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The dream provides disguised satisfaction for wishes that are repressed while we are awake.

Dream interpretation is the "royal road that leads to knowledge of the unconscious in psychic life."

Such, in highly condensed form, is Freud's theory as set forth in the founding work of psychoanalysis, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a).

As Freud himself pointed out, this was a revolutionary thesis.

The only scientists interested in dreams during the late nineteenth century were psychologists looking for "elements" of mental activity or psychiatrists interested in hysteria and hypnosis. All of them saw dreams as nothing more than degraded products of a weak and thus dissociated psyche. Freud's approach was a radical departure for he claimed that hysterical symptoms were the expression of "conflicts," and that dreams were the product of a "dream work." In both cases there was no weakening of psychic activity but quite the opposite, an intense activity driven by the opposition between wishes and psychic defense mechanisms. The radical nature of Freud's position was illuminated by his divergence from Josef Breuer, who saw hysteria as the product of "hypnoid states" brought on by a weakening of organizing mental activity and a concomitant decrease in what Pierre Janet called "mental tension" (Freud and Breuer, 1895d).

Freud conceived his theory of dreams very early. His exposure to the work of Charcot and later to that of Bernheim was undoubtedly a contributing factor. In 1892 he noted that many dreams "spin out further associations which have been rejected or broken off during the day. I have based on this fact the theory of 'hysterical counter-will' which embraces a good number of hysterical symptoms" (1892-94a, p. 138). ("Counter-will," meaning an opposition to the satisfaction of desire for moral reasons, was a conceptual forerunner of repression.) The "Project for a Scientific Psychology" (1950c [1895]) introduced a number of ideas about dreams that were later expanded and refined.

Between 1897 and 1900 Freud, with moral support from his correspondent Wilhelm Fliess, conducted the self-analysis that gave birth to psychoanalysis. For the most part, that self-analysis drew on Freud's own dreams (Anzieu, 1975/1984), and in due course those same dreams supplied a large portion of the material of The Interpretation of Dreams.

Freud's dream theory may be summarized as follows:

  1. The dream expresses a wish unsatisfied during the waking state, whether because of a conscious objection or, more frequently, because of repression, in which case the wish is unrecognized. During sleep, the psychic apparatus finds its natural tendency, which is to reduce tension, that is, to experience pleasure. The dream, like hysterical symptoms, slips, parapraxes, and so on, is a sign of the return of the repressed. Freud went further still, claiming that every dream was the fulfillment of a wish, which obviously invites an objection about unpleasurable dreams and anxiety dreams. On several occasions Freud rebutted this objection, continuing to analyze such dreams until he isolated a wish behind distress or anxiety, which he claimed were merely expressions of resistance and conflict. Truth to tell, his argument was not always persuasive. On the basis of necessarily fragmentary material, it sometimes gave an impression of the ad hoc. Freud was able to overcome this difficulty only much later, when he introduced the repetition compulsion that lay "beyond the pleasure principle" (1920g).
  2. Two circumstances favor this return of the repressed. The first is the inhibition of perception and motricity during sleep, protecting the dreamer against the dangers of actual satisfaction. This results in a "topographical regression," that is, the excitation flows back unto the psyche and reinforces the dream-work. The second circumstance is that sleep weakens the censorship.
  3. A measure of censorship remains, however, and often allows satisfaction of a disguised kind only. This is the function of the "dream-work." This work employs the mechanisms of condensation and displacement (primary processes) before proceeding to generate images (representability). Then, by means of secondary revision, the "dream façade" is improved to provide a plausible meaning; i.e., the manifest content of the dream, which is quite different from the underlying meaning, that of the "latent dream-thoughts." The dream work is a form of thinking, but its rules are very different from those that prevail in the logical thought of the waking state: dreams know nothing of contradiction.
  4. The dream thus provides an outlet for libidinal pressure. It is the "guardian of sleep" since, without its intervention, the pressure would awaken the dreamer.
  5. The dream's raw materials are "day's residues" (events, thoughts, or affects from the recent past) and physical sensations that occur during sleep. But its "real" content is reactivated infantile memories, especially those of an oedipal kind: the dream is a regression to an infantile state.

These tenets underpin dream interpretation, whose aim is to render meaningful elements in the dream's manifest content (to restore their latent meaning), on the basis of the dreamer's associations. Freud insisted that any "key to dreams," that is, any list of symbolic equivalents of supposedly general value, be excluded. He did, however, recognize some universal "symbols," transmitted by culture, and some "typical dreams" to be met with in many dreamers (dreams of nudity, for example).


