The Interpretation of Dreams | Study Guide

Sigmund Freud

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The Interpretation of Dreams | Chapter 7, Part 1 : The Psychology of the Dream Processes | Summary



Introductory Text

Freud begins by recounting a dream a woman told him, a dream that she heard about, and then redreamed. A father sat by his sick child's bedside for days and after the boy died, the father went to the next room to sleep. The boy's body was laid out on a bed surrounded by tall candles, and an old man was employed to watch over the body. The father went to sleep and dreamed his son was standing beside his bed, tugging on his arm and saying, "Father, don't you see I'm burning?" The father then woke up and noticed a bright light coming from the next room. He rushed in to find the watchman asleep and one of his son's sleeves on fire. A candle had fallen over in the night.

The woman who recounted the dream told Freud the professor's explanation. The light from the fire shone into the sleeping father's room; he realized there must be a fire and this thought came to him in the form of the dream about his son. Initially Freud remarks this is correct. He adds the words in the dream must have been spoken during the son's lifetime (because speech in dreams is always remembered speech, not newly invented). Freud then adds the dream is meaningful nonetheless, so he interprets it further. This dream also fulfilled a wish, to see the child alive again, and waking up to put out the fire would mean "shorten[ing] his child's life by that moment of time."

Next Freud tells readers things are about to get very difficult. Now that Freud has solved the problem of how to interpret dreams, it is clear how inadequate the psychology of dreams still is. Up until now, the journey has led to greater and greater clarity, but from here on out, "every path will end in darkness."

A. The Forgetting of Dreams

In this section Freud considers the reliability of dreamers' accounts of their dreams, some criticisms of his method of interpretation, and the reasons dreamers forget their dreams.

Freud begins by saying until now he has ignored the issue of whether he can trust dreamers' memories of their dreams. Perhaps dreamers add things or leave things out when they recount their dreams to Freud. His answer could be summarized as: forgetting and embellishing are not bugs in the system, they're features. If a patient distorts their dream in telling it, that distortion is also part of the dream-work and can be interpreted. Freud remarks if anyone thinks patients randomly distort their accounts of dreams, they don't understand how little is random in mental acts: "They [critics] have underestimated the extent to which psychical events are determined [nonrandom]. There is nothing arbitrary about them." When a patient describes a dream, it is modified by "the editorship of waking life," and those modifications are not arbitrary.

How would he know a patient had modified his account of a dream? If the language is conspicuously different at one point, Freud zeroes in on that as distortion. If a patient expresses doubt about part of the dream, that doubt is a sign of the patient's resistance. The resistance is a clue to some unconscious material the patient is trying to censor.

Freud turns to the main topic—the forgetting of dreams. He believes the forgetting of dreams is often illusory or exaggerated. Here too forgetting may be "a hostile (i.e., resistant) purpose at work," attempting to distort the dream and deflect attention away from unconscious wishes. Freud gives some examples of this resistance in his psychoanalytic practice. One patient starts sessions by announcing he has completely forgotten a dream. When the talk turns to something difficult the patient is resisting, he then remembers the dream. Likewise, with the interpretation of his own dreams, he has sometimes written the dream down and then left it for months or years. It is possible to still interpret them later.

Freud admonishes readers that interpretations cannot be expected to fall into one's lap. "Practice is needed." He also remarks beginners are satisfied with an interpretation that makes sense, but they should remember dreams can be "overinterpreted." This is a technical term of Freud's invention; it means the dream can be interpreted again. Freud then takes pains to disagree with Silberer, who says every dream must have two interpretations. Freud even says not every dream can be interpreted at all. Sometimes the "psychical forces" that distorted the dream in the first place are too strong and the interpreter cannot overcome them. Freud adds sleep makes dreams possible because sleep relaxes the power of censorship.

