Dreams and dream analysis

Dream analysis has played a pivotal role in the development of psychoanalytic theory and early psychoanalytic treatment. Over time, work with dreams was downgraded as analysts’ attention has shifted away from the recovery of traumatic memories. Yet, in my view, to master the nature of dreams and to be able to analyze dreams in a clinical setting remains a cornerstone of good analytic work.

To understand a particular dream is to understand the dreamer. Each is as unique to the dreamer as a fingerprint or birthmark; each one is akin to an internal ‘poem’ reflecting character, conflicts, defenses, secret aspirations, and key life events of its creator. That is why so-called ‘dream books’ which try to correlate a particular dream image with a specific meaning are so unsatisfying.

Sigmund Freud was the first person to make the claim that each dream, rather than being random meaningless neuronal firing, had a meaning and, even more, contained within it a wish. He contended this was so even when the manifest content of many dreams is far from pleasant. To explain this seeming contradiction, Freud was to demonstrate that every wish has its counter wish; that the human mind, in Charles Brenner’s words is founded on compromise and conflict. The dream is then a special hallucinated partial satisfaction that represents and condenses the many trends at work in the mind.

A man, at the threshold of an advancement in his career dreams that he has failed his high school finals. He wakes up and is relieved, “after all … it was only a dream” and moreover it was his high school finals, not the current challenge that he “failed.” In other words the dream is intended to reassure him. At the same time, this dream can additionally represent a feeling that he does not deserve the expected promotion; or even more strangely, that he fears being successful with all the attendant responsibilities and enemies one makes as one goes “up the ladder.” Finally, if this occurs in a treatment situation, it could be this dream represents his wish to remain a child with a comforting “mother” analyst versus being seen as someone who is flourishing and thus cannot claim that desired soothing support. It may turn out that this dream also represents his fantasies about becoming the man of the house after a childhood divorce, or parental separation and his mixed wishes in this regard. Thus wish and defense, past and present, child and man, ambition and guilt all find their way into this unique condensed dream creation and become available to the analytic pair to consider.

Dream images are uniquely valuable to highlight significant clinical issues which during waking life remain out of awareness; hence Freud’s famous statement that “dreams are the royal road to the unconscious.” But like the layers of an onion, the conflicted core emerges only gradually as trust in the security of the treatment relationship and the doctor deepens. Our contemporary and fuller understanding of the significance of the relationship between patient and therapist would then perhaps amend Freud’s comment to: the study of dreams is central to an understanding of each individual’s particular conflicts and to the creation of a potential pathway to resolution and emotional health.

The person who never dreams

Many contemporary analysts appreciate that dream life is the adult’s playground; a kind of controlled Marti-Gras where multiple emotional solutions to the problems of living are given expression. However, there are individuals whose struggle with their unconscious conflicts is so severe that they dare not ‘play’ for fear of where they might wander and what they might remember or feel, even represented in the disguised form of the dream. Psychoanalytic treatment can break up this psychic paralysis, restore an ongoing ability to dream and thus the search for adaptive solutions in waking life.

The person who feels exhausted or frightened by dreams

The sleeping mind has its own economy and while it permits more of “forbidden” experience representation, it too has its limits. When the mind is overwhelmed, the patient awakes frequently with what he experiences as a nightmare. The greater emotional reserves, the more our mind can ‘handle’ or ‘play’ with desire and internal condemnation.

One way of defining mental health and comfort is an individual’s capacity to allow even the most problematic of thoughts its place in the theater of the mind. Treatment ensures the safe expression and modulation of sexual and aggressive thoughts, thereby reducing mental pressure and improving the quality of life.

Dream work in a treatment setting is exciting and immensely valuable. It requires imagination from patient and therapist alike and a tolerance for uncertainty as dreams give up their secret meanings slowly and over time.