Dreams: Real Meaning or Just Plain Wacky?

Sabrina Strong

Dreams and Therapy
Dreams can give an emotional outlet for people who have had traumatic experiences. Freud, Alder and Jung emphasize the importance of meanings in dreams, the social significance of dreams and using them to enhance the quality of therapy for psychological problems.

It is very true that the “science” of dream interpretation was said to be more like an art than science. The relationship between one’s waking life and one’s dreams is hard to explain. Dream interpretation can be an asset to people because it may lead one to new insight and give one the knowledge to overcome a fear.

To understand why one dreams, researchers and psychologists team up to study accurately when dreams occur in the night. Author John Papanek explains in his book Secrets of the Inner Mind when one dreams. One’s most vivid dreams occur in Rapid Eye Movement, or REM sleep for short. During research, subjects who were awakened in the middle of REM sleep were able to accurately recall their dreams. REM sleep is not the only time one dreams although it is the most frequent. One also dreams in Non-Rapid Eye Movement sleep or NREM sleep. During NREM sleep, subjects report having less thrilling dreams and report them to be much shorter than dreams that occurred in REM sleep (19).

Author Wendy Doniger and Kelly Bulkely, Ph.D., note in their article, “Why Study Dreams? A Religious Studies Perspective,” that the field of dream studies originated in religion. People used to think that dreams were prophetic messages sent from gods, spirits and demons. Now, modern science has gotten rid of those superstitions. We are now given true objective knowledge about dreams (http://www.asdreams.org/journal/articles/3-1_bulkely.htm).

Doniger and Bulkley explain that scholars of religion are interested in dreams because they are nearly a universal focal point of religious experience. They say spiritual people use dreams as reflection, ritual practice and to reinvigorate one’s beliefs. They can offer spiritual understanding and give advice to people who are not officially “religious” (http://www.asdreams.org/journal/articles/3-1_bulkely.htm).

Psychologist Sigmund Freud was one of the firsts to analyze dreams. Freud’s book, The Interpretation of Dreams, was the first extensive examinations of the reason dreams were put forth. Freud called dreams the “royal road” to the unconscious. He regarded this as the, “primitive region of the mind, dominated by inarticulate emotions” (Papanek11).
Freud said of dreams, “Dreaming is an example of the regression to the dreamer’s earliest condition, a revival of childhood, of the instinctual impulses which dominated it, and of the methods of expression which were available…Dreams have preserved more mental antiquities than we could have imagined” (Lohff 248).

Freud insisted that one’s dreams were one’s earliest mental images and memories. He looked at one’s brain as a sponge (Lohff 251) and he said one’s pre-historic evolutionary impulses were catalogued in dreams (247). Freud believed these were held in one’s memory for interpreting events that occurred later in life (251). Freud explained the dream as a picture-word puzzle. His method of free association between one’s real life and one’s dreams is used to understand the picture-word puzzles. Freud would ask, “What in waking life reminds you of anything you encountered in the dream” (253)? His free association technique can be helpful. Many times one sees symbols in one’s dreams that one may think are odd. If one keeps thinking about a symbol in the dream and what it might have in common with one’s waking life, a theme may come to mind. This free association is crucial to Freudian dream interpretation (253).

Freud uses three ideas concerning dreams. They are displacement, condensation, and wish fulfillment. Lohff describes displacement as, “putting thoughts and feelings about one person or situation onto another (person or situation)” (254).
Condensation is a method where several ideas, characteristics or events are combined into one single dream (254). While one sees symbols in one’s dreams that do not fit together, they seem to have something in common to all be present in the same dream. An image may become symbolic because of feelings or things surrounding that image in waking life. This is because of condensation (242).

Freud’s main instrument of dream interpretation was wish fulfillment. One’s life is filled with enjoyment and threats that one may deny one’s self. One may also set limitations in many areas of one’s life (Lohff 241).

