Sigmund Freud: On Dreams in Psychotherapy

This lecture is an interesting source on Freud on Dreams. In the second half of this article, I summarize straight forwardly Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1900.

The Interpretation of Dreams Summarized:

In the Interpretation of dreams, Sigmund Freud mentions 2 types of content of a dream:

  1. manifest content”  = the content in the dream that is remembered.
  2. “latent content ”  = the relevant material discovered by analyzing the dream. This is not remembered and the understanding of this content emerges during therapy.

What is the psychical process which has transformed the latent content to the manifest one which is known to me from my memory?

What is/are the motive(s) which made this transformation necessary?

Note: I am, however, not convinced that latent content discovered by analyzing the dream is the same as the  latent content that created the dream’s manifest content.  This, since I am not convinced that we can trust our memory of dreams in the first place.

Hence, what Freud implies is that:

our psychical process —> remembered as manifest content — –> analyzed as latent content.

Aim to describe process in which

      1. latent content –> manifest content (dream work)
      2. manifest content –>latent content (analysis)
      3. problems arising out of dreams: origin of the material, meaning, function of dreaming, and the reason why dreams are forgotten. p.642

The Latent Dream Content ..

deserves attention because it is psychical material changed over from one mode of expression to another. We can come to understand it better with guidance and effort.

The understanding of it is (requires) a function of mental activity.

The 3 categories of Dreams

According to Freud, there are dreams that

      1. make sense and intelligible.
      2. have clear sense, but have a bewildering effect.
      3. are without intelligibility, seems disconnected, confused and meaningless.

methinks, however, that this is not so clear cut…

Freud considers the contrast between manifest and latent content of 2nd and 3rd category of dreams as significant. In these we are faced by riddles that only disappear after we replace manifest dream by the latent thoughts behind it (i.e. when we analyze the latent content that has led to it).

Motives that prevents us from becoming fully acquainted with our latent dream-thoughts, Freud says,

“A repetition of similar experiences may lead us to suspect that there is an intimate and regular relation between

      • the unintelligible and confused nature of dreams and
      • the difficulty of reporting the thoughts behind them. “

Reason for forgetting is that maybe it is difficult / because it is not possible. Could it be because we do not want to remember… e.g. like we cannot remember stuff when 2 yrs old because we don’t want or we simply aren’t able to?

Children’s Dreams (Infantile Dreams)

That children’s dreams are significant but not puzzling is evidence that dreams aren’t merely originated from dissociated cerebral activity during sleep. p. 663-664.

Freud cites cases:

Case 1. of a girl sick from eating strawberries, and put on a fast who’s had dreams of eating a meal strawberries.

Case 2. of boy who dreamt of feast which he was denied, cherries he wanted to eat himself.

etc. pp.664-556

Case studies indicate that children fulfill un-met desires in their dreams. Dreams were simple an “undisguised wish fulfillments.”

“Wish fulfillment” dreams in adult, e.g. stimulus of theirs, leads to dreams of drinking, as an attempt to enable continuation of the sleep.

I guess it is like instances of dreaming of having woken up, and dressing up when the clock alarm rings.

Freud describes this too as “dreams of convenience”.

Or a dream before a journey of having arrived at the destination and anticipating the pleasure/ expectation of that journey’s destination.

Even in infantile dreams, there is transformation of a sort: a thought expressed in the optative (wishful mood) has been replaced by a representation in the present tense.

Freud’s Dream

Freud recounts a dream of his own. The content is as follows:

  • Company at table or table d’hote — spinach dish — Frau E.L.
  • Frau E. L.  turns attention towards Freud, lays hand on his knee in intimate manner
  • Freud removes her hand.
  • “but  you have such beautiful eyes” she says.
  • Freud has distinct picture of drawing of 2 eyes or like outline of spectacles.


  • Company at table or table d’hote — spinach dish — Frau E.L.

.A1 Day before after party with he and friend took cab with taximeter. Friend paid the fare, and Freud got trip “free of costs” ( this is the dream instigator). Freud’s preoccupation with being overcharged by looking at taximeter, getting the worst of the bargain. at table d’hote he feels of getting too little. He must keep eye on won interest.

.A2 Few weeks before, at a resort, Freud was annoyed that his wife paid too much attention to some people whose aquaintence Freud himself was not keen to have.  He asked her to give him more attention.

A2 The experience was disagreeable, but the dream was the opposite, but not more suitable version of”wish fulfilled”.

