Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A few comments on Freud and dreams

Arguably the most famous exponent of dream interpretation as a psychological tool is Sigmund Freud. His monumental work The Interpretation of Dreams opened up a whole field of research and theory. For Freud, the dream is something that happens inside our own heads, a process whose essential function is a kind of wish fulfillment—and the wish is usually infantile, unconscious, and sexual in nature. Because these unconscious wishes are unacceptable to our waking ego, the dreamwork disguises them so that the ego isn’t shocked into waking us up.

Freud's worldview and mine are fundamentally different. For Freud, the unconscious (the source of dream images) consists primarily of things that have not been noticed or have been forgotten by our conscious ego, or—and more important—that have been repressed by our ego. Freud also insists that everything in his psychology can be defined scientifically. This automatically excludes anything like the imaginal world: gods, spirits, archetypes, or dream images as autonomous beings.

For Freud, dreams have no intention of being understood. You can analyze them and decipher their meaning, but this is an action that we perform on the dream, not something that the dream intends. In my view, on the other hand, the dream may represent an avenue for communication with not only the personal unconscious but with the collective unconscious, with the imaginal world of spirits and archetypes.

Here’s an example of the difference between my approach and Freud's. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud recounts the story of a father who had been watching over his son’s sickbed for many days and nights, and whose child finally died. The exhausted man lit candles around his son’s bed and went into the next room to lie down. He fell asleep and had a dream that “his child was standing by his bed, caught him by the arm and whispered to him reproachfully, ‘Father, don’t you see I’m burning?’” The father awoke and discovered that one of the candles had fallen over, the bedding had caught fire, and the child’s body was indeed burning (pp. 509-510).

Freud argued that the dream represented the process of wish fulfillment: The father desperately wished his son to be alive once more, and so the dream, using the father’s memories of the boy’s words and actions, created a scene where the boy was indeed alive. My own interpretation, based on a different view of reality, would suggest that the exhausted father’s mental defenses were lower than usual and the boy himself, from the other side of death, was able to communicate with his father directly and alert him to a dangerous situation.

A Freudian interpretation of dreams can provide valuable psychological information. I have no argument with that. However, I do believe that dream images, if they are regarded as at least potentially autonomous, can even more effectively show us "the royal road to the unconscious."

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