Dreams and Dreamwork in Psychotherapy     

The publication On Dreams was written by Freud (1900) after having written his (what was labelled) “book of the century”, Interpretation of Dreams. With these writings,  Freud tries to make his innovative ideas of dream analysis accessible to a broader audience. His aim was of reaching the “educated and curious-minded reader” (Quinodoz, 2013).

Freud prides himself in taking the mystique out of dreams. He says dreams are composed of latent and manifest content. The manifest content, Freud explains, is material that appears in a dream. The latent content is the material that underlies the dream that is hidden within the unconscious. Using his dreams he analyzed himself on paper. With that, Freud brings us on a journey towards his dream work.

Freud and Adler’s Differences

Alfred Adler’s work on dreams is an elaboration of Freud’s. While there is a fundamental agreement between both theories, the main difference is that Adler is very much focused on the individual’s awareness of one’s position in society and expression of one’s “style of life”, viewing dreams as having a forward-looking, problem-solving function. Adler also realizes that the conscious and unconscious are not contradictions to each other but a unity (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1956).

Adler made a point about dream analysis that transcended Freud’s: acknowledging that even made-up dreams are significant to analysis (p. 359). It implies that talking about dreams alone is fundamentally relevant to the therapy—no matter where the dream arises. The use of dreams in psychotherapy functions a manner to facilitates the therapeutic process, helps patients gain insight and self-awareness, provides clinically relevant and valuable information to therapists and provides a measure of therapeutic change (Eudell-Simmons & Hilsenroth, 2005).

Gestalt Therapy Attitude towards Dream Work in Therapy

How the analysand describes their dream is rich in not only the latent content of the dream but also the latent content of the moment of analysis. Gestalt therapists work on dreams by acknowledging the phenomenon within the client at the moment of analysis.

Enright (1980) recounts a dream work by Fritz Perls in Los Angeles in 1963 (found in the Memory Gems section). After the client tells his dream, Perls would ask the client to identify himself with elements of that dream by talking about it in the first person. For example, an elderly, subdued man dreamed of seeing some friends off on a train. The man worked at first by identifying himself as himself, then as his friends with no effect. As the man identified himself with the train, he felt more energy. Perls then asked the man to “become the station itself”. Enright writes, “At first it seemed as unproductive as the rest. Then, as he said, ‘I’m old-fashioned and a little out of date—I’m not very well cared-for; they’re letting dust and litter accumulate—and people just come and go, use me for what they want, but don’t really notice me,’ he began to cry, and for the next few minutes the current and recent past thrust of his entire life became obvious—what was happening, what he was doing that wasn’t working, and even some possible new things to do.”

Perls, in this example, demonstrates a way of working at the moment. While working with a dream, the client and therapist remain in dialogical contact. Nobody gets lost in analysis. The therapist deals with the process of the dream work rather than the dream’s content. Working with process allows a lot of creative freedom; the dream is treated like a work of art, the “fruit of the extraordinary creative powers of childhood” from which the patient must be able to experience freely, free of theoretical considerations, so that the person can communicate with and re-create his/herself  (Sichera, 2003. p. 95).


Dreams are helpful material for use in understanding the self. If the client brings a dream to the session, and if the dream has powerful emotionality attached to it, it is worth spending time on. Recurring dreams are fascinating, according to Fritz Perls.

The time and setting are also considered before such work is done. There are moments when working on particular dreams lead somewhere important. There are moments when dream work is inappropriate or when the dream topic is a distraction from current material that is more important for the client.

Working with dreams is a tool, but it is not an end in itself. The focus always lies on the here and now.

Read also:

Dream Analysis

Fritz Perls: Working with Dreams in Gestalt Therapy


Ansbacher, H. L., & Ansbacher, R. R. (1956). The individual psychology of Alfred Adler.

Enright, J. B. (1980). Enlightening gestalt: Waking up from the nightmare. Pro Telos.

Eudell-Simmons, E.M. & Hilsenroth, M. J. (2005). A review of empirical research supporting four conceptual uses of dreams in psychotherapy. Clinical psychology and psychotherapy. 12, 255-269. John Wiley & Sons.

Freud, S. (1900). On dreams, Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol.5. pp. 633-686.

Quinodoz, J. M. (2013). Reading Freud: a chronological exploration of Freud’s writings. Routledge.

Sichera, A. (2003). Therapy as an aesthetic issue: creativity, dreams, and art in Gestalt Therapy. In M. Spagnuolo Lobb & N. Armendt-Lyon (Eds.). Creative License: The art of Gestalt Therapy. NY: Springer.


Carhart-Harris: Neuroscience and Freudian Concepts

Here are some notes taken off an interesting article, entitled “The default-mode, ego-functions and free-energy: a neurobiological account of Freudian ideas” that can be downloaded online. See bibliography below.

Researchers developed a strategy of comparing Freudian concepts of primary and secondary processing of cognition with fMRI neuroimaging, by studying brain activity under psychedelic- induced altered states.

The ego and the secondary process
 1. Default energy store or reservoir, which possesses the property of being spontaneously or tonically active.
 2. Receives and ‘contains’ or ‘represses’ endogenous excitation.
 3. Minimizes free-energy.
 4. Integrates or binds the primary process and its representational system (the id) into a broader, more cohesive, composite organization (the ego).
 5. Specific ontogenetic development.
 6. Supports reality-testing and perceptual processing.
 7. Supports conscious awareness, cognition and directed attention.
 8. Possesses internally and externally-focused components, which are inversely related (anti-correlated).
 9. Excessive-engagement of internally-focused component and impoverished engagement of externally-focused network during pathological withdrawal; e.g. in depression and schizophrenia.
10. Failure of systems to minimize free-energy (suppress endogenous excitation) results in disturbed affect, cognition and perception; as seen in non-ordinary states such as dreaming and psychosis.

The id and primary process thinking

11. Characteristics of the system unconscious/the id and primary process thinking: i.e. a primitive, ‘magical’ or animisitic style of thinking, characterized neurophysiologically by ‘free’ movement of energy. One can think of primary process thinking in evolutionary terms as a ‘protoconsciousness’.


Psychopathology and Neuroscience

Studies and papers written of the DMN through neuro-imaging are producing data to show the activity level differences in brain activity of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease (Royall et.al 2012), Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia (Öngür et.al 2010), Post traumatic Stress disorder (Lanius et.al. 2010).



Buckner, R. L., Andrews-Hanna, J. R., & Schacter, D. L. The brain’s default network: anatomy, function, and relevance to disease Ann NY Acad Sci 2008; 1124: 1-38.

Carhart-Harris, R. L., & Friston, K. J. (2010). The default-mode, ego-functions and free-energy: a neurobiological account of Freudian ideas. Brain, 133(4), https://academic.oup.com/brain/article/133/4/1265/307446#main-content, 1265-1283.

Lanius, R. A., Bluhm, R. L., Coupland, N. J., Hegadoren, K. M., Rowe, B., Theberge, J., … & Brimson, M. (2010). Default mode network connectivity as a predictor of post‐traumatic stress disorder symptom severity in acutely traumatized subjects. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica121(1), 33-40.


Öngür, D., Lundy, M., Greenhouse, I., Shinn, A. K., Menon, V., Cohen, B. M., & Renshaw, P. F. (2010). Default mode network abnormalities in bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging183(1), 59-68.

Royall, D. R., Palmer, R. F., Vidoni, E. D., Honea, R. A., & Burns, J. M. (2012). The default mode network and related right hemisphere structures may be the key substrates of dementia. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 32(2), 467-478.