Salvador Dalí, Dream Caused by the Flight of a...
Salvador Dalí, Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening, 1944 (Photo credit: Jameswy.Wang)

Dream interpretation is practiced in most cultures and dates back to ancient times. Dreams have been analyzed in Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, African, Australian, as well as North and South American Aboriginal cultures. The overall aim in dream interpretation is to predict, assist and inspire.

Sigmund Freud makes a distinction between the manifest and latent content of dreams. The manifest content is the symbol first remembered by the conscious dreamer. The latent content is what the dream truly signifies, deciphered through the process of psychoanalysis.

The manifest content is usually a distorted, incomplete version of the actual dream, having undergone a process of psychological censorship. And if the latent content strongly threatens the ego, the manifest content may be symbolized two or more symbolic steps away from the ‘true’ meaning of the dream.

Consider the following hypothetical example: If a student’s unconscious homosexual desires for her math teacher conflicted sharply with her conscious attitude, the remembered dream image would be highly abstract, such as two mathematical equations adding up to the same result. During analysis it would be revealed that the patient also enjoyed dreaming about her math class.

In the next dream the patient would be invited for dinner to her math teacher’s home. Further analysis would reveal that, in the second dream, patient and teacher exchanged compliments over dinner.

After continuing psychoanalysis in this manner, the dream censor is finally overcome and the patient would finally realize her lesbian desire for the math teacher. Freud’s idea of the censor was later replaced by his concept of the superego.

Freud’s pupil and psychology superstar in his own right, C. G. Jung, says there are “big” and “little” dreams. Big dreams are often prophetic and stem from the collective unconscious. Little dreams deal with the personal unconscious and usually compensate for a skewed or incomplete conscious attitude.

In some cases the interpretation of a collective, big dream content is distorted by an unexamined personal unconscious. A similar idea was expressed by the thirteenth-century Kabbalists who claimed that dreamers may communicate angels but divine knowledge is often distorted by “subjective wishes” within one’s own “emotional life.”

Jung believes that his approach incorporates and extends both Freud and Alfred Adler‘s ideas. While Freud and Alder recognize libidinal impulses originating from a common psychological storehouse (similar to Jung’s collective unconscious), Jung’s idea of the archetypes tries to spell out the collective psyche to a degree not found in either Freud’s (i.e. eros/thanatos) or Adler’s (i.e. drive for aggression) theories.

More recently, the ancient interest in dreams and their relation to what is now called paranormal and precognitive phenomena has been rekindled by developments in the New Age movement and within depth psychology.

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