Freud’s Theory of Dreams: A Psychoanalytic Tool to Investigate Consciousness

It is commonly regarded that Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams is his magnum opus, as he himself believed it to be. The contents of its more than 600 pages compromises what would establish the framework of psychoanalysis in far reaching scope, for not only did Freud lay out a comprehensive and erudite elucidation of the nature of dreams and how they can be of crucial importance in revealing unconscious desires of the individual who has them, he also went about constructing a comprehensive model of the mind as well a methodology of how to understand not only what he called the unconscious, but consciousness as such. The Interpretation of Dreams concerns far more than dreams.

It was the professional intention to cure neurotic symptoms that led Freud to explore the unconscious and the nature of dreams, but in the process of working on The Interpretation of Dreams he had constructed a brilliant and complex theory of mind and everyday psychology. He found listening to the dreams of his patients a profound tool to investigate the meaning and source of a

valuable was the way the symptoms of psychoneuroses provided a window to look at the nature and sense of dreams as such. Following this train of thought would provide the impetus for a radical exposition that a dream can mimic the symptoms of the neurotic, and that dreams were in fact blueprints to understand the functioning of normal conscious processes. In recognizing that dreams where sense making activities of the mind that underwent certain mental processes in order to be produced, he inferred that they correlated with the psychic activity of waking consciousness, and could thus provide a sturdy basis of examining much broader issues of human psychology and the mechanisms that enable it.

Dreams allow you to see the same thing in a different language

In Freud’s earlier work, most prominently known by his 1895 Studies on Hysteria which he co-wrote with Joseph Breuer, he had been primarily concerned with the idea that neuroses and their manifestations where the result of early childhood traumas, predominantly of a sexual nature, that had been repressed and needed the work of the “talking cure” to uncover lost memories in order to relieve symptoms. However in 1896 he abandoned his “seduction theory”, and became preoccupied with finding a way to explain psychopathological phenomena via a neurophysiologic model of the mind. One year prior, the same year he had published his work on hysteria and simultaneously started distancing himself from Breuer, he sent an unfinished paper to his new confidant, Wilhelm Fliess, which would come to be known as the “Project for a Scientific Psychology”. In this audacious paper Freud hoped to work out how physiological processes of the brain correspond with psychological experience, especially how specific neuronal processes receive and regulate excitations of energy. His early work dedicated to psychopathology had, in essence, now given him the tools at his disposal to interrogate general psychology. However, his confidence in the theory of quantifying human psychology in this way quickly waned. Inferential deductions without empirical proof seemed futile, and so, although still devoted to finding material and scientific correlates to neurotic symptoms, he became more and more preoccupied with the investigation of non-localized, purely mental phenomena.

Around 1887, partially due to his continued correspondence with Fliess, Freud’s thought moved increasingly to the theory of mind. The ‘Project for a insufficient technology at the time. However scant in cohesive explanations of mental phenomena as the “project” had been, it would in fact be an establishing text whose preliminary and not fully worked out ideas would procure the majority of his future formulations concerning the psychological mechanisms and processes of the mind. In the course of the project, he had briefly outlined two foundational structures that govern consciousness and behavior in both the pathological and “normal” mind.

The ‘Project’ had postulated two operations that functioned as crucial foundations for the invention of psychoanalysis, the “constancy principle” and the “primary and secondary processes”. Throughout the corpus of Freud’s work, no two general concepts would be more important than the twin notions of the drive and the unconscious, and these were the seeds of these tremendous bodies of thought. The “constancy principle” has to do with the regulation of sexual drives, where pleasure derives from quiescence of an over abundance of ‘libido’, or energy that causes tension. The human organism attempts to regulate this balance. Freud’s formulations of this function is the basis on which the later formulations of the “pleasure principle” and the “reality principle” would derive, and would become instrumental in completing his “drive theory”.

Perhaps most importantly, the formulation of the primary processes and secondary processes threw light on the as of yet to be named mechanisms of the “id” and the “ego” and how their interaction formed the unconscious through mechanisms of repression and regulation. This would give Freud the working hypothesis onto which he could construct and substantiate his theories of dream formation. It is the inadequacies of the secondary process of Ego and its incapability to cope with the discharge or cathexis of libinal drives that make coping with everyday reality difficult. The reality principal of the secondary process is not always able to keep the drives of the pleasure principal of the primary process at bay, and neurotic symptoms, the parapraxes, jokes, and especially dreams, Freud found, were unconscious phenomena that exposed the primary process thoughts in the midst of the secondary process thoughts of everyday life.

