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Are Our Dreams an Indication of our Unconscious Conflicts and Desires?

Abstract

Humans have always taken particular interest in dreams throughout the history, attaching a range of meanings to them: spiritual, religious, ritual and prognostic ones. When society moved from spirituality to science, dreams came to be studied from the perspective of brain work and the element of the supernatural was eliminated. In fact, both approaches are one-fold as they ignore either the rational or the irrational aspects of dreams. So, introduction of psychoanalysis theory by Freud and then the studies of Jung of dreams were a real breakthrough in the theory because of their holistic approach. These scholars and their followers were brave enough to make their assumptions based on both the cultural heritage and achievements of contemporary science, which had the risk of being accused of profanity by science. The theory of the subconscious and other layers of the psyche played an important role in redefining the scope of dream content and meaning. Freud based his theory on the triangle of id, ego, and superego, of which the first one is activated because control is eliminated. Archetypes and the concept of the collective unconscious developed by Jung was a milestone in revolution that took place in psychology. The major difference between his and Freud’s theory in terms of dreams was the idea that dreams had to do more with spirituality and uncovering the hidden parts of personality, rather than with instincts and repressed sexuality. The Perceptanalytic Dream System is an alternative theory that does not draw a borderline between the conscious and the unconscious and considers dreams to be direct reflection of real-life conflicts between different roles of a person. Despite these differences that several related theories have on the nature of dreams, they most generally accept that dreams are by-product of unrealized desires or fears, which are lived through during sleep as a compensation of their repression in real life. Researchers, who based their works on the main dreams theories, attempt to have insight into which was already described by the masters by exploring each of dream theory aspects in more details.

Literature Review

A group of researchers, who contributed to the book Basic Psychoanalytic Concepts on the Theory of Dreams, aimed at exposing the major concepts of Freud’s theory of dreams by analyzing each of its concepts separately and by applying empirical methods in doing so. The method used by the group consisted in assigning one theoretical concept to each of its members in order he or she could make sufficient effort to explore this concept and expose it to the reader in combination with some empirical data.

When speaking about dreams, the authors use the definition of a dream being “the (disguised) fulfillment of a (repressed) wish" (Nagera et al., 1990, p. 15). This definition is in fact the shortest explanation of Freud’s vision, which was used by his followers in post-Freudian theories. There are three major components of a dream in this context, which are dream-work, the latent (hidden but implied) content of a dream and the manifest dream, which is its visible form that it takes in order to organize the content of the subconscious in a more or less ordered way. This is necessary because the content is already too unusual and might be forbidden, so it is repressed by superego when a person is awake, and can be repressed even in a dream unless it is organized in a more or less conventional way so that the mind could comprehend it.

So, while human desires cannot be fulfilled in real life and so ousted into the subconscious, it is a role of a dream to fulfill them if not literally then symbolically. In this respect, dreams are a defense mechanism for human psyche that prevents a person from breaking down because of accumulation of thousands of desires and unresolved conflicts. Dreams are like a mill that grinds solid heterogeneous objects into homogeneous mass that can be integrated into the subconscious or even into the conscious part of the psyche.

It is peculiar that Freud believed that dreams are patterns of pathological states - "idées fixes, obsessions and delusions" (Nagera et al., 1990, p. 16), which however are normal for a healthy person while he or she is asleep. In other words, dreams are manifestation of a certain mental disorder that is necessary to be lived through, while sleeping in order to stay sound when awake. When for some physiological or psychological reason dreams fail to perform this function on their own, there is a risk of a person fall into a pathological state while awake and try to resolve such conflicts and fulfill desires in real life, which can additionally cause socialization issues.

Overall, Basic Psychoanalytic Concepts on the Theory of Dreams is a research that focuses on the following functions of dreams: “dreams are a product of the mind” and “dreams are a form of thinking” (Nagera et al., 1990, p. 17). As a paradox, Freud and his disciples point out that dreams do not interfere with sleep, but on the contrary their role is to secure the sleep and stimulate a person to want to sleep. This happens because a person either consciously or unconsciously wishes to transfer himself/herself to the dream state as to be able to satisfy the needs and desires that are impossible to be met in real life. So, from this perspective, sleep is more than a physiological function of an organism, as it is induced psychologically to a large extent and secure mental balance and health.

However, there are other scientific visions of how dreams work and how they can be interpreted. The work Dreams: A Key to Self-Knowledge by Zygmunt A. Piotrowski and Albert M. Biele suggests a theory  named The Perceptanalytic Dream System (PDS), which is alternative to Freudian theory of dream. The major idea of this theory is formulated in the following way: “(a) sleep dreams be evaluated as if they were events observed consciously in overt, empirical reality; (b)  sleep dreams offer descriptions of dreamers' intrapsychic conflicts (somewhat different at different times) pertaining to the roles dreamers play in interpersonal relationships that matter at the time” (Piotrowski & Biele, 1986, p. 3). So, while Freudian approaches focus mostly on desires that are compensated while dreaming, PDS deals with the conflicts. Yet, both theories agree on the compensatory function of sleep dreams, although they have different points of view on what role is played by the unconscious. From the above postulated of the theory it is obvious that it is less inclined to consider dreams as a product of the subconscious but rather a reflection of real interpersonal communication. The theorists claim that a person has a whole range of roles and functions when awake, as well as a whole range of emotional states, which can be conflicting. In fact, conflict between them is inevitable though not always conscious, so dreams are a mechanism to reveal this clash and work as reconciliation technique to integrate a personality. 

