Dreams as unconscious communication

Our fascination with dreams goes back to ancient history when dreams have been the topic of religious, philosophical and scientific interest. We are often struck by the strangeness of our dreams or the powerful emotional reactions they evoke. We do not always remember our dreams, with some standing out more vividly than others. We may remember dreams from long ago, but can’t remember what we dreamed last night. We often want to understand the meaning of our dreams, and there are long traditions as well as popular cultural ideas about the significance of dream elements. It was in Freud’s groundbreaking book, Ihe Interpretation of Dreams (1900) that he set out his theories around the unconscious, writing that “The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind” (p. 608). Dreams are rich in latent meaning and primary process thinking. When we interpret our patients’ dreams in psychodynamic psychotherapy, we are working with their unconscious communications and therefore need to interpret beyond the manifest content (the obvious elements of the dream narrative), to explore the dream’s latent content as well as the function the dream serves. Before continuing, let’s consider a dream brought by a patient:

Martina was a 26-year old single woman, the youngest of three siblings. She was currently unemployed and living at home. She described her parents as “caring”, having always provided for her needs, however, both of them were prone to bouts of depression and had problems with alcohol. Martina had had a string of jobs which all ended badly when she left after experiences where she found her bosses to be “useless”. She had various short, unsatisfying relationships with women, most recently with Wendy; these often ended when her partners felt unable to tolerate her bad moods. Martina sought therapy because she was depressed, with suicidal thoughts. After an initial assessment, Martina agreed to start therapy, saying she felt “happy” to be starling.

In the third session she reported this dream:

/ was in a big house, with lots of rooms. I was on my own in this house, walking around trying to find something. Suddenly, zombies began to appear in one of the rooms and my mission was to escape from the house. It was like I was part of a video game or movie or something. I looked around for an escape route. Then I was in this big hall, with a glass wall on one end. On the other side were some people, and they were watching me. There was one person who had on a white coat. There was a woman, who looked a bit like Wendy, but older. It wasn’t her. There was another guy with a big build, and I can’t remember the others. The zombies had started to come into this big hall. There were a few of them running around. I saw a young child in the hall on their own; I think it was a boy. He looked familiar. Next th ing, I had a mach ine gun with me, and I was starting to gun the zombies down. I was hying to get the bey and myself to safety.

Freud (1900) argued that unconscious conflicts, fears and wishes are translated into the manifest content of dreams through the process of dream-work. Freud (1901b) further wrote that “The task of dream interpretation is ... to unravel what the dream-work has woven” (p. 686). Dreams have their peculiar qualities as a result of this dreamwork, which disguises latent meaning in the manifest aspects of the dream. Some of the processes that are utilised in dreamwork are condensation, displacement and symbolism.

Condensation involves the combination of different ideas, people or places into one compressed image or element. For example, more than one person can be compressed into a single character of a dream, leading the person to describe a character in the dream as more than one individual. In Martina’s dream, someone represented both her recent girlfriend Wendy (it looked like her) and someone older (her mother, perhaps?). In the earlier example of a slip, we saw how several different and conflicting ideas could be encapsulated in the neologism of “atomic family”.

Displacement is the process whereby a real conflict is displaced onto something else (see the reference to displacement as a defence mechanism in Chapter 6). For example, in Martina’s dream the inclusion of a zombie game in the dream may reflect her experience growing up with depressed, intoxicated parents.

Symbolism is the process where aspects of the dream stand for or symbolise something else. Akhtar (2009a) expands this: “‘symbolism’ stands for representing a body part (e.g. a penis), activity (e.g. eating), feeling (e.g. hate) or idea (e.g. patriotism) by a concrete object” (p. 279). Further examples include underwater as a symbol for the unconscious, or a snake as a symbol of the penis and possible sexual danger. In Martina’s dream, the person wearing the white coat may symbolise the therapist (the doctor). While the symbol is conscious and/or concrete, what it stands for is often unconscious and/or abstract. However tempting it may be, we cannot resort to a dream dictionary to decode our patients’ dreams. Each symbol will be used by a patient in a particular way. Notwithstanding this, Laplanche and Pontalis (1973) remind us that “an individual may choose among the senses of a symbol but he cannot create new ones” (p. 444).

In interpreting dreams, we are interested in its latent communication along with the patient’s associations to the dream. In Martina’s dream, the manifest content is that of a video game and danger. This may have some relevance to external reality. Indeed, Martina did spend a lot of her free time playing video games. We may also think that she was experiencing some current anxiety (danger) in her life. However, the meaningful unconscious communication lies in the dream’s latent content. We can consider the zombies as a reference to Martina’s experience growing up with zombie-like parents (when depressed or drunk). The young child in the dream may represent Martina’s child self (disguised as a boy) who needs rescuing. Martina made an association to another dream of hers, which she then remembered:

/ also had a second dream where Wendy and I were both silling on a couch. We were gelling intimate, but then I could see in her yes that she was thinking of someone else, and so I pushed her away.

Given the timing of the dream and their sequence in the session, one possible interpretation would be that the dream is expressing Martina’s intense anxiety about starting therapy and whether the therapist is someone she can trust. Here, the manifest content of the dream can be interpreted in association with the psychotherapeutic material that came before it. As Meltzer (1983) states, a dream may give the analyst “the means for discerning how the work of the previous session has been ‘digested’” (p. 134). The dream itself is a free association, as it arrived two sessions following the first meeting. There is a symbolic reference to the therapist (the person with the white doctor’s coat) that is suggested in the second dream by the presence of a couch along with themes of anxiety about intimacy and trust.

Thus, dreams can be understood to contain unconscious expressions of past infantile experience, and/or the external, here-and-now context in which the dream occurred (why was this dream dreamed now?). Freud (1923b) observed different ways in which the task of dream interpretation could be undertaken:

  • 1 the therapist can ask the patient for association to all elements of the dream as they occurred in the dream. These may include associations to memories from the past, for example, or to particular words or people;
  • 2 the therapist can ask the patient to associate to a particular element of the dream (e.g. a particularly striking part);
  • 3 the therapist can ask the patient what recent events come to mind in association with the dream;

4 the therapist can leave the patient to make their own associations, without the therapist’s instruction. In this way, we can consider the preceding and ensuing material as the patient’s implicit associations to the dream.

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