There is a plethora of books about dream interpretation offering many different, and often contradictory, approaches to the subject. With so many different ideas about what dreams mean, it is difficult to know which approach is more likely to be successful.
A few principles increase the probability that a dream interpretation approach will be valid. First, the more dream content recalled, the better the op portunity to understand its meaning. Most people remember only bits and pieces of their dreams, and serious efforts to interpret dreams require serious efforts by people to remember their dreams. Second, the more a theme recurs in a series of dreams, the greater the likelihood that the theme is significant. Dream repetition also helps in interpretation: Content from one dream may be a clue to the meaning of other dreams. Finally, the focus of dream interpretation should be the dreamer, not the dream. In order to understand the dream, one must spend time and effort in knowing the dreamer.
There are many scholarly approaches to dream interpretation. Three theories are particularly noteworthy due to their influence on the thinking of other scholars and their utility for clinical application. Each perspective emphasizes a different side of the meaning of dreams.
Sigmund Freud proposed that dreams are complementary to waking life. His basic thesis was that many wishes, thoughts, and feelings are censored in waking consciousness due to their unsuitability for public expression and are subsequently pushed down into the unconscious. This unconscious material bypasses censorship in dreaming by a process in which the hidden, "true" meaning of the dream—the latent content—is presented in a disguised form—the manifest content. The manifest content is the actual content of the dream that is recalled. To interpret a dream requires working through the symbolism and various disguises of the manifest content in order to get to the true meaning of the dream residing in the latent content. For example, Jane's manifest content is a dream in which she blows out candles that surround a gray-headed man. The candles might symbolize knowledge, and the gray-headed man may represent her father. The latent content is that Jane resents her father's frequent and interfering advice. Thus, blowing out the candles represents Jane's desire to put an end to her father's meddling.
Carl Jung proposed that dreams could be understood at different levels of analysis and that the essential purpose of dreams was compensatory. By compensatory, Jung meant that dreams balance the mind by compensating for what is lacking in the way a person is living life. For example, the timid Christian who is afraid to speak up for his or her beliefs with atheistic colleagues dreams of being a bold and eloquent evangelist. Jung believed that four levels of analysis could be used to help dreamers gain insight into their dreams. His general rule guiding the use of these levels is that recourse to analysis at deeper levels of consciousness is only warranted if the dream cannot be adequately understood from a more surface level of examination. To illustrate, a man has a dream in which he steps into a pile of manure. At the conscious level of analysis, it may be that he is dreaming about a recent experience—no need to posit symbolic interpretations. Looking into his personal unconscious, an image from his childhood may be evoked. Recourse to the cultural level of consciousness would examine what manure symbolizes in his culture. It could be a good sign for a farmer in an agrarian world but a bad sign for a politician in an industrialized society. In some cases, it may be necessary to look at the dream from the perspective of the collective uncon scious. Manure might be an ancient, universal image that symbolizes fertility. Could the man be questioning whether or not he wants to be a father?
Zygmunt Piotrowski developed a theory of dream interpretation based on projective techniques. For Piotrowski, in a dream about another person, that person may actually represent a facet of the dreamer's own mind. The more the dream figure is like the dreamer and the closer the proximity between the figure and the dreamer in the dream, the greater the likelihood the dreamer is projecting him- or herself (seeing in others what is really in the self) into that dream figure. For instance, a woman may dream she is walking with her closest friend but that friend is ignoring everything she is saying to her. An interpretation according to Piotrowski's system could be that the dreamer is actually dealing with the fact that she is not a good listener.
Dreams may be complementary, compensatory, or projective, useless fictions, avenues of insight, or products of the brain. Many credible answers have been proposed, but it is hard to believe that there is a single explanation for every instance of dreaming. Perhaps the best answer is that dreams reveal many different things about many different dreamers—biologically, psychologically, socially, and spiritually.
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