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Analysis of Dreams and Free Association

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Dream analysis, in psychoanalysis, opens the road towards unconscious.  Another road to the unconscious is through the counseling approach of free association.  Sigmund Freud pioneered both methods of psychoanalysis.  Dream interpretation is the process of assigning meaning to dreams.  According to Freud, dreams disguised certain issues in waking life, most importantly wish fulfillment.  In free-association, patients are asked to continually relate anything which comes into their minds, regardless of how superficially unimportant or potentially embarrassing the memory threatens to be. This paper will attempt to explain dream interpretation, with the interpretation of an actual dream and discuss and demonstrate the application of a counseling approach, in this case free association, and the personal and technical challenges associated with the application of that approach.

Sigmund Freud famously wrote, ‚ÄúThe interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious‚ÄĚ (1911).¬† It was in his book, The Interpretation of Dreams, that Freud first argued that the foundation of all dream content is wish-fulfillment, and that the instigation of a dream is always found in the events of the day preceding the dream. In the case of very young children, Freud claimed, this can be easily seen, as small children dream quite straightforwardly of the accomplishment of wishes that were brought up in them the previous day (1911).¬† In adults, however, the situation is more complicated, as Freud believed the dreams of adults are subjected to distortion.¬† Therefore the dream has a ‚Äúmanifest content,‚ÄĚ which is a heavily disguised derivative of the ‚Äúlatent‚ÄĚ dream-thoughts present in the unconscious. As a result of this distortion and disguise, the dream‚Äôs real significance is concealed.

The dreamer is no more capable of recognizing the actual meaning of their dream than the hysteric is able to understand the connection and significance of their neurotic symptoms (1911).¬† In Freud’s original formulation of his ‚Äúlatent dream-thought‚ÄĚ theory, he described it as having been subject to an intra-psychic force referred to as ‚Äúthe censor‚ÄĚ.¬† He later refined this theory in the more refined terminology of his later years, now referring to super-ego and ‚Äúthe work of the ego’s forces of defence‚ÄĚ (Hall 1953). ¬†In waking life, he asserted, these so-called ‚Äúresistances‚ÄĚ prevented the repressed wishes of the unconscious from entering consciousness.¬† However, it was these wishes that were to some extent were able to emerge during the lowered state of sleep, the resistances were still strong enough to produce ‚Äúa veil of disguise‚ÄĚ sufficient to hide their true nature. ¬†Freud’s view was that dreams are compromises which ensure that sleep is not interrupted, as ‚Äúa disguised fulfillment of repressed wishes‚ÄĚ, they succeed in representing wishes as fulfilled which might otherwise disturb and waken the dreamer (Hall 1953).

Freud described the actual technique of psychoanalytic dream-analysis in the following terms: ‚ÄúYou entirely disregard the apparent connections between the elements in the manifest dream and collect the ideas that occur to you in connection with each separate element of the dream by free association according to the psychoanalytic rule of procedure. From this material you arrive at the latent dream-thoughts, just as you arrived at the patient’s hidden complexes from his associations to his symptoms and memories…The true meaning of the dream, which has now replaced the manifest content, is always clearly intelligible‚ÄĚ (1909).¬† He went on to list the distorting operations that he claimed were applied to repressed wishes in forming the dream as recollected.¬† It is because of these distortions that the manifest content of the dream differs so greatly from the latent dream thought reached through analysis and it is by reversing these distortions that the latent content is approached (1911).

The operations include: Condensation wherein one dream object stands for several associations and ideas, as Freud explained, ‚ÄúDreams are brief, meagre and laconic in comparison with the range and wealth of the dream-thoughts‚ÄĚ; Displacement wherein a dream object’s emotional significance is separated from its real object or content and attached to an entirely different one that does not raise the censor‚Äôs suspicions; Representation wherein a thought is translated to visual images; and Symbolism wherein a symbol replaces an action, person, or idea (1911). ¬†In addition to these there is a ‚Äúsecondary elaboration‚ÄĚ or the outcome of the dreamer’s natural tendency to make some sort of ‚Äúsense‚ÄĚ or ‚Äústory‚ÄĚ out of the various elements of the manifest content as recollected (1911).¬† Freud considered that the experience of anxiety dreams and nightmares was the result of failures in the dream-work.¬† Rather than contradicting his ‚Äúwish-fulfillment‚ÄĚ theory, such phenomena demonstrated how the ego reacted to the awareness of repressed wishes that were too powerful and insufficiently disguised (Hall 1953).