Dreams were especially well suited to understanding the coping mechanisms between the innate instinctual urges of the primary process and of

the secondary processes which attempt to hold sway over them precisely because the secondary process, the one we contend with most directly in waking life, is thoroughly out of commission during sleep. Freud’s famous dictum that “The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind” would forever be a guiding principal that he adhered to.

Freud’s most generalized and pervasive idea about dreams is that they are the disguised fulfillments of wishes, especially wishes that arise from the primary process but have been suppressed by the secondary process. That is, they are unfulfilled primary process wishes that stem from inner drives and are disguised via repression. Freud found that in listening to the dreams of his patients, and especially his own dreams, that it was clear that desires which would never be appropriate to think of, or indeed act upon during the day, were made expressly clear in the recitation of a dream. But dreams, as he was at pains to make clear the already obvious, are never coherent, and seem not to follow any logic we are accustomed to. That which presents itself in a dream, whether it be an image, a person or idea, is not necessarily the wish itself, even if it fulfills a wish by virtue of it appearing in the first place. To Freud however, this makes perfect sense, for if a wish was to appear exactly as it is perceived in the dream, then there would be no difference between dream thought and waking thought, or primary and secondary processes, if there were a one to one correlation. Anyone who has ever dreamt, and that is the whole of civilization, knows that dreams are at once both absurd, but also reflect pieces of what has once been experienced in ones waking life.

Besides wish fulfillment, the other most universal aspect of a dream is that it transforms a mere thought, or a collection of thoughts, into a hallucinated experience. Freud observed a dream of a man who saw his brother in a box, ‘Kasten’, and upon reciting the dream further associated the box as a cupboard ‘Schrank”. The dream content of “my brother was in a box” was transformed into the experience of the wish that his brother ‘ought to restrict himself’ fulfilled by the same object perceived in the dream. This is most clearly seen in dreams involving somatic needs imagined in dreams such as drinking water, for one may indeed be thirsty in one’s slumber. Or for that matter the nature of many dreams of children, such as the observation Freud made when his daughter Anna mumbled about “stwawbewwies”5 in her sleep after being deprived of them in the day preceding. Childhood and infantile dreams are often an ‘open to pass right through into the content of the dream, where the ‘repressed wish has shown itself stronger than the censorship’, they are ‘open fulfillment of a patient wakes from the terror that has not been sufficiently disguised. Still, usually, an unconscious wish, be it pleasurable or horrifying, is symbolized dramatically different in sleep and waking life.

The crucial point that effectively bridges the logical gap between that which is wished by the primary process, and that which is fulfilled by the dream is that, due to the wish being constitutive of the primary process, that of the innate and instinctual forces of the mind — the wish and its fulfillment are not two entities but in fact one during the dream, as is illustrated in the dream of the man’s brother in the box being equivalent to the desire for his brother to restrict himself. In a way, one can say the primary process, or the Id, is the stupid mental function, it makes no distinction between a desire and its satisfaction and does not understand that there is an inherent gap between wanting something and having it. For the primary process, the wish and it’s fulfillment are a uniform entity, they are glued together, and since during sleep there are no hurdles imposed by the logical, reality principal driven secondary process of the Ego, the imagined or hallucinatory fulfillment of the wish can take any form. The expression of the wish fulfillment in the dream is akin to the froth on the wave of the primary process wish, it goes along for the ride with nothing to say that its peculiar representation is incoherent or wrong, no matter how absurd its imagery may be to us upon waking. This is one reason why, upon returning to the logic of waking reality, not only are we often startled or amazed by our dreams, but also often repudiate them. ‘their fulfillment will give (the dreamer) no pleasure, but just the opposite; and experience shows that this opposite appears in the form of dreamer himself is not.

This raises the following queries; if our wish is disguised, how do we know it exists or is related to any wish in reality, and vice-versa, if we don’t have knowledge of the wish how is there anything to be disguised? Since it is not comprehensible to us in a normal conscious state, how is it of use to either the dreamer or the analyst? The discrepancies and incompatible nature of these premises understandably make objections raised both by the laymen and the psychology professional understandable, but, as is so admirable of Freud, he went through rigorous work to foresee objections, understand them, and if he saw his ideas accurate, defend against these objections with the most exhaustive of arguments. His painstaking work in overcoming this rugged theoretical terrain began by explicating how it was that primary process and secondary process thought came to coincide with each other and result in the dream. That is, in order to explain why truths about our innermost desires were expressed in dreams, he had to explain how the content of the dream came to be disguised in its particular fashion in the first place. In simpler terms, what is the content of the dream and how does it arise from us? This process of arising is what Freud calls “the dream work” for which he devotes the entire sixth chapter of The Interpretation of Dreams.

