Why do we dream and what can it tell us about our problems?
Dreams and the Unconscious
Before the 1900s and the birth of psychoanalysis as a therapeutic discipline, dreams were thought to come from mystical sources. People thought that perhaps they were messages from God or a warning from the devil, and any dreams that couldn't be made sense of were dismissed as being nothing of importance. However, in the late 1890s Sigmund Freud started to look more closely at the content of dreams and what they meant for the dreamer. In 1900 he published his most well-known book “The Interpretation of Dreams” where he described what was happening in the mind when we dream.
According to Freud we have three levels to our mind, which have been likened to an iceberg metaphor. Firstly, we have the conscious part of our mind which is like the tip of the iceberg. Conscious thoughts are thoughts that we are experiencing freely in the present moment. For example, my conscious thought now is “I am writing this blog and I can feel a cool breeze, I must shut the door”. Then below this level of conscious thought is a preconscious level. In an iceberg metaphor this would just be below the water level. This is where memories are stored that you might like to easily access at any particular time. A preconscious thought might be “I remember that time when I went to my friend’s wedding and I had a lovely day”.
Then below this is the unconscious. This is the largest part of Freud’s model of the mind. The unconscious realms are where we store trauma, unacceptable sexual desires, and violent thoughts. This is where we store all the things we don't want to think about because they are things that are too taboo, too sexual, too violent, too traumatic and too upsetting. We cannot freely access the unconscious, but it has an enormous influence on our daily lives. We spend a lot of our daily life defending ourselves against these unconscious processes without even realising it.
What has this got to do with dreaming? You might think of the unconscious part of the mind a bit like a pressure cooker with a lid on it (which Freud called repression). If you increase the energy to the pot, like turning up the heat, and you don't release some of the pressure the pot would eventually explode. Think about a time when you were under a huge amount of pressure, but you kept it all to yourself, eventually you might have exploded into a rage or burst into tears. These unconscious thoughts need an outlet and dreaming is one of the ways in which we can do this.
There are other ways in which we can “let off steam” – we might talk about our problems with a friend or with a counsellor, we might participate in activities such as arts and crafts, or exercise, or we might tell jokes (have you noticed that many comedians often suffer from depression? – think about Robin Williams). Sometimes the unconscious just pops out through what we call Freudian slips (you might want to look that up on Youtube!). Finally, one of the main ways in which the unconscious part of the mind is able to express itself is through the mechanism of dreaming.
Types of Dreams
One way in which Freud interpreted some dreams is to view them as a form of “wish-fulfilment”. For example, you dream about your beloved dead grandmother, perhaps this is a deep desire to see her again. These are just one form of dream and they are relatively simple to understand. Dreams might also repeat something real life event from the day. This is called “day residue” and again is relatively easy to make sense of.
Other dreams might be more complicated and seemingly nonsensical. These are the dreams that most interested Freud. Dreams have what Freud called “manifest” and “latent” content.
Manifest content is the dream that you can remember. Take this dream as an example:
“I was in a deep ravine and I spotted a friend who has been trapped there for a whole year trying to find her way out. I look for a way out to help her, but the sides of the ravine are very steep, and we struggle to climb out. I am confident I can help her though”.
How I have written the dream out and how I might tell it to someone is called the “manifest” content. When I start to look for meaning behind it then I am looking for the “latent” content. I might simply interpret this dream in the following way,
“This is a dream about a friend of mine who I know has been going through a very difficult time for a year. She is starting to find ways to emerge from her depression following a serious assault. I find myself in a position where I might be able to help her. This could relate to my role as a psychotherapist. It will be a difficult job to pull her from the ravine or the depths of her despair, but I am confident I can find a way”.
You may have seen Dream Dictionaries for sale in bookstores. These offer interpretations on dream symbols – so for example you dream about a snake and the books might interpret this as ‘someone is about to betray you’. These are fun to read and help think through symbols, but they are too general to be meaningful. Dreams are personal to you and your personal circumstances. They can be really revealing about what is actually troubling you and helping you find solutions to your problems.
Seven steps to interpreting your dreams
1. Firstly, you need to remember your dream. The best way to do this is to make sure you firstly get enough undisturbed, deep sleep. Good sleep routines will help. Then when you wake, try not to move for a moment or two and try to catch that dream and bring it to your conscious thought.
2. Keep a dream diary. Write down a dream as soon as possible after you wake up. It will likely fade quickly through the day and you might lose it!
3. Once you have written down the “manifest” content of your dream you need to start to think about what it means.
4. Pick out all the key symbols in the dream. If we consider the dream above, I might pick out the symbols of “ravine” “friend” “helping” “challenge of the steep sides”.
5. Now reflect on what each of those symbols might mean for you or what they could represent. What do they symbolise? It might be that the friend that was in my dream isn’t someone who actually needs help in real life, but rather she represents someone else who I need to help – perhaps another friend or a patient.
6. Think about the feelings that are involved in the dream – do you feel afraid, do you feel confident, do you feel anxious etc? How do these feeling relate to the content of your dream? Do they match the storyline of the dream? What could these feelings be trying to tell you? In this dream above I felt helpful and confident which gives me big clues as to what this dream is trying to tell me. If I had felt lost and afraid, I might interpret it entirely differently.
7. Write down what you think the underlying message is that the dream is trying to tell you? (the latent content) What can you learn from this? What does it tell you about your problems?
Is Dreaming Universal?
But I don’t dream! I hear some of you say.
Sleep studies have shown that “dreaming production is universal, while dreaming recall is variable” (Herlin et al, 2015). We all dream whilst in the REM (rapid eye movement) state of our sleep. You might have noticed this REM state whilst watching a sleeping child or a pet.
Dogs might give little barks, their eye lids flutter, and they start to twitch their legs as if they are about to run! This is their REM dream state. However, despite every one of us dreaming each night, not everyone can recall their dreams. If we cannot remember our dreams, there may be a few things going on. You might be getting poor or broken sleep. You might be waking up too quickly without time to reflect upon your dream content. And finally, psychologically what could be happening is that the unconscious feelings that are coming up are not being processed properly through the dreams and the anxiety associated with this is too disturbing for it to be recalled.
Dreams are what Freud called the “Royal Road to the Unconscious”. They are a important way for our minds to process unconscious traumas and unacceptable desires by transforming them into a form that can be accepted by our conscious, hopefully remembered, and then interpreted in order to make sense of our experiences.
Freud, S. (1921) Dream Psychology: Psychoanalysis for Beginners. New York: The James A. McCann Company. Bartleby.com, 2010. www.bartleby.com/288/
Herlin B, Leu-Semenescu S, Chaumereuil C, & Arnulf I (2015). Evidence that non-dreamers do dream: a REM sleep behaviour disorder model. Journal of Sleep
Research PMID: 26307463