Dreams and Reality

Dreaming intersects with waking life.

Posted Jan 18, 2012

     A few weeks ago, a woman named Marianne came to therapy distraught with worry. Marianne told me that she had been having an affair for the past eight months, and was in the process of deciding whether to leave her husband. She had two daughters, ages 15 and 19, and she had taken great pains to conceal her affair from them as well as her husband. Despite her efforts to keep the affair secret, one day her older daughter came to her and said that she had dreamed that her mother was having an affair and was planning to leave her father. The daughter was very frightened by the dream and begged her mother for reassurance. Marianne decided to lie to her daughter to calm her agitation.

      Marianne was puzzled. "How did she know about my affair?" She asked me. "I have been extremely careful to conceal it from my family." I explained to Marianne that although her daughter probably did not know about the affair with her conscious mind, her unconscious mind had undoubtedly picked up some signs. Perhaps she saw her mother come home one evening looking happier than usual, even though her husband was out of town. This kind of observation might have played into the girl's unconscious fear that her parents might split up-a fear that many kids have in these days of ubiquitous divorce. Even though the girl did not feel the fear consciously, it might have welled up from her unconscious in a dream.

      This incident led me to reflect on how dreaming intersects with waking life, a topic that has interested philosophers and thinkers since ancient times. Before the days of almanacs, people took dreams very seriously and believed that they could predict the future. In the biblical story, Pharaoh has a dream which his servant Joseph interprets as prophetic. The dream prophesied that seven years of plentiful harvests would be followed by seven years of famine. Joseph's interpretation of the dream motivated Pharaoh to store up enough grain to see Egypt through the famine.

      While most scientific thinkers of Freud's era relegated dreams to the realm of subjectivity and illusion, Freud took a much more serious approach to dreams. He thought that not only did dreams give us access to the unconscious mind, but there was also an aspect of dreams that was as real as anything in waking life: namely, the affects or feelings we experience in dreams. For example, if we dream that we are being chased by a wild animal, our heart is still palpitating when we wake up. Although our dream may be an illusion that vanishes on waking, the fear that permeates the dream persists after we are awake. Freud made the distinction between the "manifest content" of dreams (the wild animal, for example) and the "latent content" (the fear), with the latter being more similar to waking reality than the former.

      Marianne's daughter's dream had a very strong interconnection with reality. Not only was the latent content of her dream real, but the manifest content--as it turned out--was real as well. The dream also had an unexpected impact on her mother. Marianne began to feel so guilty about the effect that leaving her husband would have on her daughters, that she decided to stay in the marriage and work things out with her husband.