Lohff explains wish fulfillment: “The self-aware, waking ego struggles with how to integrate numerous unresolved desires of the personality. Dreams can compensate for this disunity by drawing on universal archetypes of being to attempt integration of waking life desires into dreams. So are your ego and superego withhold pleasurable pursuits from your waking world, your unconscious can compensate by indulging these things in the dream world.” (241)

Many scholars agree on Freud’s weakness. Freud had a strong commitment to sexual content. Lohff says, “Freud is helpful, although he leaves little to be desired because of his strong commitment to image meanings apart from the dreamers understanding of the content” (255).

Freud’s thesis ruled dream analysis for half a century due to its sound reasoning and powerful appeal. By 1913, however, one of his well-known students Carl Jung left his teachings. Jung abandoned Freud’s claim that dreams deliberately mask their meanings; rather, Jung believed that the nature of dreams is to show “a spontaneous self-portrayal, in symbolic form, of the actual situation in the unconscious” (Bulkley 321). Jung believed that dreams speak in symbols, images and metaphors, a language that is the unconscious mind’s natural ways of expression. One is not able to understand this “language” right away because the images are different from the language in one’s every day lives (322).
Jung has divided dreams into two levels. The first level, the objective level, is when dreams illustrate the relation with the external world. This would be a thing such as people, events or activities. The second level is the subjective level. This level deals with thoughts and feelings of the person (Bulkley 322).

Lohff writes that Jung believed every person had to go through several tasks before one could be a whole self. These tasks were: adolescence, rites of passage, courting, marriage, parenting, hunting gathering, and fighting, participation in the Sacred, mature person and preparation for death. When a task was not completed or resolved, the self uses dreams to identify and help solve conflicts. Many of one’s dreams are illustrations of one’s life going through these tasks, according to Jung (268).

Jung states, “Since everything living strives for wholeness, the inevitable one sidedness of our conscious life is continually being corrected and compensated by the universal human being in us, whose goal is the ultimate integration of conscious and unconscious, or better, the assimilation of the ego to a wider personality” (Lohff 269).

Lohff explains this sentence to mean one is blind to much of one’s self. One strives to live as something one thinks as better, what one thinks one should be, not as whom one was made as (269).

Jung’s contributions to dreamwork were and are substantial. However, his unique, self-awareness makes interpretation confusing at times.

Alfred Alder, another famous student of Freud also left Freud’s teachings to begin his own research in dreams. For Alder, involvement in early social movements seemed to have influenced his theory of personality, and consequently, dreams. Alder believed dreams were forward thinking projections rather than regressive visions of mental antiquities, as Freud believed. The goal of dreaming is not to define the self using the past, but to solve problems in the intrapersonal worlds of the present and future (Lohff 236).

Personality for Alder was the “interaction of the autonomous self with the autonomous world” (Lohff 236). Sleep is an extension of the awake state’s activities. Symbols in dreams were given to show the thoughts and feelings of one’s personality. Alder believed dream interpretation was a social adjustment tool rather than the subconscious’ impulse (Lohff 236).

How often has one said while dreaming, “This is only a dream”? Some people realized they could tell themselves when they are dreaming or they can become conscious while they are still asleep and dreaming (Delaney 242). This happening is called lucid dreaming, also known as “a sleeping awareness” (Papanek 25). Lucid dreaming takes place in real time, and a lucid dreamer can keep track of time fairly well (Papanek 28). An example of prelucid dreaming is when dreamers realize for a moment during a nightmare that it is only a nightmare and wake up to get out of the bad dream.
Author Stephen LaBerge says as a general rule, most people are not aware of the fact that they are dreaming while they are dreaming (338). Yet, the people who can do this can take over what is happening while they are dreaming (Delaney 241).

When having a nightmare, fully lucid dreamers can choose to exit the nightmare or stay in it and face their fears. One who chooses to face one’s fears can wake up, have boosted self-confidence and maybe one less fear (LaBerge 338). LaBerge believes people are attracted to lucid dreaming because this gives them a chance for adventure free of risk. One can also enhance their skills since lucid dreaming is one of the most visual stimuli one can have away from waking life (http://www.asdreams.org/journal/articles/ laberge5-3.htm).