The “dream work” is the process by which dreams come to be manifested in the experience of the dream itself through mechanisms of repression that transform and reconstruct past experiences that make sense to us in waking life into distorted dream forms that lack coherent sense or meaning. He contended that all dreams went through a process of being disguised and that it is the dream work that is responsible for this. He termed the content that the dreamer experiences during the dream, or more aptly the content that the subject remembers and dictates during analysis, as the “manifest content” or “dream content” and deemed the conscious thoughts, past experiences and concepts from which the manifest content of the dream derived the “latent content” or “dream thoughts”. He associates these two defined and distinct forms of content with the primary and secondary processes, respectively. The manifest content of the dream is not only a wish fulfillment, but an entire context made up of an amalgamation of real life events, identifications and ‘day’s residue’9 that constitute the latent dream thoughts. A repressed wish comes into contact in the preceding day with an associative thought or experience, but has not been worked through by the secondary process and so is revived in sleep as proxy of the wish via the primary process. Dream work is needed for the wish to find transformed into manifest dream content of a radically different nature, then it should logically follow that there should be findings for how, and through what particular method these transformations take place.

Freud contended that, since manifest dream content appeared in an entirely different logic than the dream thoughts they derive from, that is was less akin to the transformation that is indicative of language translation, where one word or idea attempts to represent a similar meaning or connotation in a different language or form, but that the transformation that takes place during the dream work is in fact an entire rearranging of the sense, or logic that an idea is originally perceived as in the latent dream thought. He contended that the relationship between the dream content and it’s thought was more akin to the nature of a rebus, wherein components of a word or phrase must be totally rearranged in order to understand the logic, or sense of the rebus. Dream formation is similar to the process of solving a rebus.

Freud defined four principal mechanisms of dream formation, or dream work. He termed them condensation, displacement, representation (That which appears in the dream content for which we can only infer its representation and which Ella Sharpe prefers to emphasize the distinct categories of dramatization and symbolization)and secondary revision (Or secondary elaboration).

It is impossible to make a one to one analogy between manifest content and its latent counterpart, and epitomizes the anti-logic that prevails in primary process thinking and makes it so alien to how we consciously perceive that which arises in secondary processes.

Condensation does exactly what its name implies. It condenses many different images, concepts, people, objects, identifications, or any other conscious thoughts into a single element (or at least smaller set of elements) of dream content. In one particularly curious vignette of a patients dream, especially for its linguistic usage, Freud describes an analysis he conducted in French where the dreamer had perceived Freud himself as an Elephant. Upon inquiring

Because trompe means trunk in French, the dreamer had interpreted his latent thought that Freud was a swindler or intentionally deceiving him into an image that A. melded “trunk” to “deception” as components of the word trompez, resulting in the image of an elephant, and B. utilized the common theme of an elephant being a representative of reliance, confidence and trust, as in the phrase “elephants never forget”. An additional property of condensation is that it becomes evident when we consider how manifest content has quantitatively less content than the multitudes of latent content it pulls and derives itself from.

Displacement in some ways epitomizes the disguising mechanism of the dream work. It is the substitute of one thought or emotion for a radically different one, where for example, in Freud’s case of ‘Little Hans’, the small boy’s fear of horses was interpreted as him being afraid of his father, or more specifically, the looming castration of his father. He had displaced his father for the figure of a horse. The substitution of one idea or image is made possible by a chain of associations, as can be seen when the elephant in the aforementioned dream stands in for Freud via association both figurative and literal. In so far as one idea or person can be substituted for another, displacement is very much akin to the phenomenon of transference in the clinical setting, where for instance, the analyst could represent one’s father, to use but one example.

Representation is the transformation of thoughts, which are invariably of many different mediums (things, words, feelings) to ocular imagery. The word “medium” is used here to invoke Freud’s own observation of the parallels made between classical aesthetics contention between poetry and visual art and the uncooperative and difficult procedure the dream work must contend with in the creation of representations. The visual arts are inherently limited in the scope of their conveyance, or representation of ideas since they do not have all the nuanced capabilities of poetry or prose. In his Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis Freud declares ‘It is clear that this achievement is not an easy one. To form some idea of its difficulties, let us suppose that you have undertaken the task of replacing a political leading article in a newspaper by a series of illustrations. You will thus have been thrown back from alphabetic writing to picture writing.’13 Dream representations are inherently abstract and ‘watered-down’14 versions of concrete ideas, to use Freud’s words. The analogy to art is an especially cogent one, especially when considering the numerous times Freud points out that dreams are predominantly visual experiences.

