The procedure of dream interpretation is based on the theory of the dream's functions and of the dreamwork outlined in Freud's great work The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a). This book was based in large part on Freud's own self-analysis of 1896-1897, in which dream interpretation played a leading role (Anzieu, 1975).
For Freud, dream interpretation is based on several basic principles:
- Every dream represents a wish as fulfilled. Thanks to a relative relaxation of censorship in sleep, a dream expresses repressed desires whose satisfaction is forbidden during the waking state. The conflicts involved may be expressed in unpleasant or anxiety-provoking dreams, however.
- The driving force of the dream, unconscious wishes, are rooted in childhood, notably in oedipal conflicts.
- The "dream material" is supplied by "day's residues"—usually recent events of waking life.
- The dream work transforms this material by means of the primary processes of condensation, displacement, and visual representation, followed on occasion by a secondary elaboration that perfects the "dream façade."
- Having once transformed into the "manifest content of the dream," the "latent dream-thoughts," now unrecognizable, are able to cross the barrier of censorship.
- The scenes thus created have, for the dreamer, all the characteristics of reality; they are hallucinatory in nature.
- The logic governing the dreamwork is very different from that of waking life, and the dream's manifest content is often incoherent, filled with bizarre or absurd elements.
Interpretation relies on these principles, but it also needs the dreamer's associations. He or she is therefore asked to associate as freely as possible, to elicit details of the day's residues used in the dreamwork, to explicate the displacements and condensations, and to understand the choice of the visual images that make up the manifest content. In this way the thoughts latent beneath that manifest contest, the wishes and conflicts underlying the dream, can be unearthed. Special attention should be paid to bizarre or absurd details, for these indicate points where the dream's work of distortion has been less effective. At the same time, however, Freud cautioned against concentrating on the latent and ignoring the manifest content (1916-17f).
For Freud, the interpretation of dreams was the "via regia," the royal road leading to the unconscious. On several occasions in The Interpretation of Dreams, he noted that the procedure should be carried to the extreme, yet the examples he provided could hardly be said to adhere to this recommendation—presumably because these are for the most part his own dreams, and he may have been reluctant to expose the most intimate aspects of his personal life. It is in any case doubtful that such an exhaustion of meaning is conceivable or even desirable. Dream interpretation may well be the royal road to the unconscious, but the unconscious is inexhaustible. Nor is it desirable for either patient or analyst to claim that the moment has arrived when there is nothing more to be said.
Finally, there are two points that need underscoring:
- Waking interpretation never deals directly with the dream but rather with a dream narrative, that is, a verbal summary of mainly visual images produced in the waking state. The result is often an over-elaboration of the "material" offered for interpretation (Diatkine, 1974).
- During an analysis, some dreams are responses to and echoes of an earlier session or a preparation for a future session. Every such dream bears the stamp of the transference, and this must not be overlooked.
See also: Anagogic interpretation; Anticipatory ideas; "Autobiographical Study, An" ; "Constructions in Analysis"; Demand; Doubt; Dream; Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis ; "Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria" (Dora/Ida Bauer); Free association; Freud's Self-Analysis; "From the History of an Infantile Neurosis" (Wolf Man); Hermeneutics; Interpretation; Irma's injection, dream of; Secrets of a Soul ; Over-interpretation; Psychoanalytic Treatment of Children ; Self-analysis; Sudden involuntary idea.
Anzieu, Didier. (1986). Freud's self-analysis (Peter Graham, Trans.). London: Hogarth and the Institute of Psychoanalysis. (Original work published 1975)
Diatkine, René. (1974). Rêve, illusion et connaissance. (Rap-port). Réponse aux interventions pp. 1107-1108. Revue Française de Psychanalyse. 38 (5-6), 769-820.
Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams, Parts I and II. SE, 4-5.
——. (1916-1917f). A metapsychological supplement to the theory of dreams. SE, 14: 217-235.
Pontalis, Jean-Bertrand. (1981). Frontiers in psychoanalysis: between the dream and psychic pain (Catherine Cullen and Philip Cullen, Trans.). London: Hogarth and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis. (Original work published 1977)