The Interpretation of Dreams

FAQs about Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1899

APsaA member Leon Hoffman, M.D. answers some of the questions about the this period in the history of psychoanalysis  and  some of the concepts of "Dreams" in this interview.

What happened when Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams?

You could say that the fields of psychoanalysis, psychiatry, and psychology were born, but much more importantly, scientific thinking about the mind began. Before that, the brain was something physical and the mind was a kind of pixyish spirit world. There was science about the brain and pie-in-the-sky speculation about the mind. After Freud, the study of the mind became more serious and scientific.

How did "Dreams" do that?

To put it very simply, it was through Freud's theory that we understood for the first time that we dream for a reason; that reason is to deal unconsciously with the problems the conscious mind can't deal with. That theory meant that the mind obeyed its own rules. People set out to discover those rules and the reasons for them.

Was Freud the first person to look at the mind scientifically?

No, but in "The Interpretation of Dreams" he was the first person to look at the mind and to develop a theory about its basis and creation. The statements Freud made in "Dreams" about the conscious and unconscious gave labels to the ethereal parts of the mind that make us human. In effect, he established the foundation for our current thinking about the mind. Before that, thinking was much more spiritual or even alchemic.

So Freud established a baseline?

In "Dreams" he began to create a means of thinking and studying the mind compare it to Newton's discovery of the laws of gravitation, without them you have no way of studying much of physics, with them you can study everything from planets to quarks and gluons. With the work Freud began in "Dreams" there is a basis to study everything from war to a person's most secret fears and hopes.

When and how did Freud come to discover psychoanalysis?

Freud was always interested in examining his own thoughts and motivations; after his father died in 1896, he underwent a self-analysis.

How did he do that?

He analyzed his dreams, his childhood memories, screen memories, slips of the tongue, and episodes of forgetfulness. Screen memories are memories of events which actually stand for other memories which have been forgotten. These memories may have an unusual vivid quality because they represent a convergence of a variety of scenes.

How did Freud come to do a self-analysis?

He had a dream ("Close the eyes dream") the night after his father's funeral in October 1896, which led him to undertake an ongoing systematic process of self-examination (in contrast to isolated episodes of analysis before this). This analysis included an examination of the complex and ambivalent emotions he had about his father. During this self-analysis he developed the idea of the Oedipus Complex (that is, the complicated feelings of a child towards his or her parents).

Where did Freud write about his self-analysis and his own dreams?

Mainly in his seminal work, The Interpretation of Dreams. By 1902, Freud had recorded 50 dreams, 43 of which are described in The Interpretation of Dreams; four in "On Dreams"; and three in his letters to his colleague, Wilhelm Fliess.

Did Freud realize that the death of his father was a central stimulus to his self-analysis and his dream book?

In a preface to the second edition in 1909, he wrote: ". . . this book has a further subjective significance for me personally - a significance which I only grasped after I had completed it. It was, I found, a portion of my own self-analysis, my reaction to my father's death - that is to say, to the most important event, the most poignant loss, of a man's life. Having discovered that this was so, I felt unable to obliterate the traces of the experience."

What does it really mean to analyze dreams and other elements such as memories?

To analyze dreams, memories is to try to understand how events from the past, including the distant past in childhood, continue to actively influence our current behavior and feelings without our conscious awareness of their influence.

How did Freud analyze a dream?

He listened to the dreamer's associations (his own or his patient's) to the dream. Through the associations and connections one could understand the motives for the dreams: current and past conflicted situations.

How do these events continue to affect us if we are not conscious of them?

Freud hypothesized that these memories continue to exist outside our awareness, unconsciously.

What is the connection between unconscious mental activity and dreaming?

Freud said that, "The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind." He meant that because dreams are such an unconscious activity they give an almost direct insight into the workings of the unconscious mind.

What was Freud's first dream in which he understood that dreams have meaning?

The dream of "Irma's injection," (dreamt on July 24, 1895). He discussed his associations to this dream in about 25 pages of The Interpretation of Dreams. In a letter to his colleague Fliess, Freud wrote: "Do you suppose that someday a marble tablet will be placed on the house, inscribed with these words?:In This House, on July 24th, 1895 the Secret of Dreams was Revealed to Dr. Sigm. Freud At the moment there seems little prospect of it."

According to Freud, what was the major stimulus to dreams?

Dreams are fueled by a person's wishes, particularly wishes of which the person was not conscious. On another level, the purpose of the dream is to allow the person to continue sleeping.

What was problematic about the idea that are all dreams are wish-fulfillments?

