The Interpretation of Dreams - Critical summary review - Sigmund Freud

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The Interpretation of Dreams - critical summary review

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Science and Psychology

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: The Interpretation of Dreams

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.

ISBN: 1506138853

Publisher: Basic Books

Critical summary review

Sigmund Freud was an Austrian neurologist, widely considered as the father of psychoanalysis and one of the most important intellectuals of his time. Born to Jewish parents in present-day the Czech Republic (then part of the Austrian Empire), Freud became a professor of neuropathology in 1902 at the University of Vienna, the city in which he spent all, but the last year of his life.

Love him or hate him, together with Marx and Nietzsche, Freud is one of the three people (all of them Germans) who revolutionized how we think about the world and paved the way for modernity. Even though widely criticized today, Freud was one of the first people to explore the unconscious and to develop a more complex model of being, which scorned the idea of humans as rational beings and introduced the concept of a divided self: id, ego, and superego. 

So, get ready to learn the importance of our dreams, their influence on the human psyche, and what Freud discovered after years of research.

The breakthrough in psychology

“In the following pages” – thus begins Sigmund Freud’s masterwork – “I shall prove that there exists a psychological technique by which dreams may be interpreted and that upon the application of this method every dream will show itself to be a senseful psychological structure which may be introduced into an assignable place in the psychic activity of the waking state.”

In his mind, this 1899 classic, was by far his greatest contribution to the world as he believed that the ideas and theories in it, will revolutionize how we understand the human psyche. Likewise, Freud unabashedly claimed that he uncovered to the world the skeleton key to all questions and mysteries regarding dreams. Split into seven chapters, “The Interpretation of Dreams” is packed up with many acclaimed theories that label dreams as wish fulfillment and “royal roads to the unconscious.”

The scientific perspective on dreams

Since “The Interpretation of Dreams” is a scientific work – at least it was when first published – it is only natural that it begins with a review of the scientific literature on dreams written before Freud.

The father of psychoanalysis also reviews some philosophical notions about dreams, as well as ancient religious and folk beliefs. Interestingly enough, he sides with the latter much more than with the former. Why? Because, as mysterious as it is, the object of dreams has usually been treated by folk and religious beliefs as something mysterious but also as something that has some meaning. In other words, something that can be interpreted.

Contrary to this, “stern science, as it confesses itself, has contributed nothing beyond attempting, in entire opposition to popular sentiment, to deny the substance and significance of the object.” Freud was very much aware of how his ideas differed from everybody else’s. “My presumption that dreams can be interpreted at once, puts me in opposition to the ruling theory of dreams and in fact to every theory of dreams.”

So, in other words, unlike all scientists, Freud believed dreams could be interpreted; unlike popular and religious thought, he believed that dreams should be interpreted in relation to a person’s past, and not in relation to their future. 

The sample dream

To illustrate a point, Freud discloses quite a few details about a dream he dreamt - the one of Irma’s injection. Freud uses it as a sample dream, i.e., the dream to show how all dreams must be interpreted.

Now Irma – which is, of course, a pseudonym – was a patient of Freud. He treated her during the summer of 1895. The treatment went well for the most part, but, due to the unwillingness of Irma, it had to end before completion. On July 23, 1895, Freud visited a colleague who knew Irma and asked him about her condition. His colleague responded: “better, but not quite well.” And that very night, Freud dreamt the dream.

In his dream, he and his wife received numerous guests in a large hall. Irma is among the guests. Freud immediately confronts her and berates her for not having accepted his solution to her problems. He says: “If you still get pains, it's really only your fault.” And she replies: “If you only knew what pains I’ve got now in my throat and stomach and abdomen – it's choking me.”

Freud reexamined Irma by looking at her throat, where he noticed a white scab. Interestingly enough, while he did this, Irma started looking much more like one of her friends and much less like Irma. Surprised by the scab, Freud called Dr. M. for a second opinion. Upon investigation, Dr. M. said: “There’s no doubt it’s an infection, but no matter; dysentery will supervene, and the toxin will be eliminated.”

The meaning of it all? Freud’s dream released him from the guilt he felt over not helping Irma as well as he could.  And that’s only one of the wishes fulfilled by his dream. Could it be that all dreams are wish-fulfilments - is the big question.

The theory that a dream is a substitute for action

The big question is probably what most people would call the eureka moment or, in this case, Freud’s great discovery! For example, in the dream of Irma’s injection, the very idea that Irma’s disease was the cause of an infection that should be cured by itself suggests that Freud had nothing to fret about, since Irma’s disease was her own fault, and not his.

Moreover, the fact that he replaced Irma with a friend of hers suggests that Freud didn’t even want to have Irma as a patient; her friend, being more rational and intelligent person, would have probably agreed to Freud’s solution.

The appearance of Dr. M. is also a wish-fulfilling event related to Freud’s past guilt. Long before Irma, Freud had prescribed toxic medicine to one of his patients; eventually, this led to the worsening of the patient’s symptoms. Dr. M. saved the day in the dream – as it should have happened in reality.