The followers of the theory believe that each individual dream is unique rather than following a pattern or an archetype as Jung and Freud claim. Instead, they think that the specific trait of each dream is rooted in the individuality of a person, who is a unique combination of features, values, reactions and expectations. Nightmares are considered by The Perceptanalytic Dream System to be a reflection of the conflicts that cannot be resolved, while a person is awake. In contrast, for less dramatic conflicts, dreams can be enough to find a solution, which is not necessarily rational. Yet, PDS proponents suggest that the logical, rational part is a crucial element of each dream, which, to a certain extent, works in alignment with Freud’s idea of “the manifest dream” component. Another peculiarity of the theory is no attempt to differentiate between the conscious and the unconscious: "The conscious-unconscious dimension is avoided in the PDS for purely methodological reasons, specifically because of the impossibility of obtaining reliable and valid measures of the degrees to which conscious and unconscious determine action tendencies and overt actions" (Piotrowski & Biele, 1986, p. 6)

Jungian psychology is apparently an essential contribution to overall psyche theories, including the mechanism and interpretation of dreams. The book Jung and the Making of Modern Psychology: The Dream of a Science by Sonu Shamdasani considers the major concepts that Jung introduced and that were further developed by his adherents. Overall, Jung’s theory is based on opposition of polarities like body-soul, persona-shadow, individual-universal, and so on. The interrelation of these polarities and the tension created between them create conflicts that can be further translated into dreams. However, there is a significant difference between Jungian and Freudian approach to dreams, which was actually the reason of breakup of long-term friendship and cooperation between the two scientists. In fact, Jung did not agree with Freud’s idea of all dreams being linked to a darker, unconscious and sexual side, while he treated them as being a link of spiritual mechanism between the individual and the collective. Jung introduced and explored the term “collective unconscious”, which, as he believed, was a resource for culture and dreams. Myths, dreams, fairytales, rituals, beliefs all make up this pool to which any person can switch, while dreaming or in the process of creative work. So, this explains facts when the same idea occurs to several people on the planet almost simultaneously, and the same mechanism is suggested for explanation of similarity between dreams of different people. Jung believes that there are archetypes that are common for all, and so they can be met as symbols, while dreaming.

Besides, Jung believed that dreams are more than a simple compensation of desires and conflicts; in his opinion they are manifestation and integration of different parts that each personality has.  Like Freud, he distinguishes ego, which is a personality’s conscious center. Among other elements of a personality, persona and shadow are mentioned, which occur in dreams too. In fact, persona is somewhat similar to Freud’s superego, yet it is more than a function of censorship, it is a sub-personality of full value, which is a kind of socially accepted mask or a sum total of “good” features that should be appreciated in society. In contrast, shadow is a repressed part of darker or controversial traits that are manifested stronger when a person dreams. Other parts are anima and animus, which are female and male parts of personality respectively. All these parts can be symbolically revealed when a person has a dream, so Jung believed that his task was to collect the most typical correlations between the symbol and the content. Most surprisingly, he discovered that these symbols or archetypes are common for all cultures irrespective of a person’s origin or location. So, he concluded that they are inborn and dreams are just a mechanism of accessing them.

Overall, it is a well-known fact that Jung was familiar with Freud’s ideas on dreams, namely with his main work “Interpretation of Dreams”. Yet, he did not seem to be content by the bias of Freud because his research demonstrated that Freud’s conclusions were not always valid: "dreams were not always wish fulfillments, they were frequently undisguised, the content of dreams was related to the state of consciousness, and if dreams presented wish fulfillments, these were by no means always infantile" (Shamdasani, 2003, p. 133). At the same time, he shared Freud’s vision of dreams as analogy of pathological states and even insanity. His theory of complexes also contributed to deeper understanding of how dreams work and what are the sources of conflicts that can arise while dreaming. In fact, complexes can be manifested as symbols, and the role of a therapist is to see and interpret them.

The book Jung and the Post-Jungians by Andrew Samuels adds a different dimension to the issue as it covers the correlation between Freudian and Jungian ideas on dreams, as well as the path of Jung’s theory development by his followers. The authors give an insight into the difference between these two points of view, which appear to be quite significant. One of the crucial discordances mentioned is the difference between symbols used by Jung and signs used by Freud respectively, which was the reason why Jung eventually abandoned the Freud’s theory:

“For Jung, Freud did not work with symbols but rather signs which do not, as symbols do, point the way ahead or express a complicated situation in a unique way, but rather refer to something already known (penis, father, mother). A sign is therefore 'always less than the concept it represents, while a symbol always stands for more than its obvious and immediate meaning' (Jung, 1964, p. 41). (Samuels, 1986, p. 230)”. Further on, while both Freud and Jung agree on compensatory functions of dreams, Freud focuses on reduction, while Jung on synthesis in the first place. Thus, Jung saw much more significant transformative and integrative potential in dreams, which is revealed in his theory.

In conclusion, it should be noted that the major theories agree on close connection between a person’s conscious and unconscious parts, which are manifested in dreams. However, each of the theories has its own unique vision too and disagrees on some key concepts. So, Freud sees dreams as realization of suppressed wished in a symbolic form, though unlike Jung he deals mostly with settled signs than with broad meanings. His idea of “id” that is released from “superego” influence during dream process makes up the basis of his theory. In his turn, Jung is more interested in dreams’ symbolic aspects and their connection to archetypes and the collective subconscious. In fact, he believes that there are resources to which a person can switch that are inborn and shared by all people, which explains the similarity of dreams. His vision of dreams is more spiritual, and he believes dreams to have both compensatory and integrative function. Finally, The Perceptanalytic Dream System states that not wishes but conflicts are the key aspect manifested in a dream, and these conflicts cannot be confined to particular signs or symbols. This theory does not differentiate between the subconscious and conscious because it believes that it cannot help in terms of methodology. It rather treats a person as a sum total of different personal and social roles, the clash of which is actually the major reason for conflicts manifested when dreaming.