The Interpretation of Dreams | Study Guide

Sigmund Freud

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The Interpretation of Dreams | Context


Modern Psychology and Physiology

Before the founding of modern psychology in the 19th century, psychology was considered a branch of philosophy. Psychologists made advances by thinking and speculating about psychological phenomena. In the late 19th century psychology received a new foundation as a science connected to physiology, the study of living bodies. From then on, the discipline advanced by the empirical methods of scientific research: experimentation, observation, and measurement. Freud, too, considered his psychological research scientific.

Freud was influenced by German physician Wilhelm Wundt, one of the acknowledged founders of modern psychology. Wundt's groundbreaking work, Principles of Physiological Psychology (1874), advocated the investigation of mental phenomena: feelings, sensations, ideas, and the will. This investigation occurred through introspection, or looking inside oneself. For Freud, too, introspection was a valid scientific method, and he used it in The Interpretation of Dreams.

The Interpretation of Dreams was also influenced by 19th-century physiology, which believed the human mind was governed by chemical, physical reactions. Freud was particularly influenced by the German physiologist Hermann von Helmholtz and his idea that physiological energy could not be lost, only displaced. Chapter 7 of The Interpretation of Dreams keeps traces of this physiological thinking.

Victorian Morality

Victorian morality refers to the moral customs and beliefs prevalent in Europe in the late 19th century, a period coinciding with the reign of Queen Victoria in the United Kingdom (1837–1901). Victorian morality was characterized by an interest in proper sexual behavior, devotion to family, hard work, and moral responsibility. These values held sway throughout Europe, not just in England, so they affected the writing and reception of Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams. Victorians are sometimes imagined as prudish and ignorant about sex because they advocated marital fidelity for both sexes, chastity for unmarried women, and abstention from masturbation for children and adolescents. However, the Victorian era also saw the beginnings of sexology, the scientific study of sexual behavior. In 1886 German psychologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing published Psychopathia Sexualis, a lengthy catalogue of atypical sexual practices. In 1897 British physician Havelock Ellis published Studies in the Psychology of Sex. Freud knew both men, and he cites Ellis several times in The Interpretation of Dreams.

The Victorians openly advocated monogamous, conservative sexual conduct. But they also talked and wrote incessantly about atypical or criminal sexual behavior. This logic of stated rules and hidden desires can be seen in The Interpretation of Dreams. A censor in the dreamer's mind disguises unconscious desires that would outrage Victorian morality. Freud's ideas about neurosis are also marked by their connection to Victorian morality; the neurotic person transforms hidden desires into phobias and obsessions.

Hypnotism and Hysteria

In the winter of 1885–86 Freud studied hysteria with French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot at Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris. Charcot used hypnosis to treat hysterical patients. In hypnosis a practitioner uses words and sounds to put the patient in a trance-like state. The practitioner then gives the patient commands called hypnotic suggestions. At the time hysteria was diagnosed as a loose collection of behavioral and physical symptoms, including paralysis of certain limbs. It was thought to afflict only women and to have a physical cause. The word hysteria comes from a Greek root meaning "womb." Freud was intrigued with Charcot's idea that people with hysteria could respond to treatment with words rather than physical manipulations like hydrotherapy or massage.

Although Freud later moved away from hypnosis, traces of it remain in The Interpretation of Dreams. Chapter 2 describes the ideal state in which patients can turn their attention to their remembered dreams: "In order that he may concentrate his attention on his self-observation it is an advantage for him to lie in a restful attitude and shut his eyes. It is necessary to insist explicitly on renouncing all criticism of the thoughts that he perceives." This relaxed state was also the one in which Freud treated his hysterical patients, encouraging them to freely speak their ideas. As the British translator and editor James Strachey notes, having patients lie on the couch with eyes closed was similar to the trance state of hypnotism.

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