Freud then turns to a criticism of his method of dream interpretation. Freud is confident his method uncovers the dream-thoughts. His critics say there is no guarantee what he finds are dream-thoughts: "every idea can be associated with something." The method is arbitrary, his critics say. Freud says he would defend his method "by appealing to the impression made by our interpretations, to the surprising connections with other elements of the dream." His second defense is again a criticism of the word "arbitrary." His meandering is not arbitrary; it follows the purposiveness of unconscious thoughts. Even the hallucinations of a mental illness ("the deliria of a confusional state") might have a meaning, says Freud, raising the ante.

Freud then responds to the criticism that says rhymes, puns, and other associations are superficial. Freud says the superficial is just the path he takes when censorship blocks the main route. He makes one concession: not every association that comes up in an interpretation hits the mark. Some of the associations don't have a connection to the night's dream-work. "Fresh daytime material" is sometimes inserted into an account of a dream, but this still leads to the dream-thoughts.

B. Regression

In this section Freud speculates on the structure of a mental system that moves from sense impressions to thoughts and actions. In this system, energy moves from sensory perceptions at one end of the apparatus to motor activity and consciousness at the other end. There is also "preconscious" element to the apparatus; this is the gateway to motor activity and consciousness. In dreams and hallucinations, energy moves in the other direction—from thoughts to sensory perception, as we see and experience the dream. Because of this backward direction, Freud calls this process regression.

Freud starts by summarizing his argument so far:

  1. Dreams happen in the mind; they are "psychical acts" just as important as other psychical acts.
  2. All dreams are motivated by the desire to fulfill one or more wishes.
  3. The dream's form is shaped by four factors:
    a) Displacement: the need to evade censorship.
    b) Considerations of representability: the dream-work's preference for representing thoughts as
    c) Condensation: the need to reduce numerous thoughts down into a few images.
    d) Secondary revision: a demand the dream be easy to understand.

Freud recalls the dream of the burning child. The dream responded to a perception of bright light and a thought about the possibility of a fire. In dreams a thought becomes a scene, or an experience, for the dreamer. In this dream a thought, "maybe the room is on fire," is transformed into a present-tense scene, with no "maybe" about it. He recalls the physiologist Fechner, whom he quoted in Chapter 1, as saying "the scene of action of dreams is different from that of waking ideational life."

Freud proposes to sketch the system or apparatus that accounts for the scene of action in dreams and the scene of action in waking life. He notes he is not describing an anatomical structure of the brain. He pictures the apparatus by an analogy to a compound microscope, in which there are many lenses in a row. The numerous lenses all produce one image.

At one end of the system is perception or "Pcpt.," where sense impressions enter. These are passed along to a series of memory traces of increasing complexity. At the other end is "Pcs.," the preconscious, which is the gateway to conscious thoughts and voluntary muscle movements. Censorship happens in the preconscious. Freud depicts this system as a spatial structure, but he notes the relationship of the parts might not be spatial. However, mental energy moves through the system in time, beginning with sensory impressions (in Pcpt.) and ending by exiting the preconscious (Pcs.) and into consciousness (Cs.). Freud develops a short abbreviation for all the component parts of this mental apparatus—all the memory trace components, the perception component, and so on. He calls them ψ-systems, using the Greek letter ψ or "psi" as shorthand for "psychic."

The memory traces are part of the unconscious, and so are the perceptions. Even though we are not aware of this level of ourselves, it is crucial. These memories make us who we are, forming our character, says Freud.

Freud then describes the construction of a dream in terms of this apparatus. The motive for dreaming—the wish—is in the unconscious. The transformation of dream-thoughts by displacement, condensation, and other processes is in the preconscious. The dream-thoughts want to enter consciousness, but in the daytime censorship blocks these thoughts.

Freud asks how these dream-thoughts reach consciousness at night. He says a relaxation of censorship at night does not explain everything. Dreams are not just ideas; they are sensory experiences. Therefore, the apparatus runs backward at night, says Freud, from ideas to sense impressions, which Freud calls regression. As dream-thoughts regress through the apparatus, moving from one memory trace to the next, they grow simpler and more primitive. Logical connections fall away. "In regression the fabric of dream-thoughts is resolved into its raw material," writes Freud. Freud notes regression also happens in "pathological waking states," such as hallucinations. He gives three examples from among his patients, including a boy who sees a green face with red eyes. Freud resolves all the hallucinations as having their basis in memories.

