The Interpretation of Dreams | Study Guide

Sigmund Freud

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The Interpretation of Dreams | Chapter 1, Part 1 : The Scientific Literature Dealing with the Problems of Dreams | Summary



Introductory Text

Freud announces the aim of this book is to show "there is a psychological technique which makes it possible to interpret dreams." Primitive people and the people of ancient Greece and Rome, says Freud, believed a divine force sent helpful dreams and a wicked one sent frightening dreams.

Freud approvingly quotes Aristotle, who says the source of dreams is "daemonic" rather than divine. Freud understands the adjective "daemonic" as referring to an inspiring spirit or passion, something internal to a human being and therefore wholly human. Thus daemonic dreams, writes Freud, "follow the laws of human spirit." With Aristotle, dreams were put on a human basis. Freud describes this ancient Greek position: "Dreams are defined as the mental activity of the sleeper." He remarks some people still believe dreams are supernatural. He then argues the scientific study of dreams lacks a "solid foundation."

A. The Relation of Dreams to Waking Life

Freud quotes authorities and scholars who say dreams have no relationship to waking life. Then he points to those who say the opposite; in dreams we focus on what engages us during waking life. He then quotes scholar F.W. Hildebrandt, who says both views are "equally true and correct." Dreams are undeniably strange, yet they keep a relationship to "the intellectual life that revolves around reality."

B. The Material of Dreams—Memory in Dreams

Freud begins by saying "all the content of a dream is in some way derived from experience." He then cites a dream about something the dreamer experienced and then forgot. "We are thus driven to admit," Freud writes, "that in the dream we knew and remembered something which was beyond the reach of our waking memory." Freud cites many similar instances of people remembering in dreams what they had forgotten in waking life. He calls these "hypermnesic dreams."

He then discusses childhood experience as a separate category of memory. He gives an example from his own life. He cites authorities who emphasize the importance of recent experiences in dreams; dream content is made up of what was experienced in the last few days, these scholars say. Again citing his own experience, he says this is also correct.

Freud cites Hildebrandt, who says every element of a dream could be tracked down if the investigator were willing to expend the energy. He says Hildebrandt is right. If Hildebrandt had followed the path of this insight, Freud writes, "it would have led him to the very heart of the explanation of dreams."

Freud contemplates and rejects the idea dreams consist entirely of memories. Dreams "do not reproduce experiences," he paraphrases another scholar as saying. Instead, dreams reissue only fragments of experiences.

C. The Stimuli and Sources of Dreams

Next, Freud considers four kinds of stimuli that can affect dreams: "external sensory stimuli," "internal (subjective) sensory excitations," "internal organic somatic stimuli," and "psychical sources of stimulation." He describes them:

  1. External Sensory Stimuli: These are things the sleeper can hear, see, or feel during sleep. Freud cites the common experience of incorporating the sound of an alarm clock in a dream.
  2. Internal (Subjective) Sensory Excitations: These are similar to a pattern of dots one might see when pressing one's palms on one's closed eyes, or a ringing or roaring sound heard in a quiet room.
  3. Internal Organic Somatic Stimuli: These refer to a sense perception Freud calls a "diffuse general sensibility." or "coenaesthesia." In 19th-century science, coenaesthesia means all the inner organs contribute to an overall sense of well-being or illness.
  4. Psychical Sources of Stimulation: Freud then considers the literature on the connection between dreams and psychical, or mental, sources. The problem he finds with the scientific literature is twofold. Those who have written about dreams have not yet recognized much mental life beyond daytime interests. The scientists who write about dreams also prefer to attribute dreams to somatic, or bodily, causes. Anything that points to a spontaneous mental life, he says, "alarms the modern psychiatrist."

D. Why Dreams Are Forgotten After Waking

Freud remarks everyone has had the experience of forgetting parts of their dreams, or entire dreams. He gives three reasons:

  1. Intensity: people don't remember trivial experiences.
  2. Unfamiliarity: people find it easier to remember things that happen repeatedly, but a dream usually happens only once.
  3. Disorder: it is easier to memorize an orderly sequence, such as a rhymed poem.

He also mentions the concerns of daily life as a factor in forgetting dreams: "the world of the sense presses forward and at once takes possession of the attention with a force very few dream-images can resist." People also forget what they are uninterested in. Investigating dreams increases the ability to remember them.


Although this is the first chapter, Freud wrote it last; therefore his own theory is in the background as he describes the work of previous scholars, philosophers, and scientists on dreams. He also hints at his ambitions for his own project, even as he reviews previous work on dreams: "No foundation has been laid to secure findings upon which a later investigation might build." Freud's book will lay the scientific foundation for the interpretation of dreams.

The materials Freud quotes in Chapter 1 foreshadow his theory of the unconscious. Section B states, "All the material making up the content of a dream is in some way derived from experience." Freud calls this "an undisputed fact," but what remains unclear is the puzzling phrase "in some way": How is this material derived from experience? Who or what selects the material that goes into dreams? Likewise, if "nothing we have once mentally possessed can be entirely lost," as Freud states, and if the dreaming mind can recall what the waking one has forgotten, where are those memories? To a large extent he answers these questions later in the book with his notions of the unconscious.

Likewise, Freud maps the existing hole in the current scientific literature that his book will fill. Freud approvingly quotes F.W. Hildebrandt: "Hildebrandt ... is unquestionably right in asserting we should be able to explain the genesis of every dream-image if we devoted enough time and energy." Hildebrandt rejects this task as "exceedingly laborious," but that is exactly the labor Freud undertakes in the rest of the book. For Freud such labor is worth it. Tracking down the origin of every last element of a dream is what leads him to "the very heart of the explanation of dreams." In section C, he cites one scientist after another who is interested only in a "somatic" or physical explanation for dreams. "The suspicions of the psychiatrists have put the mind, as it were, under tutelage." The word "tutelage" relates to teaching or tutoring. Freud means the mind has become something like a student, a lesser, minor, unfree creature, subjected to the will of the scientists. Freud wants to restore the mind's freedom by showing the mind freely creates the content of dreams.

The section ends with questions that will only be answered throughout the rest of the book. He quotes a scholar named Spitta as saying the peculiar logic of dreams is "untranslatable." However, a translation is exactly what Freud's method of interpretation intends to provide. Freud also asks, "What value ... can we attach to our memory of dreams?" He does not answer immediately, but he will attach great value to the remembered dream even if the conscious mind alters it in remembering and retelling. The dream's value is in being "the royal road to the unconscious"; dreams will help illuminate the nature of the human mind.

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