In so far as dreams are to a large extent visual and hallucinatory, the two variations of representation that Freud regards as ubiquitous, namely symbolism and dramatization, can be clearly understood through the elaborations of Ella Sharpe with her perceptive visual analogies. It should be noted that these two distinct elements of representation do not have the extraordinarily difficult dream work process of representation in general as elucidated above, the reasons for which will be made clear.

Symbolism is the expression of an idea or concept in a distinct, predominantly pictorial form. Where an object comes to stand for something else in a disguised form, similar to instances of displacement. The difference
however, is that symbolism tends to concern basic, primal or even ancient elements of human existence, such as life, death and sexual reproduction and urges. This is why symbols in dreams tend to be stable, or fixed visual imagery that reappear in dreams. Crucially, Freud contends that similar symbols appear universally in various people, if not everyone. This is because Freud believes they are manifestations of invariant human origins. These images are part of our shared ancestry, and so thus not only have a fixed meaning for one dreamer, but also have the same meaning among all dreamers. To use classical examples, a phallus is conveyed as an umbrella in all instances of an umbrella in dreams, or a room can represent motherly love. The exceptional implications of this theory is that not only does symbolism arise from latent dream thoughts and experience as do the other dream mechanisms, but on the contrary, symbolism arises innately from the unconscious, primordial Id, and proceeds from these inherited ideas to all the derivative ideas that can be constitutive of dream life and indeed waking life. This is but one way to see clearly how unconscious dream elements influence conscious experience, for which will be expanded upon later. Ella Sharpe takes a more extreme view than Freud. ‘Symbolism occurs in one direction only, namely, from the unconscious mind’ . This is intuitively at odds with Freud’s claim, for how could something like an umbrella originate anywhere else but the conscious, secondary process experience, since although it may be a universal symbol, the umbrella is a relatively recent invention that cannot be considered in light of ancient ancestry. Due to its generalized acceptance by both the primary and secondary processes, the labor of symbolism dream work is a considerably straightforward operation.

Dramatization is the ‘representation in the manifest dream of an action or a situation which the dream mechanisms evolve from the latent thoughts. A film of moving pictures is projected on the screen of our private inner cinema’ and is ‘done predominantly by visual images’

representation as such, with its difficulties’ dictating the concrete, Sharpe’s analogy to a film is insightful because films have the capacity to transpose literal descriptions and narrative more effectively than a still picture or image.

Secondary revision is the process in which the content of dreams organize themselves to form an explicit and intact whole.

Having established how dream formation takes place, how does the knowledge of this process facilitate an understanding of its correlation with unconscious truths about why we behave the way we do? Furthermore, what does it say about the nature of waking consciousness? In order to make sense of this gargantuan problem of consciousness let us first reflect on how these understandings concerning dream work factor into clinical psychoanalytic practice.

Psychoanalysis is first and foremost an act of speech on behalf of the analysand. A dream has to be formulated before it can be interpreted and chains of association connect dreams to unconscious wishes and desires. A working knowledge of the mechanisms of condensation and displacement in dreams can allow us to clinically understand how the symptoms of the analysand have come to be via the workings between the primary and secondary process, but how?

By looking at the primary and secondary processes as a two way street we can understand how dreams are a reflection of the same structure of a symptom. The secondary processes of conscious life and the symptoms manifested during it are attempts to regulate the primary processes. Freud contends that condensation and displacement are mechanisms of distortion that govern the conditions of consciousness and the problems one encounters in it. In his ‘Five Lectures’ he states ‘The dream-work is a special case of the effects produced by two different mental groupings on each other — that is, of the consequences of mental splitting; and it seems identical in all essentials with the process of distortion which transforms the repressed complexes
into symptoms where there is unsuccessful repression.’17

Some thoughts only come to us in our dreams, which would never arise in waking life. This is the reason why analysts must privilege dreams. One cannot, after explaining a dream, ask, “what was I doing in the dream?” The dream WAS the doing. A dream is, in this way, a pure symptom. It is an indisputable repressed desire that has only been allowed to express itself in the dream. Dreams reveal a truth by their very nature. Because the reciting of a dream is a reciting of a disguised wish, they are important tools that allow for a specific reading of symptoms.