Freud also remarks on the important role infantile experiences play in dream-thoughts. He describes two mental phenomena: first, "thoughts cut off from consciousness" which are "struggling to find expression," and second, "memories couched in visual form," which are chiefly infantile memories. The thoughts find these visual, childhood memories attractive or convenient in their struggle to reach consciousness. To take an example Freud does not give, a recent experience of Freud's like a professional disappointment could find visual expression with a childhood memory like pulling apart the illustrated book.

Freud then dispenses with the idea "internal sources of stimulation" are important in shaping our dreams. Freud argues, in contrast to Scherner, the nervous system does not produce images while we sleep. Instead, visual and other sensory perceptions in dreams are based on memories.

Freud summarizes three kinds of regression at work in the construction of dreams (and of neurotic symptoms):

  1. Topographical regression, backward through the ψ-systems toward the perception system.
  2. Temporal regression, toward childhood and infancy.
  3. Formal regression, from complex thought to visual representation.

However, says Freud, all three facets are united in regression; they're all part of one thing.

Freud concludes by noting "dreaming is on the whole an example of regression to the dreamer's earliest condition, a revival of his childhood." He then makes an analogy between regression to childhood and regression to the earliest condition of humanity; dreams not only return us to infancy but to the primitive prehistory of humanity. Therefore, Freud concludes, the study of dreams can illuminate not just individual psychology but also "man's archaic heritage ... what is psychically innate in him."

C. Wish Fulfillment

In this section Freud re-examines his thesis on wish fulfillment in light of the mental apparatus he described in the previous section. He also considers the problem of unpleasant dreams and dreams about worries.

Freud offers three possible sources for the wishes fulfilled in dreams:

  1. A wish that came up during the day but could not be satisfied "for external reasons." (For example, a child wanted candy but a parent forbade it.)
  2. A wish that came up during the day but was repressed.
  3. A wish with "no connection to daytime life" that emerges in the "suppressed part of the mind."

Freud locates the first kind of wish in the preconscious. The second kind of wish arises in the preconscious but is pushed back into the unconscious. The third kind of wish is completely unconscious.

Freud gives an example of the first kind of wish being fulfilled in dreams. A woman wants to say something harsh, but societal conventions forbid it, so she dreams about it. However, Freud says, the first two kinds of wishes cannot motivate a dream; they can only contribute to it. Unconscious wishes alone can motivate dreams. For a conscious wish from the daytime to become a "dream-instigator," the force that sets a dream going, the conscious wish has to attach itself to a more powerful, older unconscious wish.

He goes further and says not only are unconscious wishes the only ones that can motivate a dream, but these unconscious wishes must have been generated in infancy. Conscious wishes left over from the daytime are "secondary." Freud then classifies five kinds of "thought-impulses that persist in sleep":

  1. Something unfinished in the day because of some external blockage.
  2. Something not dealt with because of an internal lack, such as a mental problem the dreamer failed to solve.
  3. Something "rejected and suppressed during daytime."
  4. Something in the unconscious set in motion by the events of the day.
  5. Something not dealt with during the day because it is trivial.

Freud then asks how leftovers from the day, from the preconscious, make their way into dreams. His answer: they have to attach themselves to some unconscious wish.

Next, he analyzes dreams about "distressing content," including "well-justified concerns, painful reflections, distressing realizations." He repeats the idea that unpleasant dreams are also wish fulfillments. However, Freud now makes a new analysis. In punishment dreams, there are two conflicting wishes. The first is an unconscious, repressed wish. The second is a conscious wish to be punished for fulfilling the first wish. Freud says the psychical force that wishes to punish the dreamer is the dreamer's own ego. (He later amends this to the superego.) Freud analyzes one of his own distressing dreams about his son who was away at war. Underneath the distress the dream satisfied a wish to give free rein to the older man's envy of the young.