To better demonstrate dream illustrate dream interpretation, the following is an example of a dream and an attempt to analyze it.¬† The dream is as follows: ‚ÄúI am with a group of men and women – 3 or 4 of each, all middle-aged or older – and we’ve just come from some seminar or something, it’s late, and we’re visiting at the house that one of the women – her name is Louise or maybe Betty – lives in, a very nice, small, comfortable house, she’s been here for many years, I think she’s a widow. We’re all very friendly, we’re having a good time together. Except for Rita – she’s unhappy [for some reason I’ve forgotten – might have an element of jealousy] with Louise/Betty and decides she’d better leave.

I walk with her through the kitchen to the front door, feeling awkward, wishing I could help. She walks on out to her car – I think one or more of the men came with us, and I let them go on ahead back to the living room. I hang back in the hallway – it’s rather cluttered, more like a back hallway than a front hallway, but it does lead to the street. Near the door to the kitchen, I notice a folded note on the floor, and I pick it up. Rita must have dropped it. I open it and glance at it; it seems to be for Louise/Betty – I wonder if it’s about their problem. I think maybe I ought to give it to Louise/Betty, but then Rita hadn’t done it herself, maybe that would be wrong. I go back through the kitchen and decide I’d better get rid of it. I wad it up in my hand as unobtrusively as I can – I could be seen from the living room if anyone was looking this way – and casually toss it in the trash can that’s in an open pantry or alcove right before the door, just as I go on through‚ÄĚ (Dream Bank)

The dream displays all methods including condensation, displacement, representation and symbolism. The main characters are Rita and Louise/Betty and the dreamer.  These characters could be representative of displacement.  There are many instances of condensation and symbolism.  One major symbol is the front door.  The dreamer sees Rita leave through the door and eventually goes through the very same door him or her herself.  To see others go through a doorway denotes unsuccessful attempts to get your affairs into a decent condition.  To dream of entering a door oneself, denotes slander, and enemies from whom you are trying in vain to escape (Dreams Dictionary).  It is obvious that the dreamer is having problems in his own life and is trying to escape them, yet is unsuccessful.  Another symbol is the conflict between Rite and Louise/Betty.  Dreaming about jealousy often means that one has many unpleasant worries in the discharge of every-day life (Dreams Dictionary).  Perhaps it represents some kind of conflict in the dreamer’s own life that he cannot help because of the outside parties that are involved.  The note that the dreamer picks up and sees is another symbol.  The dreamer’s first thought is that he or she should give it to Louise/Betty, but reconsiders and instead, hides the note and throw it away.  This could be representative of something in the dreamer’s own life, perhaps in regard to the conflict represented by the conflict of Louise/Betty, that he is trying to hide and dispose of quietly.

If free association was applied as a counseling approach to this particular dreamer, it would be an extremely effective approach, yet would also entail personal and technical challenges.¬† In free-association, patients are asked to continually relate anything which comes into their minds, regardless of how superficially unimportant or potentially embarrassing the memory threatens to be. Freud asked patients to relate anything which came into their mind, regardless of how apparently unimportant or potentially embarrassing the memory threatened to be. ¬†This technique assumed that all memories are arranged in a single associative network, and that sooner or later the subject would stumble across the crucial memory. Unfortunately, Freud found that despite a subject’s every effort to remember, a certain resistance kept him from the most painful and important memories. He eventually came to understand that certain items were completely repressed, and off-limits to the conscious realm of the mind.¬† Freud’s eventual practice of psychoanalysis focused not so much on the recall of these memories as on the internal mental conflicts which kept them buried deep within the mind (Stevenson 1996).

When applying this theory, Freud instructed his patients, ‚ÄėYour talk with me must differ in one respect from ordinary conversation. Whereas usually you rightly try to keep the threads of your story together‚Ķ here you must proceed differently‚Ķ You will be tempted to say to yourself: ‚ÄėThis or that has no connection here, or it is quite unimportant, or it is nonsensical, so it cannot be necessary to mention it.‚Äô Never give in to these objections‚Ķ say whatever goes through your mind. Act as if you were sitting at the window of a railway train and describing‚Ķ the changing views you see outside‚ÄĚ (1913).¬† What is the result of this involuntary talk? Later analysis of thoughts produced by means of the above-mentioned method reveals certain repetitive topics indicative of psychic complexes of emotional charge. These complexes are unconscious. They are autonomously activated by chance verbal associations, and influence conscious psychic life in a frequently dramatic manner. The task of psychoanalysis is to bring such complexes to the surface of conscious mind, and integrate them into the patient‚Äôs life (Stevenson 1996).

