The interpretation of dreams

"Dreams don't mean anything", according to a novel within the novel, The Information. That is, dreams do not signify anything. Over the years, scientists, philosophers, laypeople and therapists have argued this point, without reaching anything approaching consensus. According to Sigmund Freud, however, dreams do signify something - they signify a great deal. "The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind" (Freud). In other words, correctly interpreting a dream is invaluable in learning a waking person's secrets.

Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams is a stunning eight-hundred page delineation of the origins, mechanics and meaning of dreams – and their relationship with mental health. Before setting out his theory, Freud attempts an analysis of existing dream interpretations – the scientific, philosophical, superstitious and mythical – in circulation before his own work was published.

He proceeds to outline his own interpretation, explaining how material from our recent histories ("the dream day") is combined with subconscious desires from childhood, to produce the dream. In short, "A dream is the fulfilment of a wish" (ibid). A wish that may have remained hidden from the conscious mind for decades of life.

Freud interprets common dream phenomena – falling, flying, diving into water. He tells us why dreams so often provoke feelings of anxiety. He talks quite a lot about the erotic content of dreams. However, "The assertion that all dreams require a sexual interpretation, against which critics rage so incessantly, occurs nowhere in my Interpretation of Dreams. It is not to be found in any of the numerous editions of this book, and it is in obvious contradiction to other views expressed in it" (ibid).

Freud explains not only the meanings but the functions of dreams – one of which is to help the dreamer remain asleep (and dreaming). Continuing to sleep is, in itself, the fulfilment of a wish.

There are many alternative ways to interpret dreams; Freud has always been a controversial figure. His Interpretation of Dreams remains a monolithic classic however - whether you accept its conclusions or not. And if you are worrying about the content of your own dreams, remember: "Do not judge a man by his dreams, but by his actions and consciously expressed opinions" (ibid). Dreaming "bad" or "shameful" things does not mean that the dreamer is really "bad" or "shameful". Rather, the dream is a release valve for these "bad" or "shameful" thoughts – thoughts, it transpires, we all of us sometimes have.


Freud, Sigmund: "The Interpretation of Dreams" (1900) (Pelican Freud Library, 1980 edition)

Amis, Martin: "The Information" (Flamingo, 1995) 

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Manchester, Greater Manchester, M21

Written by Tom Bailey

Manchester, Greater Manchester, M21

Tom is an integrative counsellor, working in Chorlton, Manchester. His interests include helping to improve family dynamics. He is also interested in the impact of technology on interpersonal relationships.

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