Freud praised dreams as "the royal road to the unconscious." In waking life, conscious forces powerfully restrain the unacceptable forces of the unconscious. During sleep, the restraining forces of consciousness are relaxed, and the unconscious threatens to break into awareness. This triggers anxiety, which threatens to waken the dreamer. Sleep is protected by disguising the unconscious into less threatening symbolic form in a dream.
LTsually, a dream disguises the fulfillment of a repressed wish (S. Freud, 1900/1953)-Consider this dream of a young man:
I was on a beach with my girl and other friends. We had been swimming and were sitting on the beach. My girl was afraid that she would lose her pocket-book and kept saying that she felt certain she would lose it on the beach. (Hall, 1966, pp. 57-58)
The recalled dream (here, the story of the beach and the pocketbook) is termed the manifest content of the dream. Dream interpretation is the process of inferring the unconscious wishes disguised in the dream. Its hidden meaning, revealed by interpreting the dream symbols, is termed the latent content of the dream. A pocketbook is a Freudian symbol for female genitals, so the dream symbolizes the dreamer's wish that his girlfriend would lose her virginity on the beach. Dream interpretation is like decoding. The coding process, which has produced the dream, is called dream-work. Ideas are expressed by symbols, and so they can be visualized. A larger amount of material is often condensed to a much briefer form. Troublesome ideas are displaced from their original objects to disguise ideas that would produce conflict (S. Freud, 1935/1963a, pp. 86-87).
While Freud's theory suggests that dreams respond to life's events, they don't do so in a clear and obvious way. Dreams reported by people who have experienced traumatic events don't even reveal the realistic kind of trauma (Brenneis, 1997). In order to understand the emotional meaning of dreams, it is necessary to follow the dreamer's associations to see where they lead. Freud, for example, asked an American woman who had written him a letter about a troubling dream to tell what the name "Mildred Dowl" meant. In the dream, the woman's romantic partner had sent her a cruel note saying he had married Miss Mildred Dowl, and she had (in the dream) stabbed herself in despair. As Freud said, without knowing the source of the name, only a limited interpretation of the dream was possible (Benjamin & Dixon, 1996).
Psychoanalysts emphasize the importance of dreams as ways of dealing with emotions, such as the anxiety and guilt that may follow traumatic events (Hartmann, 1998; Hartmann et al, 2001). Researchers confirm that dreams contain much emotion (Hobson, Pace-Schott, & Stickgold, 2000; Merritt et al., 1994). During dream sleep, there is a shift from an emphasis on thinking to an emphasis on hallucination-like experiences, which brain researchers suggest comes from a shift to a different neurotransmitter pathway in the brain (Fosse, Stickgold, & Hobson, 2001). People whose personality tests indicate that they are repressors report dreams with relatively high levels of aggression, which supports the interpretation that dreams express what is repressed in waking life (Bell & Cook, 1998). Alternatives to Freud's model of dream interpretation have been developed by Carl Jung (see Chapter 3) and others (e.g., Blagrove, 1993; Hermans, 1987). One suggestion is that dreams function to promote attachment relationships (about which we will say more in Chapter 6), for example by promoting mother-infant relationships and sexual pair bonding (Zborowski & McNamara, 1998).
Dreams have also been investigated from a biological viewpoint, and the relationship between psychological meaning and biological brain mechanisms presents a modern version of the philosophical mind-body problem. Dreams seem to occur when lower brain centers, especially the pons, and possibly a "curiosity-interest-expectancy" area in the ventromedial forebrain, stimulate activity in higher cortical areas (Hobson, 1988; Hobson & McCarley, 1977; Reiser, 2001). While some influential neuroscientists deny that dreams have any significance (Crick & Mitchison, 1986), other psychologists have proposed models for understanding dreams that draw on modern cognitive theory, an enhanced understanding of neurology, and the suggestion that emotion may bridge the "mind-body" process in dreaming (Antrobus, 1991; Cicogna, Cavallero, & Bosinelli, 1991; Hobson, 1988; Hobson & Stickgold, 1994; Reiser, 2001). Dreams could be expressions of a more primitive, emotional-narrative mode of functioning that has only been partially displaced by the development of higher human consciousness.
The characteristics of dream-work that Freud described (condensation, displacement, and symbolism) represent the functioning of the unconscious more generally. Freud understood not only dreams and psychosis but even aspects of everyday normal behavior as results of unconscious motivation.
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