Generally speaking, psychology can fairly be said to be a study of all of the processes of the mind- conscious and unconscious, waking and sleeping thoughts-including dreams. While there are those who believe that dreams are merely a random playback of the things that are stored in the mind as a sort of “busy work” to keep the brain active while we sleep, there are those who likewise dedicated a great deal of their careers to a deeper study of dreams. Perhaps the best know of these was Sigmund Freud.
In his classic work “The Interpretation of Dreams”, Freud put forth theories about dreams that not only went against all of the popular opinion of the other leading psychologists of his time, but also blazed a trail for a whole new line of thinking on the topic of the methods of dream analysis and research. With this in mind, this essay will discuss Freud’s methods in detail, their impact on psychology as a whole, and what all of this means for the modern student of psychology. Freud’s Methods Explained
As was mentioned in the Introduction to this essay, Freud devoted a good part of his psychological career, and an entire book and more, to dream interpretation. Among his writings were a great deal of details about his methods of dream interpretation and analysis. Because of this, the method itself deserves more explanation in order to truly understand and appreciate it. Freud’s method of dream interpretation, to paraphrase his own words, is based on his initial premise that there are two generally accepted methods of dream interpretation, and that both of these are flawed (Strachey, ed.
). The first of these inferior methods is that of ‘symbolic’ dream interpretation, which basically means that dreams are a literal representation of something that the dreamer has experienced before, and should basically be taken at face value and nothing more. For example, a dream about losing a loved one, even if the specifics are not exact to a previous experience, are in fact based on a previous experience along the same lines and that is what the dream should be viewed as (McLeod). The second is what Freud, in his book, calls the ‘decoding’ method.
According to Freud, under decoding, every piece of a dream can be interpreted, or decoded, by using a translation key, much like some sort of a secret code from a classic spy novel. The problem with decoding, from Freud’s point of view, is that the key which is used to decode the dream can in itself be incorrect, and as such, make it impossible for the dream to be accurately translated. In both cases, the argument was made that neither method of dream interpretation followed any elements of the established scientific method, and as such, were not suitable to be used in clinical psychology.
By directly quoting Freud from his classic work on dreams, we can easily understand his point of view on not only the flaws in the established methods of dream interpretation up to that point, but also the need for his improved methods of dream interpretation: “I have been taught better. I have been driven to realize that here once more we have one of those not infrequent cases in which an ancient and jealously held popular belief seems to be nearer the truth than the judgment of the prevalent science of to-day. I must affirm that dreams really have a meaning and that a scientific procedure for interpreting them is possible” (Strachey, ed.
, p. 100). Therefore, Freud put forth the theory that dreams exist as symptoms of a psychological problem, and by isolating those dreams and interpreting them in a clinical setting, there can in fact be therapeutic benefit for the patient who is having the dreams. It was from this launching point that Freud originally put forth one theory about dream interpretation, and later, updated his theory after he conducted additional research on the subject. Early in Freud’s work on the methods of dream interpretation, he stayed true to the assertion that dreams are symbolic of other psychological symptoms and can be used to aid the patient.
However, in the beginning, Freud quickly and uncategorically classified all dreams as a subconscious way for the brain to exercise its secret sexual desires, even in the case of infants, whose psyches were not fully formed (Freud). Eventually, however, Freud came to the realization that all dreams are not simply suppressed sexual urges, but that each dream could in fact mean something different from another, even in the mind of the same patient at different times in the life of the patient.
It was this realization that led Freud to begin to develop the classic aspects of his clinical procedures that would in time become the cornerstones of modern psychoanalysis. For example, Freud began to realize that the patient, in order to be able to accurately and productively put forth the descriptions of their dreams, which then could be used to diagnose psychological issues and problems, would have to be placed at ease, preferably in a reclined position, with the eyes closed, simulating the sleeping state that gave rise to the dreams being discussed in the first place.
This basic idea led to Freud’s use of the couch for patients to lie on during their sessions, which has today become an iconic symbol of the psychiatrist’s office, as seen in television programs and movies, whether describing the process seriously or as a parody. The other important part of Freud’s evolution of dream interpretation deals with the practice of ‘association’.
What this means is that Freud would ask a novice patient, if he or she could not easily represent their entire dream experience, to break it into segments, and in discussing those segments, to try to associate them with something with which they are already familiar (McLeod). In this way, Freud asserts, the dream can correctly be interpreted as a symptom of a psychological ill, not just a random piece of brain activity or an obsession with sex. What Freud’s Dream Interpretation Means for Us Today
Finally, we can reach some conclusions about what Freud’s interpretation methods mean for the modern psychiatrist, psychiatric patient, and student. If in fact dreams, as Freud believed, are symptoms to be read by a qualified individual with the help of the patient, then the mind holds the illness as well as the cure. Therefore, the relief of psychological illness is within reach of patient and physician alike. The challenge, however, lies in being able to skillfully find the cure, which depends heavily on all parties involved.
Sigmund Freud devoted his life to studying the human mind and its details, and his methods for dream interpretation are still valid today. This essay has given examples of this, and as many as were shown here, many more exist as well.
Freud, Ernst L. , ed. Letters of Sigmund Freud. New York: Basic Books, 1960. McLeod, Malcolm N. “The Evolution of Freud’s Theory about Dreaming. ” Psychoanalytic Quarterly 61. 1 (1992): 37-64. Strachey, James, ed. The Interpretation of Dreams. 1st ed. New York: Basic Books, 1955.