because we’re not conscious of our thoughts and feelings doesn’t mean they don’t influence us. While our defenses can effectively exile them to our unconscious, they continue to exert influence on our conscious experience, leading to all sorts of symptoms (e.g., physical sensations, obsessive worry, phobias, depression, compulsions, etc..). Freud believed that because dream-censorship was a less effective means of obscuring these thoughts and feelings than our waking defenses, dreams were an especially fruitful domain for trying to figure out what was happening in the unconscious.
Freud worked with his patients to explore the hidden meanings of their dreams. He would ask them to consider aspects and elements of their dreams and then instruct them to say whatever came to mind in association with a given component of their dream. Using his patients' associations and his understanding of the different ways that the mind attempts to distort the content of dreams, Freud would collaborate with the dreamer to uncover the original (uncensored) thought or feeling. This process would allow patients to become conscious of previously unconscious material, and therefore less vulnerable to distressing symptoms.
Is It Still Relevant?
Like most things having to do with dreams, that’s sort of a matter of opinion. Freud’s thought and methods live on through the work of psychoanalysts and psychodynamic psychotherapists, but many psychoanalytically oriented therapists of today* no longer hold the assumption that dreams are actively distorted representations of repressed desires. However, psychoanalysis is concerned with the unconscious, and dreams are particularly salient pieces of unconscious material. Thus, an exploration of dreams can give therapists important information about the mental life of their clients. Therapists continue to help clients use their associations to different dream-aspects to extract meaning from their dreams, and in doing so, help them gain a better understanding of the unconscious processes that may be exerting influence on their waking lives.
In our next entry, we’ll explore the thought of another figure who has had tremendous influence on how dreams are thought and spoken about, Freud’s one time student and founder of analytical psychology, Carl Jung.
*Today, there is no monolithic “psychoanalysis”. Freudian theory has generated many branches of lineage, all with their own understanding of the unconscious and how to understand/work with dreams, some of which differ drastically from that of classical psychoanalysis.
Thomas Shooman is a mental health counselor practicing at Resolution Psychotherapy who provides teletherapy to clients across New York State. Thomas’ clients include individuals dealing with anxiety, grief, and obsessive thinking. He enjoys helping people navigate uncomfortable circumstances and find solutions that are in line with their personal style. To inquire about therapy with Thomas, send him an email at email@example.com.