Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Following Freud and Jung Through a World of Dreams

How dream research moved away from the unconscious and back again.

Key points

  • Freud and Jung sought to understand dream meanings through psychoanalysis of the unconscious.
  • Newer technologies and research methods led to researchers shunning the psychoanalytic viewpoint.
  • Contemporary research has revived interest in early psychoanalytic theories, validating clinical work.

The word “dream” is often used to convey longing or aspiration in a metaphorical sense: In your dreams. Dream on. A dream come true. But a dream can also serve as an avenue that enables us to achieve our aspirations.

Author Mary Shelly recounted that she first conceived the idea for her novel Frankenstein in a dream when she was just 18 years old. Paul McCartney has stated that he came up with the melody for one of The Beatles’ most beloved songs, “Yesterday,” in a dream.

Dreams have inspired great scientists and athletes, as well. Otto Loewi, a German-born pharmacologist, reportedly discovered acetylcholine — a neurotransmitter that promotes dreaming — based on an experiment that he conceptualized in a dream. Similarly, Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan claimed that many of his breakthroughs, including new formulas for computing Pi, came to him in dreams. In sports, golfing legend Jack Nicklaus has often talked about how he would give himself “lessons” in his dreams that led to improvements in his game.

How is it that dreams can inspire such groundbreaking ideas and real-world achievements? The answer has much to do with the unconscious, the realm of the mind that contains our desires, memories, and thoughts on a level beyond conscious awareness.

Freud and Jung: The Early Theories

Sigmund Freud famously linked dreams to the unconscious, theorizing that individuals explore repressed desires and conflicts while asleep. He contended that many of these unconscious desires are rooted in psychosexual development and childhood experience, especially family dynamics.

Carl Jung later challenged Freud’s ideas about dreams. Whereas Freud’s concept of the unconscious resembled a dark basement of repressed desires, Jung argued that it is also a deep, magical lake full of undeveloped thoughts that offers dreamers the potential for personal growth, or individuation.

Jung also posited that dreams are bridges that link the individual’s experiences to both the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious, a vast reservoir of universal experiences, symbols, and ancestral memories shared by all of humanity. These images, he argued, persist throughout history in the form of cultural traditions, art, and mythology.

Moving Away From the Psychoanalytic Viewpoint

While Freud and Jung’s perspectives remain highly influential in dream theory, their ideas relied heavily on their qualitative interpretations of clinical work and other observations. With the emergence of new technologies and empirical research methods, researchers who followed in their wake could take dream research to new levels.

One of these researchers was psychologist Rosalind Cartwright, who used technologies such as electroencephalography (EEG) and polysomnography (PSG). In one of her studies, she and her team followed women who were going through a divorce. Over the course of five months, the researchers regularly asked the subjects whether their ex-spouses were on their minds. They awakened the same group of women during REM sleep and asked them what they had been dreaming about just before waking up. Cartwright and her colleagues found that there was a significant positive correlation between how much these women thought about their former husbands and how often the ex-husbands appeared in their dreams.

For Cartwright, dreams were indeed unconscious in the sense that many natural processes, such as digestion, occur unconsciously — but she veered away from the idea that dreams are a portal into a distinct realm of the psyche containing hidden motivations and desires. Rather, she theorized that dreams reflect the brain’s processing of information and emotions experienced during waking life, playing an important role in regulating emotional well-being.

Allan Hobson is another researcher who made liberal use of modern research methods and technologies. Like Cartwright, he did not believe that dreams hold hidden meanings linked to the unconscious, but he was even more emphatic in breaking away from the psychoanalytic viewpoint. Unlike Cartwright, he did not even think that dreams were a way for the brain to process emotions. Dreams, he argued, are largely meaningless byproducts of the chemical and neural activity in the brain during sleep. Hobson and his collaborator Robert McCarley called this the activation-synthesis hypothesis.

But this hypothesis does not explain some of the more elusive aspects of dreaming, such as precognitive dreams that foretell future events, or the phenomenon in which artists, athletes, and scientists have manifested their ideas through dreams. Moreover, the theory does not fully address the centuries of clinical work and human experiences that have found meaning, purpose, and guidance through dreams.

Coming Back Full Circle

While researchers like Cartwright and Hobson have challenged many traditional psychoanalytic viewpoints on the nature of dreams, that is not the end of the story.

Many of today’s dream researchers are taking a more balanced approach that incorporates modern research methodologies alongside classic views held by Freud and Jung. This includes the notion that dreams can function both as a portal to the unconscious and as a creative element of the psyche, laden with symbols and meanings. When we build relationships with our dreams and engage them with feeling, introspection, and analysis, they can offer insights that directly influence our daily lives.

Mark Solms, a contemporary researcher who was tremendously influential in the integration of Freudian psychoanalysis with neuroscience, argues that Freud’s theories — such as his position that the motivational basis of dreams cannot be reduced to random neural firing — anticipated many future findings in neuroscientific research.

Kelly Bulkeley is another modern dream researcher who incorporates psychoanalytic perspectives into dream interpretation. Bulkeley endorses the Jungian notion that dreams are heavily influenced by cultural, social, and spiritual themes and imagery. Building on this line of thinking, he has examined several ways in which artificial intelligence technology could assist with dream analysis at both the individual and cultural levels.

Bulkeley notes that AI systems are capable of performing complex statistical analyses of large sets of dream data, which could help uncover patterns that would otherwise be difficult for researchers to identify. This suggests that the technology has the potential to unlock new insights about the social and cultural underpinnings of dreaming on a global scale.

AI technology also makes dream analysis more accessible to people around the world, offering personalized dream interpretations on demand. However, Bulkeley cautions that the technology should not be considered a substitute for psychotherapy or a higher authority on the meaning of dreams. Given those limitations, he argues that a “human-AI hybrid” model is the most effective approach to dream interpretation today.

Psychologist Deirdre Barrett has conducted a number of studies to explore the role of dreams as an avenue for problem-solving, focusing on a technique called dream incubation. In one of her experiments, she asked participants to think about specific problems that they needed to solve as they fell asleep each night. They recorded their dreams in journals for a week, keeping track of any dreams that were relevant to the problem or helped them solve it. Half of the participants reported having dreams related to their problem, and within that group, more than half had dreams containing solutions.

Much like the iceberg imagery that is often used to visualize Freud and Jung’s respective paradigms, the subject of dreams is as vast as the unconscious is deep. By returning to these seminal ideas about dream analysis, we can further develop our knowledge and discover new areas to explore.

More from Psychology Today