Sigmund Freud: Dream Interpretation

Freud is one of the most famous social scientists of the twentieth century and has had a lasting and profound effect on it. Even today, most Americans, if not most citizens of the world are familiar with ideas like the id, ego, superego, Oedipus complex and a variety of other psychological terms. In addition to coining all of the aforementioned terms, Freud came up with a method for interpreting dreams that vastly improved on prior methods such as decoding (in which the meaning of dream images were thought to correspond to a set “decoder key”) or by symbolic interpreting (in which the entire dream is replaced by an interpretation that is analogous in only a few respects to the original dream). Freud’s method used common sense and scientific methods (although some would dispute that his methods were entirely scientific) to extract logical meaning from dreams.

In respect to how he came upon this method, Freud stated, “My patients were pledged to communicate to me every idea of thought that occurred to them in connection with some particular subject; amongst other things they told me their dreams and so taught me that a dream can be inserted into the psychical chain that has to be traced backwards in the memory from a pathological idea.” Basically, Freud believed that the subconscious id was completely insane and that dreams were, in essence, the id taking over control of the mind and jumbling sane memories with insane images dredged up from an unconscious well. He believed that by extending the basic principles of psychoanalysis to dreams, a sane meaning could be derived from them. Freud discovered four mechanisms that the mind used to create dreams, condensations, displacement, dramatization, and secondary elaboration, and these worked together to create the tangle of images that Freud would unravel through psycho-analysis.

One of the first social scientists to experiment on himself, Freud used his own dream to explain his techniques for interpreting dreams. His dream began with Freud standing in a large hall, filled with guests including his patient and friend, Irma. He reproaches her for not going along with his treatment, which had been failing in real life. Irma complains of pains in her throat and stomach, so Freud takes her over to a window to examine her. He discovers “a big white patch; [and] in another place I saw extensive whitish grey scabs upon some remarkable curly structures” in her mouth. Surprised at his findings, Freud called an associate named Dr. M. (though he was not looking well either) to confirm what he saw. Suddenly, Freud’s friends Otto and Leopold joined in the examination of Irma and discovered more confusing symptoms. The group of men came to the decision that Irma’s illness must have stemmed from an injection that Otto had given her not long before the party. Freud even adds that the syringe might have been dirty.

According to Freud, “It was immediately clear what events of the previous day provided its starting-pointâÂ?¦The news which Otto had given me of Irma’s condition and the case history which I had been engaged in writing till far into the night continued to occupy my mental activity even after I was asleep.” Like the quote above, in order to explain and interpret dreams, Freud looked at the recent past of the patient for connections to each separate element in the dream as well as the overall impression of the dream in relation to their real life. For example, the “large hall” from Freud’s dream looked very much like the entertainment hall of the home that Freud was staying on the night of the dream, and he and his wife were planning a birthday party to which they would be inviting “numerous guests” including Irma, just like the party in the dream. Freud goes on to suggest that this element of the dream was a result of his anticipation of his wife’s birthday party. He continues through each element of the dream, relating it to various elements of his life. He discovers that in the dream, attributes of other people including his daughter (who had an illness similar to Irma in the dream), a former governess (who had false teeth), other patients he was treating at the time (whose symptoms were like Irma’s) as well as other acquaintances, friends and relatives that his subconscious had substituted with the figure of Irma as an aggregate of them all. At the conclusion of his analysis, Freud discovers that he has been feeling like a failure concerning his psychological treatment of Irma, and that he wishes that there was another explanation for her suffering that could not be helped by him. According to Freud, this wish is why the dream occurred. In his own words, “When the work of interpretation had been completed, we perceive that a dream is the fulfillment of a wish.”

Freud’s method for examining dreams was one of the first of its kind. He applied common sense and scientific methods to an area of mental functioning that was typically left in the realm of fortune telling, astrology and the like. And, as one of the first social scientists to experiment on himself, he may have been an inspiration to others, like Leary. His analytical work with dreams gave later scientists and psychologists a real starting point (one based in science and not myth and legend) from which they too could explore the inner workings of the mind. He spurred (and today continues to spur) discussions of dreams and the mind in both scientific and social circles. His work truly was revolutionary.

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