Anxiety dreams and punishment dreams. Freud came to understand that anxiety often resulted from the gratification of a person's wishes. The phenomena of punishment dreams was one of the factors that led Freud to the concept of the "superego" (that part of the mind dealing with a person's sense of morality and his or her unconscious need to be punished). Traumatic dreams proved to be a problem for Freud (were they an exception to the rule that all dreams are wish-fulfillments?) Freud came to maintain that traumatic dreams functioned to master trauma rather than to gratify wishes. Other analysts have maintained that there is no need to contrast the two types of dreams.

What are the major mechanisms that Freud postulated of how the mind works in dreams?

Dream-work, as it is called, has four major elements.

  • Displacement, which is the way the importance of an idea shifts from one idea to another. (For example, the most significant ideas or feelings for a person may shift from one idea (in the latent content of the dream) to an insignificant detail in the manifest content of the dream.

  • Condensation, that one idea or image may represent several ideas, which converge on one dream image.

  • Considerations of representability, where all meanings, including abstract thoughts, are represented through images.

  • Secondary revision, which explains how the apparent incoherence and absurdity in the dream are eliminated by filling in the gaps to make the manifest content of the dream more logical.

What is the difference between the manifest content of the dream and the latent content?

Manifest content is the dream as perceived by the dreamer. The manifest content is a result of the dream-work. Latent content is the meaning of the dream as revealed by analysis. The latent content does not appear as a narrative (like the manifest content) but rather as a group of thoughts expressing one or more wishes.

Was Freud always a psychoanalyst?

No. Freud was born in 1856. From 1876 until 1896 he was primarily a neurologist and an anatomist.

Did he make any significant neurological contributions?

He wrote three monographs on infantile cerebral paralysis and in 1891 he wrote his most important neurological work: "On Aphasia."

Why is "On Aphasia" important?

At that time most neurologists believed that there were discrete anatomical areas in the brain that were responsible for different cognitive functions. Freud followed the ideas of the English neurologist, Hughlings Jackson, who proposed a hierarchic view of the nervous system. Freud’s study of aphasia (the various language problems that result from brain injury) convinced him that a static notion of brain function was incompatible with the complex findings. Rather, he thought that large areas of the cortex of the brain had various functions (a notion of functional systems, which antedated the work of A.R. Luria, the founder of neuropsychology, by 50 years).

Did Freud try to integrate neurological and psychological phenomena?

In 1895 he wrote the "Project for a Scientific Psychology" which he never published (and which was only published in 1950, many years after his death). Many notions in the "Project" have been of great interest to modern neuroscientists and psychoanalysts trying to integrate the findings of psychoanalysis and those of modern neuroscience. One very important area which Freud studied and modern neuroscientists study is the area of memory. For Freud, memories are continually worked over and revised. For example, Gerald Edelman, the Nobel Laureate, has described the brain's role as one of constructing categories (so that every memory is a recreation or a recategorization) based on experimental neuroscientific data.

Why didn't Freud continue his neurological work and his attempts to integrate neurology and psychology?

At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Centuries, there were no neurological techniques to study the functioning of brain. We now have capabilities to perform such functional studies using machines such as PET scans. Because of the primitive methods of neurology in his day, Freud focused solely on psychological studies and developed only psychological theories. However, many of his neurological ideas continued to influence his psychoanalytic theories, such as the central role of memory in the development of the individual.

Were there any connections between Freud's attempts to develop a neurological theory and his later psychoanalysis?

Freud's work, The Interpretation of Dreams, has a direct relationship to the "Project for a Scientific Psychology." This work provided an outline for Chapter 7, the theoretical chapter, of the dream book.The Interpretation of Dreamscan be viewed as a completion of, or an alternative to, the Project. In the last few sections of the draft of the Project, Freud identified dreams with wish-fulfillment and sketched out how dreams work.

How did contemporaries of Freud react to the publication of The Interpretation of Dreams?

The first review was published on December 16, 1899. The review was in a literary journal (he was in fact more appreciated by the lay educated public than by the scientific public), by Carl Metzentin, and the last paragraph deserves to be quoted: "We now must forsake the pleasure of following further the astute - and frequently daring - observations of the Viennese physician. Only one more note from the conclusion of his epoch-making work, a note which concerns the value of dreams for gaining knowledge of future. 'In every respect, dreams are children of the past. There is a grain of truth, though, in the ancient belief that we can see in them our future. By showing us our wishes as fulfilled they point to the future. But this future, which the dreamer mistakes for his present, is modeled by the indestructible wish into the likeness of the past.'"


Didier Anzieu: Freud's Self-Analysis (tr. by Peter Graham), 1986 (International Universities Press)
Norman Kiell: Freud Without Hindsight, 1988 (International Universities Press) 
Oliver Sacks: "Origins of Genius: Freud’s Early Years," Doubletake magazine, Fall 1998.
Alexander Welsh: Freud's Wishful Dream Book, 1994 (Princeton University Press)