A3 Spinach is what his children don’t eat and their mother says, just kosten (taste).

  • Frau E. L.  turns attention towards Freud, lays hand on his knee in intimate manner

.B1 Freud was once in debt to Frau E.L.’s father.

.B2 Freud’s engagement

.B3 “Under the table”.

  • Freud removes her hand.
  • “but  you have such beautiful eyes” she says.

.D1 Freud thinks this has to do with others implying that he gets things from others easily “for the sake of your beautiful eyes“. Freud claims that this is the contrary.

D some part of this is a wish fulfilment, another, a bitter revelation that he never got anything for free. “I would like to get something sometimes without cost Kosten.”  p.650

.D Freud remembers later of having, without hesitation, given large sum of money to a relative he was fond of. He remembered giving this relative a ride on a cab. He realises “I wish I might for once experience love that cost me nothing”.  Freud later on comes to terms with having regretted giving the money. p. 672 illustrating repression.

  • Freud has distinct picture of drawing of 2 eyes or like outline of spectacles.

Freud points out the large scale compression or condensation of the ideation in a dream. Every element seems to branch out into 2 or more directions (experiences or impressions).  Often these elements contradict each other.  Better to take each contradictory element as a stand alone starting points for a series of associations.

Freud believes that if the dream thoughts do not have anything in common, it is possible to create a common representation in the dream-work. This happens by:

  • altering the verbal form, (like creating rhymes).
  • create intermediate thoughts to form a link. like “kosten”
  • Collective and composite figures
  • compositing features of 2 people
  • or form of one and name of another
  • visual picture of one, but situation appropriate to another
  • has meaning, of “and” and “just as” to compare the 2 persons.

In short, our minds try to make sense of the pieces by building pictures.

The common element can only be discovered by analysis in therapy.

Condensation in dreams therefore means each element is over represented, transformed , dramatized. p. 653

On Complicated and Confused Dreams

The is more than condensation and dramatization in these kind of dreams.  The dream content must (after analysis) play subordinate role among the dream thoughts.

“in the course of the dream-work the psychical intensity passes over from the thoughts and ideas to which it properly belongs on to others which in our judgement have no claim to any such emphasis.”

This point is one I am not really in understanding of.  Since dreams are pieces the unconscious put together to make sense of an inner experience, what we try to analyze in the conscious state seem confusing to us. In a way, although it can be very helpful to analyze the content, much of the task is almost impossible. 

Dream Displacement

“Dream displacement” : is where psychical intensity, significance or affective potentiality of the thought is transformed into sensory vividness.

The most distinct manifest content is often not the most important. i.e. what is obvious is usually not important. 

e.g. in Freud’s example, what seems to be a woman’s advances, is really a wish to enjoy unselfish love which “costs nothing” behind “beautiful eyes” and spinach. ..

Instigators of dreams lead impression  and tries to find connection to waking life.

Any dream that goes back to impression of few days passed.  The impression is important and significant part of waking life.

If connection is found in the content of the dream with any impression of the previous day, that impression is seen as trivial, insignificant and unmemorable, that is is difficult to recall. In such cases the content of the dream itself seems to be concerned with indifferent trivialities, unworthy of interest. But Freud thinks there is more to these kinds of dreams.

Indifferent impression is an instigator, and analysis brings to light what is significant. There are associative links and associative paths to be discovered. p.656.

The dream instigator in Freud’s dream is when his taxi ride from friend was “free of cost”.  this contrast with the table d’hote.

Few days earlier before dream, Freud had paid out a considerable sum of money to a family member he was fond of. “free of cost”, out of love. Love that is free of cost stood in forefront of the dream thought.

Dream instigator must always be a recent impression, derived from the dream-day. Condensation and displacement combine to produce dream displacement.

Inability to recognize dream thoughts… 

is chiefly caused by displacement. We have to understand the reason for their distortion.

The manifest content is mostly pictoral, metaphorical, symbolic.

Psychical material  of dream thoughts include recollections of impressive experiences like early childhood material… repeated, modified.

There’s also disconnected fragments of visual images, speeches, unmodified thoughts.

Dream thoughts derived from anaylsis:

Psychical complex that is intricate in structure, and has manifold logic.

These represent foreground, background, conditions, digressions chains of evidence, counter arguments, illustrations… everything clash together? This sounds like A. Huxley’s experience in altered state, i.e. when on LSD. 