He revisits the question of why trivial material appears in dreams whereby intense psychic energy is transferred from troubling unconscious material to neutral trivial material to get past the censor. Additionally, the trivial material is recent because recent memories are "clear of associations." The trivial, recent matter can be latched onto—"cathected" in Freud's terminology—by the weighty, association-burdened unconscious wish. He adds the memories of the dream-day—the day's residues—are "the true disturbers of sleep." Dreams are the "GUARDIANS of sleep," as Freud wrote in Chapter 5. If anything makes sleep uneasy, it is the cares of the day, not dreams.

Speculation on the mental framework of primitive humans is Freud's next topic. He starts with a baby: it feels hunger and flails its little limbs about, not really even knowing what it wants. Experience is needed to develop a true wish; hunger plus the memory of satisfaction. In primitive humans, Freud speculates, the ψ-systems must have gone straight from desire to the perception system, every hunger resulting in a full-blown hallucination of satisfaction. But this is no way to live. Hallucinations produce no nourishment. In this way the censor became a guardian by staving off hallucinatory satisfaction and enabled people to go look for actual food. Even today the censor is a guardian against falling into a hallucinatory satisfaction: "Thus the censorship between Pcs. [preconscious] and Ucs. [unconscious] ... deserves to be recognized and respected as the watchman of our mental health."

If the censor guards our mental health, is it relinquishing its role at night and exposing the dreamer to danger? No, answers Freud. Sleep keeps the dreamer out of trouble—"For even though the watchman goes to rest ... it also shuts the door on the power of movement." When the censor is overpowered by unconscious forces during the daytime, then hallucinations accompany the ability to walk and talk: "To this state of things we give the name psychosis," writes Freud.

Freud then compares dreams and neurotic symptoms. Neurotic symptoms also give disguised expression to unconscious wishes, like dreams. However, neurotic symptoms are formed from two conflicting unconscious wishes, says Freud. He gives an example of a woman who developed the hysterical symptom of uncontrollable vomiting. She used the symptom to express two unconscious wishes: first, to "be continuously pregnant" and have many children, and second, to have those children by many different men. The vomiting fulfills the first, somewhat socially approved wish by imitating the morning sickness of pregnancy. It also thwarts the second, socially more objectionable wish by making her unattractive to men.

By comparison, dreams are less conflicted. As soon as an unconscious wish is distorted enough, the censor lets it through. The wishes don't have to come in matched, contradictory pairs. If the ego is wishing for anything at night, it is wishing for sleep. The dream's unconscious wish (to marry one's mother, for example) is paired with the unobjectionable wish of the conscious mind to go on sleeping.

Freud returns once more to the dream of the burning child. Freud first supposed it fulfilled a mournful wish: to grant the child one more moment of life by remaining asleep just a bit longer, even though the light was waking the man up. Now Freud proposes something simpler was also happening at the same time; the dream fulfilled the conscious wish to sleep. Freud ends by adding, "I am driven to conclude that throughout our whole sleeping state we know just as certainly that we are dreaming as we know that we are sleeping."


Freud seems to have an attraction to situations or structures built around an unknown center. At several points in The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud emphasizes the existence of a hidden, unknowable blank spot amidst knowledge. In Chapter 1, in the discussion of the sensation of internal organs, Freud says, "The obscurity which is in the center of our being ... is veiled from our knowledge." Likewise in dreams, the unknown is not at the margins but in the center: "There is at least one spot in every dream at which it is unplumbable—a navel, as it were, that is its point of contact with the unknown." Just so, the dream of the burning child is closed to a complete interpretation because Freud does not know who originally dreamed it: "its actual source is still unknown to me."

The dream of the burning child can be partially interpreted, however. It seems to be an exception to Freud's previously stated law, "dreams are the GUARDIANS of sleep." In the dream, the burning child seems to plead with his father to wake up: "Father, don't you see I'm burning?" Not only does the dream contain a message about waking up, it also responds to the real-world physical stimulus of the bright light of the fire. Why respond to the fire by taking a detour through a dream, asks Freud, instead of immediately waking up? His answer is moving—the dream fulfills a wish to see the child alive once more, even for a moment.

