By Paul Lippmann, Ph.D.

November 4th is the 118th anniversary of the publication Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, his masterpiece which brought the significance of dreams into our daily lives. More than a century later, does Freud’s work remain relevant? What is the value of dream interpretation in contemporary life?

Freud taught us that dream images can help us focus on and connect with our thoughts, feelings, and wishes. Today, our culture has largely turned away from the inner world to the external world of film, video, and the virtual on all sorts of “smart” devices. Dream images pale in comparison to the images one can call upon their devices. But focusing so much on the external world has caused humans to lose an important connection to themselves.

At the same time, dreams have lost their centrality in therapy. However, an interest in dreams in psychoanalytic therapy can still be deeply meaningful. Everyone dreams and our private nighttime adventures still provide a glimpse of a vast realm of imagination and creative thinking that is the gift of every human being. Talking together about dreams in psychotherapy is one of the most valuable and subversive of activities: dream analysis emphasizes a commercial-free view of life within a culture where the world of internal experience is devalued.

Dreams, even without the help of a psychotherapist, provide free assistance for the dreamer. Dreams give a context for your daytime experiences. They expand on ideas, thoughts, and memories. They rehearse for the future. They prepare for upcoming difficulties; soften, heal, or replay trauma; help memorialize lost persons, places, and experiences; imagine alternative outcomes; explore paths not taken; and allow the dreamer to explore taboo thoughts with no one watching, judging, or criticizing.

Our dreams can fulfill wishes in a painful, difficult life. They can laugh at things from the underside. They can call up images of a better or a worse time to provide balance for our conscious lives. And most of all, they provide a glimpse of the mind’s capacity for play, imagination, preparation, memorialization, and even the illogical: the nonsensical, zany, wacky, artistic, crazy side of our very own beings. They can also frighten us and often teach us to expect, remember, and survive unbearable nightmarish experiences.

Dreams don’t have to be remembered or “worked on” in therapy to provide these benefits. Only about 10 percent of our dreams are remembered. It seems that nature requires us simply to dream and not necessarily to bring such nightly odysseys to daylight. Perhaps we have quite enough to think about consciously without our illogical, dreamy mind getting in the way.

While they don't need to be remembered to be helpful, the occasional remembered dream can yield genuine benefit to our daytime lives and can help to reflect on our inner workings. If you want to explore your dreams and see how they can provide free assistance here are some ideas:

  • Get some sleep.
  • Don’t turn to your TV or smartphone as soon as you wake up.
  • Write down your dreams before they escape back to their own world.
  • Let them play in your mind as the day goes on.
  • Slow down and try to respect your ancient dreaming mind that may not operate at computer speed.
  • Permit yourself not to narrowly focus on “finding the meaning.”

Most dreams contain multiple meanings. So instead of looking for one particular meaning, ask yourself these five questions:

  • How did the dream make you feel?
  • What does it remind you of?
  • Is the dream trying to tell you something of value about the day ahead or the day behind?
  • Are any of the persons or animals or spirits in the dream of special significance?
  • And what are they trying to communicate to you?  

Thank you, Sigmund Freud, for bringing the wonder, magic, and the reality of dreams into our modern times. Contemporary psychoanalysts may add, subtract, and play with the theories of The Interpretation of Dreams but Freud’s revolutionary work continues to define how we understand the significance of dreams. The influence of this great work cannot be overemphasized.

About the Author: Paul Lippmann, Ph.D. is Training and Supervising Analyst at the William Alanson White Psychoanalytic Institute. He is in the private practice of psychoanalytic psychotherapy in Stockbridge, Massachusetts., is Director of the Stockbridge Dream Society and is affiliate faculty at the Austen Riggs Center. He is author of numerous papers on dreams and of Nocturnes: On Listening to Dreams, 2000, Analytic Press. 

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