We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep. — Shakespeare, “The Tempest”

Psychoanalysis was born from the analysis of dreams. With “The Interpretation of Dreams”, Freud introduces us to the concept of the unconscious and analysis. Freud taught us that we could differentiate between the latent content of the dream (the unconscious content) and the manifest content (the remembered dream), and that we could understand something about the unconscious mind through interpretation of dreams. The photograph below is all that is left of the place where Freud first interpreted a dream in analysis.

Stele - Sigmund Freud, Das Geheimnis des Traumes (Wien 1900) 002
By Genderforschung (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“Do you suppose that some day a marble tablet will be placed on the house, inscribed with these words: ‘In this house on July 24, 1895, the secret of dreams was revealed to Dr. Sigm. Freud? At the moment I see little prospect of it.”— Freud in a letter to Wilhelm Fliess, June 12, 1900

We all dream. We don’t all remember our dreams. You can train yourself to remember dreams. By keeping a note pad by the bed, and jotting down a few key words of a dream if you awaken during the night, you will have them to prompt your memory in the morning, and it will help you recover a dream you have forgotten. The more you do this, the more you will remember.

Why do we care? What is so important about dreaming? There could be some debate about whether it is rapid eye movement (REM) sleep that is important, or the act of dreaming during REM sleep that we need, but the bottom line is clear. Without REM sleep, we would struggle with memory. We lay down long term memories during REM sleep. It is possible to knock out the part of a rat’s brain that allows them to have REM sleep. If that happens, then they struggle to remember mazes that they are being taught. Some animals, when not allowed to have REM sleep will actually die. Humans, deprived of REM sleep, can actually go insane and become psychotic.

So REM/dreaming is very important from a physiologic stand point, but why was it so important to Freud’s understanding of the unconscious? What Freud was able to see, was there was an unconscious layer to dreaming. He was able to see that the dreamer was telling a narrative about events and so on, and that they were expressing an unconscious wish. Through symbols, means of representation, displacement, and condensations, the latent dream becomes the manifest dream through the process of dream work to become the dream we remember and tell.

Symbols are just that. We have to be careful not to generalize too much about symbols in dreams but some things have been taken to be pretty universal about them. Being in water is generally taken to mean birth. Crossing water is generally about death. Dreams about teeth are about sexuality. Seeing kings and queens are often about parents. Symbols can be anything out of a person’s experience, so these are just a very few generalizations.

Means of representation are like puns. My last name is Taylor. If a patient reported a dream about taking clothes to a Tailor to be repaired, then that would be an example of means of representation (I haven’t seen that one yet). Displacements are taking a representation or feeling about one thing, and transposing it onto something else.

Condensations are interesting. A condensation would be several things from a person’s experience represented as one thing. For example, if a patient of mine reported a dream about a man wearing glasses and a particular shirt the patient remembers from a family member when they were kids, could represent me (since I wear glasses) and that particular family member condensed into one dream character.

I’ll probably write more about dreams as time goes on, but that is more than enough for now. In the meantime:

If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended, that you have but slumber’d here, while these visions did appear. And this weak and idle theme, no more yielding but a dream— Shakespeare, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

Stephen Taylor, MD

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