The dream of the burning child is also an exception because its wish is transparent, not disguised. Freud realized the wish fulfillment without even knowing the dreamer because the wish was not unconscious. He now raises the stakes of the investigation by stating when interpretation is finished, the real difficulty begins. The Interpretation of Dreams is not a dream-book whose only aim is to explain dreams. The analyses of dreams are meant to illuminate the structures and workings of the mind. This is why the dream of the burning child introduces Chapter 7—as a dream that hallucinates the truth and opens the investigation of how perception, the unconscious, and consciousness are connected.

One could pick at the structure of Freud's "ψ-systems," his image of the mind's workings. Why are there multiple memory traces all in a row for one memory? Why not just one memory that changes over time? However, to make such criticisms would be "to mistake the scaffolding for the building." Freud's model is just an image and does not pretend to represent an anatomical structure in the brain. What is interesting is how important the unconscious is in Freud's model. So much happens in the unconscious. Paradoxically, what we cannot remember is what most defines us. "What we describe as our 'character' is based on the memory-traces of our impressions," says Freud, and those memory-traces are by definition unconscious. Unlike other scientists who brush the dreams aside because their meanings are unknowable, Freud turns the problem around. What is unknown shapes us, and we can begin to understand the unknown through its presence in our dreams.

It is in the precincts of the unknown that Freud really shines as a thinker. Rather than hold him back, the unknown seems to spur him on: "Since at our first approach to something unknown all that we need is the assistance of provisional ideas, I shall give preference in the first instance to hypotheses of the crudest and most concrete description." Freud may not have succeeded as an eel-dissector or a cocaine-titrator, but he excels at speculation in the face of the unknown.

Freud began by saying dreams were wish fulfillments. Then he showed how dreams fulfilled disguised, repressed wishes. In Chapter 7 he repeats the idea these disguised wishes are overwhelmingly childhood wishes. Then he connects what he has proven to a vast unknown: dreams not only preserve early childhood wishes, they reach even further back to the earliest days of humanity. Freud arrives at this connection, it seems, by way of a theory of evolution: "Behind this childhood of the individual we are promised a picture of a phylogenetic childhood—a picture of the development of the human race, of which the individual's development is in fact an abbreviated recapitulation." His statement is an allusion to a German scientist, Ernst Haeckel, who theorized that animal embryos and young animals developed in a way that parallels the development of the species.

Haeckel's findings have since been judged insignificant, but Freud makes a case for the parallel between childhood and a primitive state of mankind. Moreover, if childhood has this link, then dreams are the route to childhood: "What once dominated waking life, while the mind was still young and incompetent, seems now to have been banished into the night—just as the primitive weapons, the bows and arrows, that have been abandoned by adult men, turn up in the nursery." Freudian psychoanalysis searches for the keys to how the human mind works during the night, when banished, outmoded, childish, ancient, prehistoric forms of thought can make their distorted appearance in dreams. As Freud writes, "Dreams and neuroses seem to have preserved more mental antiquities than we could have imagined possible; so that psycho-analysis may claim a high place among the sciences which are concerned with the reconstruction of the earliest and most obscure periods of the human race."

Freud later refined his ideas about how the mind works. This first draft of his ideas, with its excitations and ψ-systems, is sometimes called his "topographical model" of the mind, because it maps the mind's structures. It is also a dynamic model in that it charts the movement and discharge of excitations. However outmoded the model, it still illuminates the basic view of Freud's thinking about the mind. He conceived it as a busy place of overwhelming pressures. Concerning the unconscious wish that motivates or instigates a dream, Freud writes: "Like all other thought-structures, this dream-instigator will make an effort to advance into the Pcs. [preconscious] and from there obtain access to consciousness." The human unconscious mind has a wish of its own, which is to become conscious. When this striving, forward pressure comes into conflict with censorship, the result is either the compromise of a neurotic symptom or the disguised fulfillment in a dream.

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