LaBerge says lucid dreaming can be brought about in two ways. The first and most common is for the sleeper to fall asleep, begin dreaming and then begin lucid dreaming. The second way is to fall asleep without losing consciousness (12).

If one can take control of one’s dreams, one can accomplish anything one wishes. One can confront one’s fears and overcome them. One can carry this into every day life. Although some work would be needed since lucid dreaming is a learned skill, if people in therapy would take this approach, imagine how much one could accomplish. If everyone would use their dreamtime unknowingly or not, think of what problems people in the world could eliminate. It would produce a richer society. This approach looks promising.

Clinical Professor of Psychiatry Montague Ullman believes dream-sharing groups are very beneficial to society, helping one to understand the meaning of his or her dreams. Ullman believes there can be “broader social overtones” in our dreams. His three decades of work in the field of dreams convinced him that people need a place to “resolve residual tensions and free ourselves from the constraints they impose on our present behavior.” Ullman believes dream sharing groups help clients share as much as one feels comfortable with, helps the clients help each other and gives one ties for emotional support (http://www.asdreams.org/journal/articles/11-1_ullman.htm).

California State University professor and family therapist Connie Kane says, “dreams engage the dreamer in a process of self-confrontation that includes not only content but affective process.” She explains her statement to mean one is likely to dream about or remember a dream when one is ready to deal with the subject of the dream. When one represses traumatic experiences as a child, one may dream about it as an adult when one is emotionally mature (Kane).
Bulkley believes dreams have been proven to be valuable aids in promoting the healing growth and wholeness of individuals. Can the study of dreams do anything to help society? She says “studying dreams helps society by helping individuals learn more about themselves. The growth and maturation of these people then trickles down through society, promoting welfare of all” (http://www.asdreams.o…tricles/ bulkeley_transformation.htm).

Bulkely writes about dreamwork as social action from therapists Marion Cuddy and Kathy Belicki who have shown that the study of nightmares can help society respond to the horrors of sexual abuse (Bulkely). Cuddy and Belicki found the victims of sexual abuse suffer from nightmares with distinctive images, themes and emotions. When used in therapy sessions, dreams help the victims overcome the traumatic experience by understanding their feelings, rather than being tormented by the nightmares. Their research on the connection between nightmares and abuse is directly relevant to debates running through our society about weather sexual abuse is “real” or “false memory” (http://www.asdreams.o…tricles/bulkeley_transformation.htm).

Bulkely explains how psychologist Bette Ehlert has exposed the possibility of dream study to aid in change of prison inmates and crime offenders on parole. Ehlert led dreamwork assemblies in several New Mexico prisons and has found that dreams “bring out very clearly the metaphorical context of the offender’s particular crime, its roots in the persons usually trauma filled life history, and its meaning for his or her potential growth and recovery”

(http://www.asdreams.o…tricles/bulkeley_transformation.htm ). Ehlert’s work promises to help one’s understanding of why crime occurs, help criminal offenders keep from committing more crimes and maybe suggest ways to prevent crimes from occurring at all (http://www.asdreams.o…tricles/ bulkeley_transformation.htm)

Kane emphasizes that many family therapists value looking at clients’ dreams. She notes that in family counseling, for example, the “unconscious family” comes out in one’s dreams. Many underlying issues or conflicts may be seen in one’s dreams but not necessarily in waking life (Kane).

One example is a family who’s 18 year old son, Michael, presents a dream at the beginning of a session: “I am trying to go up the stairs in our cellar and suddenly a door sort of closes behind me and I am like paralyzed, I can’t go on because a woman is after me, a witch, and she is getting closer and closer. Then I woke up petrified” (Kane).