“They produce logical connection by approximation in time and space. ”

All dreams produced on a single night wil be found on analysis to be derived from the same circle of thougths…  or could this rather be that during analysis there is a thought process which interpretes everything that way?

Causal relation between 2 thoughts

      • unrepresented or
      • replaced by a sequence of 2 pieces of dreams of different lengths.

representation is often reversed: begining of the dream stands for the consequence, and conclusion is the premise.

transformation of e.g. A to B represents the cause and effect.

“either … or” never expressed in dreams. usually both will be represented as equally valid.

Contrarian ideas expressed as one and the same element. “No” seems not to exist in dreams.

Opposition between 2 thoughts, the relation of reversal,  may be represented in dreams: represented by some other piece of dream-content being turned into its opposite  — an afterthought. the sensation of inhibition of movement serves to express a conflict of will.

Similarity consonance, the possession of common attributes — highly favored mechanism of dream-formation.

Dream-work makes use of agreement to form a kind of unity.

Absurdity in a dream signifies the presence in the dream-thoughts of contradiction, ridicule and derision. Hence dreams are not uncritical dissociated mental activity.

No dream is prompted by motives other than egoistic ones.

Of psychical material there is

      • condensation,
      • displacement,
      • pictoral arrangement
  • Dream composition

On Dream Composition

Composition of Dreams only comes into operation AFTER the dream content has already been constructed and functions to arrange constituents of the dream to make it a composed whole.

Considerations of intelligibility  —> final revision of the dream (dream facades)

To make sense of the senseless. This is useable material.


On wishful phantasies — modified versions of scenes from infancy

Dream work is not creative, develops no own phantasies, makes no judgements and draws no conclusion– no function other than condensation and displacement of material into pictorial form and a bit interpretive revision.

The Psychical Mechanism of dreams is analogous to other phenomena like forgetting, slips of tongue, bungled action… (Freud’s Pathology of Everyday life).

Displacement is the heart of the problem, of which lies a motive. The need to conceal content that is disagreeable. Repression.

There is a causal connection between the obscurity of the dream content and the state of repression of certain dream-thoughts hence there is ‘dream-distortion’.

“Dreams are disguised fulfilments of repressed wishes.”

3 Classes in Wish-Fulfillment in Dreams

      1. Unrepressed wish is represented openly
      2. Repressed wish is represented in disguise: Anxiety is only avoided owing to the dream-work.
      1. Repressed wish is represented openly, or little disguise:

these are accompanised by anxietym which interrupts them. Anxiety takes the place of “dream-distortion”.

Repressed wishes when they surface is a cause for anxiety.

Clear dreams with distressing content which is not felt distressing in the dream itself. They cannot be counted as anxiety dreams… these have psychical value.

2 Thought-Constructing Agencies

      1. activity is unconscious and can only reach consciousness by way of products(?)
      2. has free access of consciousness for its products

Censorship between conscious and unconscious.

Repression is relaxation of censorship –> formation fo a compromise.

When sleep is over, censorship takes place and hence we forget dreams or remember fragments of dreams. p.677

Dreams as Guardians of Sleep…

keeps the internal mental stimuli from disturbing sleep.

Relax mental energy required to hold down repressed material during the day. Dreams may be used to prevent external stimuli from disturbing sleep.

Erotic wishes

Manifest content which show no sexual material are revealed to have sexual wish-fulfillments. Mode of representation is described as symbols of the things they represent.

So, what happens to people who know what the symbols mean? Do they stop dreaming these symbols because now the repressed wishes are clearly reflected, because the symbols no longer hide anything? what symbols do these wishes then change to? What is someone dreams of a tree because he just bought a tree?

Final Note:

This is a rough summary of Freud’s iconic writing on the interpretation of dreams. There are points that he has made that are interesting about dreams, especially one that dreams are unconscious psychical activity. We also know that this contain material that we repress, and this could be why dreams are readily forgotten. I am not, however, in favor of the therapist analyzing the dream for the patient. This is because the memory of the dream is also suspect. How can we be sure of what we really recall? Dreams are distorted in content and even in duration. Sometimes we feel that the dream process happened over minutes, when actually it happened in a second.

Dreams are, however, relevant in psychotherapy. Recurrent dreams, especially has a lot to offer the client if he/she works through them. Fritz Perls demonstrates a different attitude in working with dreams, which has it relevance in the here-and-now. 

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