Dream Interpretation According to Psychology

Young woman sleeping in her bed in the morning at home

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The best approach to dream interpretation is a question that psychologists have a hard time agreeing on. Many, such as Sigmund Freud, adhere to the idea that dreams point to unconscious desires, while others, such as Calvin S. Hall, advocate for a cognitive approach in which dreams reflect different parts of our waking lives.

Key Takeaways: Dream Interpretation

  • Many approaches to dream interpretation have been proposed in psychology, including that dreams should be examined for symbols and that they reflect our perspectives on our lives.
  • Psychologists differ on whether dreams serve a real purpose and what that purpose might be.
  • Dream researcher G. William Domhoff observed that interpreting an individual's dreams provides “a very good psychological portrait of that individual.” 

What Are Dreams?

Dreams are a series of images, emotions, thoughts, and sensations that occur when we sleep. They are involuntary and typically occur during the rapid-eye movement (REM) stage of slumber. Although dreams can occur at other points in the sleep cycle, they’re most vivid and memorable during REM. Not everyone remembers their dreams, but researchers believe that everyone has three to six 6 dreams in a night and that each dream lasts between 5 and 20 minutes. Even people who do remember their dreams are thought to forget about 95% of them when they wake up.

Psychologists offer many reasons for dreaming. Some suggest its simply to clear away useless memories from the previous day and enter important ones into long-term storage. For example, if you have a dream about President Trump swimming with manatees it may be that your brain is in the process of removing a piece of news about the presidential administration and endangered species.

On the other hand, many psychologists, especially those involved in therapy, have seen the value of dream analysis. Thus, while dreams may help sort the information in our brains, they may also help us consider information that we ignore when we’re awake. So, perhaps during the day, we focused on tasks that had nothing to do with the news about the presidential administration and endangered species, but then we worked through how we felt about the information during our dreams that night.

Others have proposed that dreams are the brain’s way of preparing for possible future challenges. For example, dreams about our teeth falling out could reflect our anxiety about our body giving out on us. Dreams may also serve a problem-solving function as we continue to grapple with challenges, like a difficult work project that we tackled during the day, as we sleep.

Psychologists like G. William Domhoff claimed that there is no psychological function for our dreams. Yet, Domhoff also said dreams have meaning because their content is unique to the individual and therefore analyzing an individual’s dreams can provide “a very good psychological portrait of that individual.” 

Sigmund Freud’s “The Interpretation of Dreams”

Freud’s perspective on dream interpretation, which he laid out in his seminal book The Interpretation of Dreams, continues to be popular today. Freud believed dreaming was a form of wish fulfillment that reflected a dreamer’s unconscious desires. He also claimed that the manifest content of a dream, or the literal story or events of the dream, masks the latent content of the dream, or the symbolic or hidden meaning of the dream. For example, if an individual dreams they are flying, it may actually mean that the individual is yearning for freedom from a situation they see as oppressive.

Freud called the process of transforming latent content into manifest content “dreamwork” and suggested it includes several processes:

  • Condensation involves combining multiple ideas or images into one. For instance, a dream about an authority figure could represent one’s parents and one’s boss at the same time.
  • Displacement involves changing the thing we’re really concerned about into something else. For example, if an individual is considering whether to go back to school or to accept a new job, they might dream about two large animals fighting, representing the dilemma they feel about the decision.
  • Symbolization involves one object standing in for another. For example, the use of a gun or sword can be interpreted as having a sexual meaning.
  • Secondary revision involves reorganizing the elements of a dream into a comprehensive whole. This takes place at the end of a dream and results in the dream’s manifest content.

Freud also made some suggestions about universal symbols that could be found in dreams. According to Freud, only a few things are symbolized in dreams, including the human body, parents, children, siblings, birth, and death. Freud suggested that the individual was often symbolized by a house, while parents appear as royal figures or other highly respected individuals. Meanwhile, water often references birth, and going on a journey represents death. However, Freud did not put a great deal of weight on universal symbols. He said that symbolism in dreams is often personal and therefore dream interpretation requires an understanding of the dreamer’s individual circumstances.

Carl Jung’s Approach to Dream Interpretation

Jung was originally a follower of Freud. Even though he eventually broke with him and developed rival theories, Jung’s approach to dream interpretation has some things in common with Freud’s. Like Freud, Jung believed dreams contained latent meaning disguised by manifest content. However, Jung also believed dreams symbolized a person’s desire for balance in their personality, not wish fulfillment. Jung put more weight on a dream’s manifest content than Freud, as he felt that important symbols could be found there. In addition, Jung posited that dreams were expressions of the collective unconscious and could help one anticipate future issues in their life.

As an example of his approach to dream interpretation, Jung related a young man’s dream. In the dream the young man's father was driving away erratically. He eventually hit a wall and wrecked his car because he was drunk. The young man was surprised by the dream as his relationship with his father was positive and his father would never drive drunk in real life. Jung interpreted the dream to mean that the young man felt he was living in his father’s shadow. Thus, the purpose of the dream was to knock the father down while elevating the young man.

Jung often used archetypes and universal myths to interpret dreams. As a result, Jungian therapy approaches dream analysis in three stages. First the personal context of the dreamer is considered. Second the dreamer’s cultural context is considered, including their age and environment. Finally, any archetypal content is evaluated in order to discover links between the dream and humanity as a whole.

Calvin S. Hall’s Approach to Dream Interpretation

Unlike Freud and Jung, Hall didn’t believe that dreams included latent content. Instead, he proposed a cognitive theory that claimed that dreams are simply thoughts that appear in the mind during sleep. As a result, dreams represent our personal lives through the following cognitive structures:

  • Conceptions of the self or how we see ourselves. For example, an individual might dream that they become a powerful businessperson but then lose it all, suggesting the individual sees themselves as strong but is concerned they can’t maintain that strength.
  • Conceptions of others or how the individual views the other important individuals in their life. For instance, if the individual sees their mother as nagging and demanding they will appear that way in the individual’s dreams.
  • Conceptions of the world or how one views their environment. For example, if the individual finds the world cold and unfeeling, their dream may take place in a bleak, snowy tundra.
  • Conceptions of impulses, prohibitions, and penalties or how the dreamer understands his repressed wishes. Hall suggested it’s our understanding of our desires, not the desires themselves, that impact our behavior. Thus, for example, dreams about hitting a wall or other obstacle in the pursuit of pleasure could shed light on the way an individual feels about their sexual impulses.
  • Conceptions of problems and conflict or one’s conceptions of the challenges one faces in life. For instance if the individual sees their mother as nagging, their dream may reflect their dilemma in coping with what they perceive as their mother’s unreasonable demands.

Hall came to his conclusions about dreams through an approach he developed with Robert Van De Castle in the 1960s. The approach uses quantitative content analysis to evaluate reports of dreams. The system of content analysis scales provides a scientific way to evaluate dreams. This stands in contrast to Freud and Jung’s approaches to dream interpretation, which lack scientific rigor.

Other Psychological Approaches to Dream Interpretation

There are several other approaches to dream interpretation that arise from different psychological perspectives. Some of these approaches are already reflected in the researchers mentioned above. Freud’s approach to dream interpretation is utilized by psychodynamic psychologists, while Hall’s approach is shared by cognitive psychologists. Other approaches include:

  • Behavioral psychologists focus on how an individual’s behavior impacts their dreams and the behavior they exhibit within their dreams.
  • Humanistic psychologists see dreams as reflections of the self and how the individual deals with their circumstances.

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