Few areas of depth psychology arouse so much interest and controversy as the nature of dreams. Freud, Jung, and many others, came to see the dream as a sort of key that would give them access to the unconscious. But, though both placed the dream at the centre of their work, they disagreed on its nature, role, and function.
Human beings have always been fascinated by dreams. The English scholar and poet Robert Graves, for example, argued that the analysis of dreams was a major preoccupation even of pre-historic people. The tribal shaman combined the role of physician, mystic, and poet and considered dreams and poetic trance sacred and the source of his inspiration.
Indeed, dreams seem to have been accepted by most pre-scientific peoples as divine messages, or at the very least as prophetic. Towards the end of Homer's Odyssey, for example, Odysseus' wife dreams of an eagle killing her geese. She describes the dream to her disguised husband who suggests that the eagle symbolizes Odysseus, lost for 10 years, and the geese the suitors who are trying to steal his throne. He assures her that the dream is prophetic and means that her husband will return and kill the men besieging her home.
The rational, scientific study of dreams began in the middle of the 19th century. One of the first to use this new approach was the French scientist Alfred Maury. In 1861, he published Sleep and Dreams in which he argued that the content of a dream was determined by external stimuli. So, for example, if you were to fall asleep next to a draft, you may dream that a lover is breathing next to you, or that a predator is drawing close and about to pounce. Maury even used one of his own dreams as an example. One night, he writes, he dreamt of being caught up in the French Revolution. He was sentenced to the guillotine and, just as the blade was about to fall, awoke to find the headboard had fallen on his neck!
Contemporaries of Maury researched the possible organic conditions leading to certain kinds of dream. Others sought to link dreams to physical or mental illness. Investigations were also conducted into why dreams are forgotten and how they relate to conscious thought.
Without doubt, the name most often associated with the study of dreams is Sigmund Freud. Indeed, his book The Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1900, remains a classic that influences artists and writers to this very day. Like Maury, he made use of his own dreams in formulating his theories. But dreams interested Freud above all because he believed they gave access to the unconscious mind.
First, Freud distinguished between what he called the 'manifest' and the 'latent' content of a dream. The manifest content is the part that the dreamer can remember upon waking and later recall in analysis. The therapist's task is to then unearth the latent content hidden behind these memories. To help in this, Freud developed a technique known as free-association. Imagine a patient dreams of a flying horse. The therapist lays him on the couch, encourages him to relax, and then asks him to think of all the things he associates with horses – just saying them out loud, no matter how foolish. Once he names something, the therapist then asks what he associates that with and so on. Such free association, Freud believed, would lead to the hidden meaning.
In essence, Freud argued that dreams exist not to disturb sleep but to preserve it. A wish is repressed out of consciousness, perhaps because it is too shameful. During sleep, the repressing mechanism weakens (rather like a guard falling asleep at his post) and the unconscious wish forces its way to the surface. However, though the repressing mechanism is weakened, it is still there, and so the wish has to disguise itself (which is why dreams often appear so bizarre and confusing). Were the latent wish to fully express itself, the shame would trigger a wave of anxiety, waking the sleeper up. The dream is therefore a compromise between the longing to fulfil a repressed wish and the need to remain asleep.
Freud called this disguise the 'dreamwork', which can take many forms. First, there is condensation. This essentially means that a number of thoughts are blended, or condensed, into one image. Then there is displacement, which means that the most significant parts of the dream come to represent the most insignificant dream thoughts, while the seemingly trivial parts of the dream represent the most important. The best known form of dreamwork is of course symbolization, where repressed wishes sneak through in symbolic form. Female genitalia, for example, may appear in a dream as a purse or keyhole, while the male member may be symbolized as a key, umbrella, or leaking pen.
The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung read Freud's work, especially The Interpretation of Dreams, and was profoundly impressed. Like Freud, he believed that dreams gave access to the unconscious. He also agreed that they were compensatory. But their collaboration and friendship did not last long. Jung came to disagree with many of Freud's conclusions, including those on dreams, and eventually broke away to form his own school.
Jung laid even more emphasis on dreams than Freud (his autobiography is titled Memories, Dreams, Reflections). In part, this was because Jung believed the unconscious ran deeper than even Freud had imagined. Jung agreed that everyone has a personal unconscious, filled with the memories, fears and desires accumulated during their life. But he also believed that people inherit a 'collective' unconscious – something containing archetypes, or mental structures, established over the course of human evolution. For Jung, the dreams that really mattered (what he called 'big dreams') were expressions of these archetypes.
In place of Freud's free association, Jung made use of a technique he named 'amplification'. So, the dreamer would be asked what each element of the dream reminded them of. But, instead of asking them what they associated it with, the analyst was to focus in on that one element and try to 'amplify' it through reference to art, religion, and mythology. Since these all draw upon the collective unconscious, there will be parallels between the symbols and characters in an individual's dream and those found in the world's myths.
Unlike Freud, Jung believed that dream symbols were attempts to communicate rather than to conceal. The images in a 'big' dream symbolize the archetypes. And they appear when they have been neglected in day to day life (or, in Jungian language, when they have not been individuated). One of the best known of these archetypes is the so-called 'anima', meaning the feminine side of a man. If a certain man is very macho – ridiculing men who cry, for example, or trying to prove how physically tough he is – his dreams will counterbalance this.
Freud and Jung remain deeply controversial, and many dismiss their theories, including those on dreams, as nonsense. And it must be emphasized that research continues. Neuroscientists have focussed on the link between dreaming and the REM period of sleep, for example. Then there are rival analysts, like the existential psychotherapist Medard Boss. Boss argues that dreams should be taken more literally. If you do, you will begin to understand how the dreamer views reality. So, for example, if someone has recurrent dreams of being trapped in a narrow alley, maybe this simply means that his life is far too narrow and dull and that he needs a change. That said, few have had more daring or original things to say on the subject.