In this particular case, one would want to get to the bottom of the conflict represented by the conflict between Louise/Betty in the dream.¬† It is obviously this conflict that is bothering the patient subconsciously.¬† However, certain problems arise with this application.¬† The dreamer is instructed not to hide anything ‚Äď to say everything that is on his or her mind.¬† Assuming the dreamer does just that, and is conscientious and honest, and says whatever comes to his or her mind, what guarantee is there that the things that do come to his or her mind have any meaning in the sense of the dissociated personality?¬† In other words, that in speaking without restriction, he or she is saying things which are relevant to his or her underlying problem?¬† In many instances, free association deteriorates into meaningless chatter, into free talk, into uncontrolled complaining, and sterile thinking (Fromm 1955).¬† All that passes for free association because the formal rule was applied, i.e., not to omit anything on one‚Äôs mind.

¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† So, what can the analyst do to avoid the deterioration of free association as in the above instance? First of ¬†all, the analyst must convince himself that it is not enough to explain to the patient the basic rule of analysis, not even to begin each session by using the ritualistic formula and saying to the patient, ‚ÄúTell me what comes to mind‚ÄĚ (Fromm 1955).¬† Rather than doing this, it is helpful to stimulate free association at various times during the session by asking the patient in a definite way, i.e. ‚ÄúTell me what is in your mind right now‚ÄĚ.¬† The difference sounds small, yet it is considerable. What matters is the now, the urgency of the request (Fromm 1955). When he or she has said what is in his or her mind, one can go on requesting further association with the ideas expressed. ¬†There are other active methods to stimulate free association. Focusing the patient‚Äôs attention on a certain stimulus is another method.¬† In this instance, the analyst might focus the patient‚Äôs attention on the dream, or specifically on the conflict between Rita and Louise/Betty.

Another question which is related to free association is that there is not only the problem of free association for the patient, but there is also the problem of free association for the analyst. Should the analyst free associate too? In order to understand a patient, it is important for the analyst to make the fullest use of their own imagination. Unless the analyst can mobilize in themselves the very same irrational fantasy which exists in their patients, they certainly cannot understand them (Fromm 1955).  Unless a complete understanding of the patient is reached, then communication is a fraud and nothing goes on between two persons except words and chatter.

To understand means to respond, to answer and to be in touch with the patient. ¬†To interpret means to react with one‚Äôs own imagination and free associations to what the patient is saying. It does not mean to apply the patient‚Äôs associations to the theory. The analyst‚Äôs function is to a large extent not thinking, but free associating, and often helping the patient in his free associations by presenting him with the analyst‚Äôs own. ¬†All this means that the analyst is, as ‚Äúparticipant ob-server, not a blank mirror‚ÄĚ (Fromm 1955).¬† The process of analysis may well be described as two people communicating. The one says whatever goes through his mind. The other listens, and says what associations the patient is saying has produced in himself.¬† The patient then reacts with new associations to the analysis‚Äôs, who in turn reacts again, and so on until some clarification and change is reached (Fromm 1955).

To sum it up, the analytical relationship when using the approach of free association is a unique reality of communication based on spontaneity and stimulation.¬† In the case of this particular dreamer, it would be to focus the patient‚Äôs attention on the details of his or her dream ‚Äď the doorway, the note, the awkward tension in the air ‚Äď and to draw upon those observances. Free¬†association is one of the most important tools, but it must be cultivated, furthered and stimulated, and prevented from deteriorating into a sterile practice which will produce little or no results.


Dream Bank, http://www.dreambank.net/random_sample.cgi.

Dreams Dictionary, http://www.dreams-dictionary.org

Freud, Sigmund, 1909. Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, edited by Peter Gay and James

Strachey. New York: W & W Norton Company.

Freud, Sigmund, 1911, The Interpretation of Dreams (3rd edition), http://www.psywww.com/


Freud, Sigmund. (1913). Further Recommendations in the Technique of Psychoanalysis (On     Beginning the Treatment) in Freud; Therapy and Technique. New York: Macmillan

Publishing Co., Inc.

Fromm, Eric (1955). Remarks on the Problem of Free Association. Psychiatric Research Reports

2, http://www.erich-fromm.de/data/pdf/1955d-e.pdf.

Hall, C. S., 1953. A cognitive theory of dreams. The Journal of General Psychology, 49, 273-

282, http://psych.ucsc.edu/dreams/Library/hall_1953b.html.

Stevenson, David B., 1996. Free Association and Freud. Brown University, http://www.victorian


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