Freud was not the first to systematically study dreams, and credits several predecessors in his own The Interpretation of Dreams (1899). But Freud was the first to claim a systematic analysis of the meaning of dreams and to provide a code for deciphering them, if not actually interpreting them. He took the theories of dream origins — external sensory stimuli, internal sensory excitations, and internal organic somatic stimuli — and went one step further by identifying psychic sources of stimuli and distinguishing manifest and latent content.
Freud’s famous conclusion was that “A dream is the fulfillment of a wish.” Unlike his predecessors who saw dreams as a kind of bodily detritus, Freud insisted that dreams
are not meaningless, they are not absurd; they do not imply that one portion of our store of ideas is asleep while another portion is beginning to wake. On the contrary, they are psychical phenomena of complete validity — fulfillments of wishes; they can be inserted into the chain of intelligible waking mental acts; they are constructed by a highly complicated activity of the mind.
Dreams are like fairy tales, which present symbols to fit preconceived meanings. However, dreams are distorted narratives hedging against unpleasant reality, a disguise to the dreamer. Thus Freud refines his definition to indicate that a dream is “a disguised fulfillment of a (suppressed or repressed) wish.” This disguising Freud calls “censorship.”
The content of dreams is memory, from the impressions of the day as recent memory to impressions going back to childhood which seem on the conscious every-day level to be trivial. It is at this point that Freud declares no dream material to be “innocent” — all dream material is sexual in nature. Thus dream content represents suppressed and forbidden wishes of childhood, such as in the dream of the death of a person of whom the dreamer is fond, revealing Oedipal content or sibling rivalry.
Freud is usually identified as placing sexual factors exclusively at the forefront of psychological explanations. But it is true that he was referring to neurotics and, in part, to his own dreams. Freud does use dream content as a means of identifying dream mechanisms and does open a method for understanding broader symbolism in dreams. But he did not budge from his conclusion about the sexual nature of dreams. To go beyond that was the work of others, such as Jung. Freud had neither the means, time, or disposition, to explore remnant instincts in the human mind, though he eventually identified broader concepts of life and death forces, to which sexual factors could be subsumed. But at the turn of the century, some 40+ years of age, Freud made conclusions that he did not and could not pursue directly or clinically. Thus has he been called a philosopher of dreams as much as an analyst.
Among dream mechanisms are 1) condensation (of time and space), 2) censorship, 3) displacement (of psychical intensities), and 4) representation (of causal relations). These are now familiar mechanisms. The latent content or dream-thoughts are transformed to dream-content or manifest content through visual images, which in turn become symbolic actions. The symbols, as identified by the dream interpreter, are derived in part from the study of myth, folklore, legends, and — Freud adds pointedly — jokes. Writes Freud, “Dreams make use of this symbolism for the disguised representation of their latent thoughts.”
But Freud returns to the sexual nature of dreams in elaborating on symbolism. To him, every object in a dream is a symbol, specifically a sexual one. Thus elongated objects versus containerized objects, horizontal versus vertical, and so forth. No wonder that Freud himself admits of “no possibility of explaining dreams” [emphasis his], but an admission by which he only means that no explanation is really necessary since the narrative of the dream can be reduced to symbolic formula, decoded, as it were. The processes and mechanisms could be identified clearly enough, but only psychoanalysis and a knowledge of the individual’s past could reveal facts that would allow for interpreting dreams.
The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind [emphasis his]. By analyzing dreams we can take a step forward in our understanding of the composition of that most marvelous and most mysterious of all instruments. Only a small step, no doubt; but a beginning.
Tempering his conclusion, Freud reminds the reader that he is concerned with the pathological and the neurotic, with what he called functional illnesses. He did not back away from a somewhat crude explanatory symbolism at this point. Only later did he refine a universal explanation for behavior as psychical forces of Eros and Thanatos. In the intervening years, the study of dreams would point to knowledge, if only knowledge of the individual’s past. By presenting dreams as fulfilled wishes, dreams foretell the future, he states, the future of that dreamer, for dreams indicate the progression of our psyche.
This last conclusion, folded into Freud’s overall exploration of dreams, is probably the most startling of his entire work.