See also: Action-(re)presentation; Agency; Alpha function; Anticathexis/counter-cathexis; Beta-elements; Beyond the Pleasure Principle; Breton, André; Censorship; Certainty; "Claims of Psychoanalysis to Scientific Interest"; Compromise formation; Condensation; Contradiction; Delusions and Dreams in Jensen's "Gradiva"; Subject's desire; Directed daydream (R. Desoille); Displacement; Dream and Myth; Dream interpretation; Dream's navel, the; Convenience, dream of; Nakedness, dream of; "Dream of the Wise Baby;" Dream screen; Dream symbolism; Dream work; Ego ideal; Ego states; Forgetting; Formations of the unconscious; Functional phenomenon; Hypocritical dream; Hysteria; Infantile, the; Inferiority, feeling of; Interpretation of Dreams, The; Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis; Isakower phenomenon, Jokes; Latent; Latent dream thoughts; Letter, the; Logic(s); Manifest; Metaphor; "Metapsychologic Supplement to the Theory of Dreams"; Metonymy; Mnemic trace/memory trace; Mourning, dream of; Myth; Myth of the Birth of the Hero, The; Narcissistic withdrawal; New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis; Nightmare; Night terrors; Oedipus complex; On Dreams; Overdetermination; Primal scene; Primary process/secondary process; "Project for a Scientific Psychology, A"; Psychic reality; Psychic temporality; Psychoanalysis of Dreams; Punishment, dream of; Purposive idea; Reality testing; Regression; Repetition; Repetitive dreams; Representability; Representation of affect; Reversal into the opposite; Reverie; Schiller and psychoanalysis; Screen memory; Secondary revision; Secret; Self-state dream; Somnambulism; Substitutive formation; Surrealism and psychoanalysis; Telepathy; Thing-presentation; Thought; time; Training analysis; Trauma; Typical dreams; Unconscious, the; Wish/yearning; Wish fulfillment; Wish, hallucinatory satisfaction of a; Work (as a psychoanalytical notion). Bibliography

   * Anzieu, Didier. (1984). The group and the unconscious. (Benjamin Kilborne, Trans.). London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul. (Original work published 1975)
   * Diatkine, René. (1974). Rêve, illusion et connaissance. (Rap-port). Réponse aux interventions. 1107-1108. Nouvelle revue de psychanalyse, 38 (5-6), 769-820. P.L.R. Congrès XXXIV "Le rêve." Madrid, 1974.
   * Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The Interpretation of Dreams. SE, 4-5.
   * ——. (1892-94a). Preface and footnotes to the translation of Charcot's "Tuesday Lectures." SE 1: 129-144.
   * ——. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE, 18: 1-64.
   * ——. (1950c [1895]). Project for a scientific psychology. SE, 1: 281-387.
   * Freud, Sigmund, and Breuer, Josef. (1895d). Studies on hysteria. SE, 2: 48-106.
   * Pontalis, Jean-Bertrand. (1981). Frontiers in psychoanalysis: between the dream and psychic pain. (Catherine Cullen and Philip Cullen, Trans.). London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis. (Original work published 1977)

Further Reading

   * Blum, Harold P. (2000). The writing and interpretation of dreams. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 17, 651-666.
   * Lansky, Melvin R. (Ed. ). (1992). Essential papers on dreams. New York: New York University Press.
   * Lewin, Betram. (1955). Dream psychology and the analytic situation. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 24, 169-199.
   * Reiser, Morton. (1997). The art and science of dream interpretation: Isakower revisited. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 45.
   * Solms, Mark. (1995). New findings on the neurological organization of dreaming: Implications for psychoanalysis. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 64, 43-67.


The dream, guardian of sleep, provides disguised satisfaction for wishes that are repressed while we are awake; dream interpretation is the "royal road that leads to knowledge of the unconscious in psychic life." Such, in highly condensed form, is Freud's theory as set forth in the founding work of psychoanalysis, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a). As Freud himself pointed out, this was a revolutionary thesis.

The only scientists interested in dreams during the late nineteenth century were psychologists looking for "elements" of...

dream, 25-6, 35, 37, 39, 43-5, 55-60, 68, 70, 74-5, 130, 136, 155, 208 Seminar XI

See Also