120 Years After the Freudian Revolution, Are We Any Closer to Understanding Dreams?

New studies are shedding light on the major role of dreams in our lives

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“The Dream,” by Henri Rousseau  (1910).
“The Dream,” by Henri Rousseau (1910).Credit: Museum of Modern Art
Gid'on Lev
Gid'on Lev
Gid'on Lev
Gid'on Lev

“I dreamed I was putting on my winter coat again, which is terrible,” the young man told the bearded person sitting behind him in an armchair.

The trigger for the dream was seemingly the onset of winter, but further consideration showed that the two parts of the sentence are unconnected. Why was wearing the coat “terrible”? Later in the therapy session the young man recalled a conversation he’d had the day before with a friend. She had told him in confidence that her last child had been born because of a torn condom. The bearded person thereupon inferred that the chain of thoughts was: The coat stands for the condom, it’s something you put on, a covering, always problematic – a thin one is dangerous, a thick one is no good. The description of the dream took just over 10 words, which concealed anxieties and deep sexual desires. As always happens, the bearded person smiled to himself, puffing on his cigar.

We all have dreams – three to five of them each night. Across an average lifetime of 79 years, we will have more than 100,000 dreams, lasting in total about six whole years – more than we devote to eating (four and a half years), vacations (three years and a month), social networks (three years), sex and romance (a year and a half), physical activity (a year and four months) or school (those 12 years add up to about a year and a half, net). Yet, there are no government ministries, newspaper columns, academic departments or reality TV programs devoted to dreams.

Dreaming is an essential activity. A few dreamless days in succession would spell the end of us – faster than some consecutive days without eating, drinking or watching Netflix. Dreaming is also one of the most creative activities we engage in. Paul McCartney dreamed “Yesterday,” Dmitri Mendeleev dreamed the periodic table. They are not alone. At night we are all geniuses. Studies show that grades on creative tests are far higher immediately after sleep with dreaming. In the research, people were awakened just as they finished an REM period.

Even developers of computerized neural networks – a type of artificial intelligence modeled on biological neural systems – this year came to recognize the power of the dream. They programmed an option that simulates mathematically the human brain’s patterns of activity during sleep, and ran it on the computerized network while it was offline. The result was a dramatic improvement in the network’s performance. Without “dreaming,” the maximum number of bytes (units of information) stored by each computerized synapse was 0.14; but with the “sleep” option the number reached 1, the maximum theoretical limit for networks like this. Indeed, androids dream of electric sheep.

Even so, humanoids forget most of their nighttime reveries, and those we do remember almost always seem weird or banal. But dreams are actually never like that. Alice Robb, author of the 2018 book “Why We Dream,” says that to ignore a dream is like throwing away a gift from our brain without bothering to open it. The question, though, is how to open it. How can we know how to interpret dreams? Seeking to answer that question 120 years ago, the bearded man wrote a work that transformed humanity.

Universal language

A dream, Israeli poet Tirza Atar wrote, is “a story you see while sleeping.” It’s not self-evident that there could be such a story and that it could be seen with our eyes closed. In the course of dreaming, signals from the brain stem reach the cerebral cortex and in particular the region connected with sight, and the regions of memory (hippocampus) and emotions (amygdala) become activated. In other regions, too, processing occurs that is similar to what happens when we are awake; in general, the brain does not rest during sleep. Dream activity is associated principally with periods of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. In 85 percent of cases, people who are awakened during this phase will report that they were dreaming.

Freud.Credit: Eran Wolkowski

A dream is indeed a seen story. Though not coded in letters or words, it has a language: the language of symbols. As psychoanalyst Erich Fromm noted, it is perhaps the only language to be found across all cultures and historical periods. According to Fromm, this language also characterizes myths and legends. But it has largely been neglected by the Western scientific-materialist approach, which for many years dismissed dreams as being no more than a random firing of neurons, devoid of logic or meaning.

Is it possible that dreams operate according to their own rules of logic, which are different from those that are familiar to us when we are awake? It was rules like those that Sigmund Freud set out to articulate in his book “The Interpretation of Dreams.” The book, which the founder of psychoanalysis considered to be his most important work, was published on November 4, 1899, but Freud asked that the year of publication be listed as 1900, in the belief that it would be one of the most influential books for humankind in the new century. He was right. But humankind did not accept the revolution without a struggle. Until 1908, most of the 600 copies of the first edition languished in a warehouse. (The publisher, in the way of all publishers, was less optimistic.)

How to understand dreams is one of the most vexing questions in human history. Books offering guidelines for deciphering them are among the earliest extant texts, and their successors continue to thrive on the web. The use of such blueprints is largely culture-dependent. According to a contemporary guide, a dream about feces – to choose an anal example – suggests that “part of your life is in need of cleaning.” In contrast, an Egyptian papyrus from the second millennium B.C.E., which is simultaneously anal and oral, explained to an embarrassed sorcerer that if he dreamed he was eating feces, it meant that the abundance in his home would increase.

