Let’s talk about dreams
The analysis of dreams is controversial and there are several different schools of thought which try and explain the origin of dreams. Some scientists believe that dreams are simply a by-product of brain functioning during REM sleep and that dreams are meaningless.
The psychodynamic psychotherapist takes a different view and approaches dreams with the understanding that they provide an insight into our unconscious processes, and each and every dream contains meaning. This article explores the history of dream analysis and gives some indication of what the psychodynamic psychotherapist is listening out for when you describe your dreams to them.
Dream analysis from a psychodynamic perspective started with Freud (1900) who famously referred to dreams as “The royal road to the unconscious”. In Freud’s topographical model of the mind, he proposed that we have three states of consciousness.
1. Conscious awareness – everything that we are aware of at any one time.
2. Preconscious awareness – thoughts/feelings that can be accessed if we think really hard.
3. Unconscious awareness – all thoughts/feelings that we are not aware of and cannot access.
Freud proposed that any feelings or memories that are too painful or overwhelming to remain in our conscious awareness are repressed and put into our unconsciousness. At some level, this enables us to go about our daily lives without being troubled by them. However, these unconscious thoughts are often trying to break through to our conscious awareness.
If difficult and painful unconscious thoughts enter into consciousness and the client is unable to process them, this can result in difficult symptoms such as anxiety and depression. In order to gain relief from these symptoms, the psychodynamic psychotherapist aims to help the client to understand their unconscious thoughts. Dream analysis provides one way in which this can be done.
Freud argued that dreams are effectively a method of communication between the unconscious and the conscious parts of the mind. In essence, the unconscious mind is sending a message to the conscious mind and this appears in the format of a dream. This message is sent in a symbolic manner to avoid overwhelming the conscious mind with the content of the message.
Freud suggested that the content of dreams can be split into two categories.
1. The manifest content of the dream. This refers to the actual content of the dream as it was experienced by a dreamer.
2. The latent content of the dream. This is the hidden message which is described in the dream.
The role of the psychotherapist is to help the client to interpret the manifest content of the dream into the latent content.
Dreams are very personal and the psychotherapist cannot interpret a dream on behalf of a client. Freud did not advocate the use of a ‘dream dictionary’ where there are solid interpretations of specific symbols. Instead, he felt that the symbolisation used in dreams is unique to each individual and it is important that the client comes to their own understanding of what their dream meant to them.
The role of the therapist is to allow the client to engage in ‘free association’ about the dream. This means that the client vocalises any thoughts and feelings that come to mind, even if they don’t seem to have any connection with the dream. The therapist engages and explores these thoughts. The therapist also plays a pivotal role in asking exploratory questions and provoking thought around the personal meaning that the symbolisation holds for each client.
One of the main aims of psychodynamic psychotherapy is to help clients to be aware of their unconscious thoughts, and clients who attend regular psychotherapy often report an increase in their dreams as the work progresses. If dreams can be viewed as a method of communication between the unconscious and the conscious mind, they can be a very useful tool in aiding the process of psychodynamic psychotherapy.