“This is the case with all dreams,” says Freud in the third chapter of The “Interpretation of Dreams”: they fulfill a wish unfulfilled in reality. And there’s a reason for that, perhaps best illustrated by a dream Freud claimed capable of dreaming as often as he liked.

Namely, if in the evening he ate “anchovies, olives, or other strongly salted foods,” he became thirsty at night and awoke to quench his thirst. However, before waking up, he dreamed that he drank a drink as sweet as nectar. The reason why he dreamed this is simple: his body didn’t want him to wake up and fulfill his wish in a simulated manner:

“If I succeed in assuaging my thirst by means of the dream that I am drinking, I need not wake up in order to satisfy it. It is thus a dream of convenience. The dream substitutes itself for action, as elsewhere in life.”

The distorted reality in dreams

Now, dreaming of a sweet drink when thirsty is a pretty straightforward dream. As was Freud dreaming of getting revenge over some of the acquaintances he had actual problems with in real life.

Unfortunately, in the former case, the body remains thirsty, and it needs to awake to change that; in the second, the simulated action in his dream appeased and made him calmer in real life as well. However, these dreams are straightforward – i.e., they are pretty easily interpretable – because their manifest form mimics pretty closely their hidden meaning.

This is not the case with all dreams, some of which hide content at a deeper level. Why aren’t they as clear as the others? Well, because dreams are not always a 1:1 simulation of a wish fulfilled; they are also often restructured – i.e., distorted – by an internal psychological censor.

To better understand this, think of politically active authors writing novels in totalitarian regimes. Their wish is almost always to ridicule the ruling parties; however, if they do it explicitly, they risk being prosecuted; also, their novels may never get published. However, if they write books which, on the surface – explicitly and manifestly – say one thing, but deep down – implicitly and latently – another, they may get their message across.

This is how Freud explains all unpleasant dreams; even though they appear to not fulfill any wishes on the surface, on a hidden level – they do. And these are, usually, our most forbidden desires.

The sources of dreams

According to Freud, all dreams have four possible sources:

  • Recent and significant experiences and memories;
  • Important childhood events;
  • Physical sensations during sleep (e.g., thirst or alarm clocks);
  • Trivial experiences.

Freud also analyzes some universal dreams, such as those of appearing naked in public, flying or hovering, failing a test, missing a train, witnessing the death of a relative, etc. He showed that all of them are fulfilments of a wish as well; however, since almost everybody dream those, they must reveal something profound about human nature.

And this is where Freud first proposed the idea of the Oedipus complex, the underlying reason for all repressed desires. Since the Oedipus complex concerns one’s wish to kill his father and sleep with his mother – the biggest no-no of all – these are wishes that will never become a reality. That’s why they are such an authoritative source for dreams in all people.

The understanding of the dream work

By dreamwork, Freud refers to all of the censorship-processes that transform the latent content of your dreams (aka, your thoughts and wishes) into their actual content (the narrative of your dream) when the dreams are not readily interpretable.

The most important two are the following ones:

  • Condensation is a process by which many images are condensed within one; for example, some of the people you dream about are actually a combination of at least two real-life individuals.
  • Displacement works by substituting abstract thoughts with more concrete representations; this is why you sometimes dream bizarre and unusual things.

Freud also explains how dreams find a connection between ideas and introduces the concept of secondary revision. This is when the conscious intrudes in the spheres of the unconscious, aka the reason why your dream changes when you start talking about it.

More importantly, this is where Freud gets the idea that if we want to analyze unconscious thoughts more clearly, we have to create an environment in which the patient feels as relaxed as when in bed.

The psychology behind the dream activities

Freud’s quasi-scientific theory of how the mind must work is based on his still unproven theory of how dreams are created. Some might find his theories insubstantial because, at one point in the book, Freud even mentions that some dreams are not merely a reflection of some past events, and it’s difficult to put all of them into one category.

Naturally, if this is the case – if it can be proven that some dreams refer to the future and not to the past – then his theory that all dreams are wish-fulfilments must be wrong. However, Freud successfully demonstrates that the ostensibly supernatural dream he examined was really a bizarre embodiment of – well, that was expected – a repressed sexual wish. In other words, the dream "carries us to the future, but this future is a copy and reproduction of the past."

Final Notes

“The Interpretation of Dreams” is without question Sigmund Freud’s jewel – and the father of psychoanalysis shared the same belief.  Considered “epochal” by none other than Joseph Campbell, this is undoubtedly one of the greatest books of the modern age.

In a way, it doesn’t matter whether Freud was right or wrong; because even in the case of the latter – which is probably closer to the truth – this is the book that paved the way for many scientific analyses of dreams and the unconscious, none of which would have even existed without Freud.

That’s why, “The Interpretation of Dreams” is – in one word – essential.

12min Tip

If you are interested in finding out more about human psychology and the nature of evil, then you should check out “The Lucifer Effect” by Philip Zimbardo.

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Who wrote the book?

The father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud was born in 1856 to Jewish parents in present-day Czech Republic but spent most of his life in Vienna, where he set up clinical practice in 1886 and became an affiliated professor... (Read more)

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