Unlike the decoding formulas, in which every symbol bears a universal meaning, many cultures are sure that their culturally dependent ideas are universal; this phenomenon is quite ... universal. Freud saw dreams as a completely private window to each individual’s inner reality. During dreaming, and only then, we are completely free of the need to relate to the outside world, to communicate, to work, to defend ourselves or to go on the offensive. Dreaming is the most salient expression of a situation of self-colloquy: The creator of the dream and the individual addressed by it are one and the same person. Which is why Freud said that the task of interpretation devolves on the dreamer himself, and not on an outside expert. That notion, which to us may be self-evident, is one of Freud’s greatest conceptual innovations. His basic premise was simple: Every dream has a personal meaning, and that meaning is of immense significance for the dreamer’s life.

Across an average lifetime, we will have more than 100,000 dreams, lasting in total about six whole years – more than we devote to eating, vacations and sex.

Into the depths

Freud was practical. In “The Interpretation of Dreams,” he put forward a clear and simple system of decipherment. To begin with, he wrote, a distinction must be drawn between the events of the dream, as we remember them the following morning (i.e., the dream’s open, manifest content), and the thoughts that exist “behind” the dream, which the dream seeks to express (the hidden, latent content). These latent thoughts, Freud insisted, are always of the same type: They are always wishes. That realization was, he thought, the greatest discovery he made in his life: “The dream represents a certain state of affairs, such as I might wish to exist; the content of the dream is thus the fulfillment of a wish; its motive is a wish.”

This is vividly reflected in the most famous dreams appearing in Hebraic tradition: those of Jacob and Joseph. Jacob dreams of a ladder that connects him with God, probably the biggest wish ever made in the eons preceding the “Big Brother” reality show. His son made do with dreams about honor, glory and admiration on the part of his family.

Support for the hypothesis that dreams express wish fulfillment comes from an original study recently conducted at University College London. During the day, researchers allowed rats to see tasty food at the end of a labyrinth that they were familiar with but were prevented from reaching. While the rats slept, their brain activity was measured. The scientists found that the neurons were fired in a pattern identical to that which the animals would have experienced while running through the labyrinth en route to the tempting meal – as though they were dreaming that they were doing just that.

Even so, a dreamer will say, many dreams don’t appear in the least like wish fulfillment. This is where Freud’s second great discovery enters the picture: “the fact of dream-distortion.”

It’s important to grasp that the dream wish is often forbidden, dangerous or conflicted in character. Otherwise, we would not need the dream to express it. Two forces are at work in the psychic system, in this context: One generates the wish to which the dream gives expression, the other censors the dream wish and thereby distorts its manifestation. The dream is a kind of bridge between two regions of the psyche: the unconscious and the conscious. Emerging from the unconscious with a spinner bag, it encounters a border crossing on a bridge, where a thorough search is made of the bag’s contents. All the “dangerous materials” are censored or disguised, with the aim of forestalling anxiety, guilt or shame.

The basic principle, then, can be more precisely formulated: “The dream is the (disguised) fulfillment of a (suppressed, repressed) wish.” This censorship, the donning of the disguise, is what makes it difficult to decipher dreams. Something within us doesn’t want us to understand our own dreams. There is a reason why the unconscious is just that – not conscious.

A 2004 Harvard University study, published in the journal Psychological Science, found that repressed content does in fact play the lead role in our dreams. The researchers theorized that the reason for this is that the regions of the brain that are responsible for controlling thoughts are less active during REM sleep. What is the content that we most want to control and hide from ourselves? You guessed right – according to Freud, at least: It’s sexual content. If an innocent-looking coat appears in a dream, it most likely connotes something sexual – a condom, an unwanted pregnancy and so forth.

The latent thoughts behind dreams, Freud insisted, are always of the same type: They are always wishes.

Some would say Freud was fixated on sex. And they would be right. However, here too the latest research supports his approach. In a dream we cannot move because the brain’s movement centers are paralyzed, but some sort of movement nonetheless occurs. In women there is a heightened flow of blood to the clitoris, and men have particularly strong erections (by the way, a situation in which impotence stems from an emotional rather than a physiological condition can be detected this way). Concurrently, the centers of reward and pleasure in the brain become especially active during dreaming.

A jarring note

Every dream thus has two sides: overt and covert. The overt part is the content we are familiar with, what the censorship has approved. The covert part consists of the thoughts that underlie the dream, which express a forbidden or conflicted wish that was therefore repressed.

