We went a bit through the history of dream interpretation in our article “A bit of history of dream interpretation.” Still, around the 20th century, many interesting theories about dream interpretation came out. Psychologists from Europe and the occidental world, in general, tried to understand the meaning behind dreams and how to use them in therapy. These theories are still used today, mostly in psychoanalysis, and other therapy approaches. Here we’ll try to explain the basics of the main theories and how they’re used in therapy.
The most famous is probably the one from Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. According to Freud, dreams are an expression of the unconscious mind, therefore of our deep wishes. These wishes —that Freud called “latent content” of the dream— are too forbidden and are thus disguised by the “manifest content,” aka what we actually dream of. Basically, if you dream of X, it means Y.
In his book “The interpretation of dreams,” he explains how the latent content is hidden through the four elements of what he calls the “dream work.” We’ll try to make them simple:
Freud used to ask his patients to tell the dream and then make free connections between elements so that the “latent content” would come out spontaneously and give an interpretation.
Carl Jung was Freud’s student, and they were even friends before Jung elaborated his own theory about dreams. Unlike Freud, Jung thought that dreams were more an expression of a person’s desire to balance their personality and serve as compensation between conscious and unconscious. So, to protect our personality, they would show the opposite of the attitudes of the waking life, for example, dream of humiliation like being naked in public when you have been a bit too confident lately.
Another critical element of Jung’s theory is the collective unconscious which, with the individual unconscious, would emerge in dreams and could help anticipate future issues in life. It would express through archetypes, symbolic images culturally shared like, for example, the symbol of death.
Jung’s method for interpreting dreams consisted of looking for amplifications on three levels in people’s dreams. First, he considered the personal context and life of the dreamer: feelings, thoughts, etc. Then their cultural background, age, and environment. And last, the archetypal contents were investigated to find the links between the person and myths, religion, and collective human unconscious in general. By exploring the content of dreams, he would seek their meaning.
A slightly different approach was proposed by Calvin Hall and some other cognitivist psychologists. In cognitive theories, dreams are a representation of the dreamer’s conceptions of elements of personal life: like themselves, other people, the world, the future, their problems, and impulses.
So dreaming is a cognitive process and is subject to the same cognitive distortions as waking life. An example of distortion would be to tend to always expect the worst in situations; in that case, you’ll dream about the worst-case scenario in your dream.
To interpret dreams, Hall developed a scientific method that looked to the figures in the dream, the actions and interactions of the characters, and the dream setting, transition, and outcome. This way he aimed to understand the dreamer, more than the dream. This way, he aimed to understand the dreamer more than the dream. Through these elements, it should be possible to have an accurate representation of the person’s view of the world and their personality and work on their cognitive distortions and maladaptive schemas in waking life.
Today’s approaches to dream interpretation in therapy come from these theories or their adaptations. Many therapists from different approaches use dreams with their patients. No matter the method or the approach, it has been demonstrated that if patients and therapists are interested in working with dreams, they achieve very good results on patients’ wellbeing and understanding of themselves.
Pesant, N., & Zadra, A. (2004). Working with dreams in therapy: What do we know and what should we do?. Clinical psychology review, 24(5), 489-512.