Additionally, dreams provide evidence for the premise that our disguised wishes in dreams derive from unresolved issues because they have a tendency to repeat themselves. They reveal that which has come to affect the analysand historically. Often people have dreams that have appeared since child hood, and so it is important for dreams to come out because they may reveal constructions that shed light on the individuals entire course of existence that the talk concerning present day issues would never allow to be revealed. The crucial point is that upon noticing dreams that repeat themselves the analyst can see similarities to an individual’s life history and the repetitions of their symptoms.

In Freud’s famous “Theatre Dream” a women patient had been distraught over her friend Elise’s late engagement to a great man. In the patients dream she was at the theatre with her husband who informed her that Elise and her husband did not go as they could only purchase three bad seats for the two of them. Elise was three months her junior. The number of tickets directly correlated to her fear that she herself had married too early. The central dream thoughts of time and the regret that she had lived her life too hastily are obfuscated in the dream by major displacement. A marriage regretted is the number three regretted in the dream. The dream revealed a truth and a wish that she could never reveal to herself in waking life, that she regretted marrying so early.

We have seen how dreams can allow for reflection upon aspects of ones life that could otherwise never be unearthed, but are still left with a question. Does unconscious content only shine light on consciousness at the time of manifesting, as in dreams and parapraxes, or do dreams and the unconscious go along for the continual ride of consciousness itself? If mechanisms of dream work turn latent thought into unconscious manifest content, does it follow suit that it works in reverse? Do condensation and displacement turn the unconscious conscious? The feasibility of Freud’s dream work theory must in some way derive its substantiation from a conception of the mind and human consciousness that is more general. Its theory must be scrutinized in reverse. In order to take the primary process at face value, we must look at it through the only way we consciously can, the secondary process.

When considering this in light of the distinctions between manifest and latent content, it is possible to see how there is a two-way road that traverses between manifest content and dream thoughts.

In the “project for a scientific psychology” Freud put forth that the mental apparatus of the secondary process must submit to the primary process as a rule, but that during conscious experience our mind attempts to inhibit the primary processes in favor of the illusion of control allowed us by the secondary process and a good cathexis of the Ego.

Dream thoughts and the conscious ideas they derive from are not synonymous with conscious perception in waking life. Dreams are a hallucination of a wish, but waking existence is also a hallucination that constricts all of our mental faculties from revealing themselves. What we perceive is not all that we get.

Consciousness ‘requires a criterion from elsewhere (the primary process) in order to distinguish between perception and idea.’

The information of the discharge from ω (conscious perception) is thus

the indication of quality or of reality for ψ (Ego, or consciousness as


If the wished-for object is abundantly cathected, so that it is activated in a hallucinatory manner, the same indication of follows too as in the case of external of reality discharge or perception.’

So, although what we perceive as our conception of experience in everyday life has the feeling of primacy during wakefulness, it is in fact only a condition that is a portion of our overall mental life, which establishes itself only in so far as it has managed to limit our primary processes to a suitable level of constraint. Jacques Lacan, speaking about the anachronistic relationship between the latent content of consciousness in correlation to its subjugations of unconscious thought for which it derives and is always inundated, states that ‘When we speak of the unconscious processes coming into consciousness, we are indeed obliged to place consciousness at the exit, whereas perception, with which it is in fact closely bound up, is to be found at the entrance.’

That is to say that, for an object perceived in reality to become conscious, it first has to undergo the process by which the primary function allows it to emerge in the secondary process. Here we can see that the same mechanisms of the dream work are also with us in waking life. This statement holds profound connotations to how we should further consider human consciousness.


Freud, S. ‘

Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume I, Ed. J. Strachey, Vintage, London, 2001.

Freud, S. The Interpretation of Dreams, (1900), Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. IV, Ed. J. Strachey, Vintage, London, 2001.

Freud, S. The Interpretation of Dreams, (1900), Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. V, Ed. J. Strachey, Vintage, London, 2001.

Freud, S. ‘Five Lectures on Psycho-analysis,’ (1910), Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. XI, Ed. J. Strachey, Vintage, London, 2001.

Freud, S. Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, (1915–1916), Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. XV, Ed. J. Strachey, Vintage, London, 2001.

Lacan, J. Book II. The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, (1954–55), Ed. J.-A. Miller, Trans. S. Tomaselli, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1988.

Sharpe, E. Dream Analysis, (1937), Hogarth Press Ltd, London, Reprinted Karnac, London, 1988.

Project for a Scientific Psychology,’ (1895), Standard Edition.

Lacanian psychoanalyst, in the artworld. I work with artists clinically, with life and practice, as one unconscious process.