In order to uncover the hidden thoughts, it’s necessary to understand the workings of the censorship, which transform the thoughts into overt content. Freud identified two principal processes in this regard: condensation and displacement. The former is a mechanism of compressing an abundance of thoughts into the dream’s content, which is relatively meager and laconic. For example, a single character in a dream can possess traits and features that accrue to a number of people whom we know. The second mechanism brings about the transference of the psychic energies that are connected with a conflicted image – an image that is the reason for the dream – to a lesser or even banal image (usually related to the events of the past day). A woman dreamed that she was walking in a field and picking a flower. After relating the dream’s content in therapy, she remembered having seen a vase of flowers that day at work, on her boss’ desk.

To elude predators, an insect assumes the innocent appearance of something innocuous, such as a leaf or a twig. An unconscious wish that doesn’t want to be caught assumes the neuronal equivalent of a dry leaf, taking on the form of random, illogical or unimportant brain activity. This is where the third central principle of understanding dreams comes in: “The dream never concerns itself with trifles.” A dream is always occupied with material that is highly meaningful for us, but the condensation and displacement mechanisms obscure this fact, with the result that the most important thing in the dream is usually not represented in it. If we are disturbed by the possibility of pregnancy, there is no chance that we will see a condom; if we’re turned on by the boss, there is no way he will appear in the dream.

Freud exemplified this with a short dream of his own: “My friend R is my uncle – I have a great affection for him.” He related that when he remembered the dream, in the middle of the day, he burst into laughter and said, “The dream is nonsense.” Afterward he reproached himself: If the dream seems to you nonsensical, there was probably something particularly disagreeable behind it, which you do not wish to acknowledge. He set about analyzing the 13-word description of his dream in an analysis of 1,515 words, and discovered that it expressed within it a family drama, envy of a close friend, professional ambition and intrigues at his place of work.

We arrive at the bridge between the two authorities with a jug of forbidden materials. First, the border control personnel say that it’s not permitted to bring in everything, you have to reduce it. That’s the condensation – you can only bring in a small jar. Second, they say that it must not be apparent that we are bringing in psychedelic substances, even if in a small quantity. This is the displacement – the jar must be disguised with a harmless-looking label.

In this way Freud coped with the great problem of his theory: nightmares, which appear to be the exact opposite of wish fulfillment. But if there is strict censorship, the nightmare can be understood as a particularly meticulous disguise.

Later developments of the theory extend the concept of the “wish.” Jung, for example, posited that a dream sometimes expresses an alternative stance to a consciously held, one-sided, rigid approach. Indirectly, then, there is a realization of a wish for a more flexible attitude. In other, widespread cases the dream reenacts or processes an event that has a powerful psychological influence, usually of a harsh character; the processing is a realization of a wish of the psyche.

Indeed, according to the latest studies, one of the roles of the dream is to weaken strong emotional responses (to an event, an expectation, a conflict) by coping with them, processing them and integrating them into existing structures and memories. The central feelings experienced in dreams, according to many researchers, are negative; the most common of these are tension, anxiety, guilt and helplessness. Dreams are particularly grim just after we fall asleep, but with every period of REM sleep, the feelings become more positive. Dreaming, according to the sleep researcher Rosalind Cartwright, is a type of nocturnal therapy. An extremely necessary type, it should be said: Without it depression arises. For those who suffer from depression the picture is reversed, and the feelings that appear in the dreams grow increasingly more negative as the night progresses.

Ultimate dream

The Spanish poet Antonio Machado wrote: “You can know yourself, if you bring up / those cloudy canvases from your dreams, / today, this day, when you walk / awake, open-eyed. / Memory is valuable for one thing, / astonishing: it brings dreams back.”

Dreams are creative and therapeutic. They also shed light on who we are within ourselves, on our deep, hidden wishes and yearnings. They occupy a tremendous chunk of our life, perhaps even more than six years. According to a new and revolutionary study, published in Nature Neuroscience, we dream throughout sleep. Dreams in REM sleep are simply the only ones we remember, if at all.

Perhaps these stories are spun not only when our eyes are closed? Psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion suggested that we dream constantly – it’s an activity from which the brain never desists. In wakefulness it is extremely difficult to discern it, because of the great attention demanded by external stimuli and the need to respond to them; but the dreams continue to glitter in the heavens of the psyche, like daytime stars.

One-hundred-and-twenty years ago, Freud wrote that the dream reduces, diverts, censors and conceals. In fact, our entire mental activity is one great act of camouflage. Actual reality is completely different from our apprehension of it. Where we perceive permanence and stability there is constant variance, and where we perceive solid material existence there are fluctuations and voids. Perhaps dreaming is so important because it is the most precise metaphor of the mode of our existence, a reminder of what really is.

The Chinese sage Chuang Tzu wrote, 2,600 years ago: “In the midst of a dream, we can’t know it’s a dream. In the midst of a dream, we might even interpret the dream. After we’re awake, we know it was a dream – but only after a great awakening can we understand that all of this is a great dream … Confucius is a dream, and you are a dream. And when I say you’re both dreams, I too am a dream.”

Good morning.

Dedicated to the memory of Carlo Strenger.