Following this account, therapists working with Michael and his family uncovered similar feelings when he was young and stayed at home with his mother when his father went out. Michael’s mother frequently intruded on him when he was in the bathroom when the father was gone. These feelings were now out and could be resolved in counseling (Kane). Without looking at Michael’s dreams, they may have never associated the feelings and would not have been able to resolve the conflict.

Kane writes about a second example of a couple having a marital problems. The husband had violent dreams about his wife. The wife recalled having dreams about browning babies in an oven and realizing that she could be hurting them. Her dreams related to her babying her husband and potentially angering him, while his dreams related to his feelings of resent toward his wife for controlling him (Kane).

Dream seems to aid adults but what about children? St. Lawrence University Professor Arthur Clark studied children and the meanings of their dreams. Children often have trouble expressing their emotions since speaking with adults may intimidate them. When talking with a child, the child sometimes places their feelings on objects such as dolls, toys or imaginary friends. Clark explains that this often makes the child feel less intimidated or judged. This is why having a child share his or her dreams in counseling or therapy may be helpful. Often children do not realize their dreams hold underlying feelings and emotions. They see it merely as a story detached from them (Clark). They are often even excited to tell the story to their parents or a counselor. The only problem is that many counselors do not have enough training in working with young children’s dreams. They know that “dream theory is esoteric and complex” (Clark).

There is much evidence that evaluating one’s dreams can help uncover emotions and help heal emotional wounds. Freud, Jung and Alder’s theories, when combined with therapy help people over come their weaknesses and problems. Dreams not only help therapists aid people hurt by traumatic experiences, but can also be a preventative measure as shown by the couple’s dreams of their relationship. The examples of Marion Cuddy and Kathy Belicki who use dreams to help society respond to victims of sexual abuse and help the victims overcome the traumatic experience shows how valuable dreams can be. Bette Ehlert’s work with prison inmates shows that dreams can be used to overcome society’s troubles.

Clark believes dream interpretation should not be the sole function of therapy but used along side of it. Psychological healing needs therapists who make good connections with dreams and the theory that best fits a client (Ullman). Dreams are a very good outlet and also a very good inlet. Belgian artist RenÃ?© Magritte once said, “If the dream is a translation of waking life, waking life is also a translation of the dream” (Lohff 310).

Works Cited

Bulkley, Kelly. “Dreams of Social Transformation.” Association for the Study of

Dreams. 27 Nov. 2001


.”Jung’s Dream Theory.” Encyclopedia of Sleep and Dreaming. Ed. Mary A.

Carskadon. 1 vol. New York: Macmillian Publishing Company, 1993.

Clark, Arthur J. “Theoretical and practical issues in working with children’s dreams in

counseling.” Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education & Development.

March 1999. Vol. 37. p. 160. Ebscohost. EMU Lib. 27 Nov. 2001.

Delaney, Gayle. Living Your Dreams. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1996.
Doniger, Wendy and Kelly Bulkely. “Why Study dreams? A Religious Studies

Perspective.” Association for the Study of Dreams. 3 Dec. 2001


Kane, Connie M. “Using dreams in family therapy.” Family Journal. July 1997. Vol. 5.

p. 231. Ebscohost. EMU Lib. 27 Nov. 2001.

LaBerge, Stephen. “Lucid Dreaming.” Encyclopedia of Sleep and Dreaming. Ed. Mary A. Carkskadon. 1 vol. New York: Macmillian Publishing Company, 1993.
LaBerge, Stephen and Lynne Levitan. “Validity Established of DreamLight Cues for

Eliciting Lucid Dreaming.” Association for the Study of Dreams. Vol. 5. 27 Nov.

2001 .

Lohff, David C. The Dream Directory. Philadelphia: Running Press Book Publishers, 1998.
Papanek, John L. Secrets of the Inner Mind. Canada: Time Life Books, 1993.
Ullman, Montague. “A Note on the Social Referents of Dreams.” Journal of the Association for the Study of Dreams. Vol 11. 13 November 2001

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