There you sit, in a slightly worn leather armchair.
Beside you, a potted plant or two. A single window on the lefthand wall of the room shines a slanted square of sunlight onto the tan carpet beneath your feet. As you close your eyes, you inhale the crisp scent emanating from the sandalwood candle that’s burning atop the side table somewhere to your right.
“So tell me… what’s been overwhelming you?”
You can feel the eyes of the man with half-rimmed glasses and a pensive expression, leather notebook and fountain pen in hand sits across the room in an identical leather armchair, looking at you, as you sit there, eyes closed, breathing deeply. As you speak, he writes… and then silence. You can feel him analyzing every word you speak as it leaves your lips. You can sense him uncovering truths about yourself that you’ve never had the insight to know.
… and THAT is the image that many people have when they think of “therapy.”
Ask anyone without a great conceptualization of the field of psychology to name a single psychologist, and chances are, “Sigmund Freud” will be their answer. Sigmund Freud was an Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, a clinical method for treating certain psychopathology’s through dialogue between a clinician and a patient. This method of therapy relates to study of the unconscious mind – extremely simplified, the general ideas can be broken up as follows:
- A person’s development is determined by often forgotten events in early childhood
- Human behavior and cognition is largely determined by triggers buried in the unconscious mind
- Conflicts between the conscious and unconscious mind result in mental psychosis
- Unconscious material can be found in dreams and unintentional acts
- Liberation from the effects of the unconscious is achieved by bringing it to consciousness through therapeutic intervention and performing “transference” to dissolve the mental conflict
Interestingly, despite it’s existence, psychoanalysis is now just one of many forms of therapeutic practice today. The idea that easing tensions between your conscious and unconscious mind can somehow alleviate internal psychosis is waning as other neurological and therapeutic methods emerge. And yet, the idea that understanding dream content is somehow paramount to gaining insight into the mind is ever present.
Since their initial documentation, one interpretation of the purpose of dreams has been that they release suppressed or unconscious desires, thoughts, and actions. As such, dreams have been heavily used in psychotherapy; so much so that Sigmund Freud published an entire book tited The Interpretation of Dreams, which perpetuated psychoanalysts’ desires to use dream content as a way of “digging deeper” into the psyche of their patients.
Like many others, before starting my studies as a Psychology major, Freud was my idea of a “psychologist.” I’d learned about him as an individual full of kind of whacky, kind of out there ideas, but a respected scientist who would forever be regarded as vital to the field all the same. However, as my studies have progressed, I’ve realized that in every aspect of science, theories change and perceptions evolve over time. Thus, while Sigmund Freud may have been the founder of this initial psychoanalytic dream movement, there must be others who both agreed and disagreed with him who have subsequently changed the field. I decided to delve deeper into other theoretical frameworks regarding psychoanalysis and the role dreams may play as a window into the subconscious.
Above: Freud (Left), and Wilfred Bion (Right)
Overwhelmingly, I found articles mentioning a man named Wilfred Bion; a English psychoanalysist referred to as “possibly the greatest psychoanalytic thinker after Freud,” Bion’s theories extended, but also slightly deviated from Freud’s. Bion had a renewed conceptualization of dreams as an interpretation of the “events” of emotional experience and of “both the events of external emotional reality and the events of internal psychic reality.” More simply, he believed that:
“The core of the dream is not the manifest content, but the emotional experience…[concious emotions are] transformed into material suitable for unconscious waking thought, the dream-thoughts, and equally suitable for conscious submission to common sense” (pg. 92).
From what I understand, Bion believes that specific occurrences and events that occur in dreams is not as important as the overall emotional valence of the dream itself, which deviates from Freud’s conceptualization of specific dream content being indicative of specific conscious processing.
As I said before, psychoanalysis and using dreams as a method of clinical therapy has declined over the past decades. However, this is not to say that psychologists have lost interest in dreams and what their role may be in the human experience, or that psychoanalysis is no longer practiced readily. In fact, the complicated nature of the “dream debate” has only increased as neurobiological factors and neuroimaging technology has progressed. The ability to measure sleep stages, what parts of the brain are active during dreaming and non-dreaming, what types of therapy are most effective for specific neurological pathologies, et cetera; psychology has truly turned into a “the more you know” field of study, in which new discoveries only lead to more questions.
The true “purpose” of dreams, if there even is one to them, is far from being clear. Even further, it’s impossible to decipher whether they are a cause or effect; in other words, are they an outcome of other neurological processes, or are the dreams themselves physically contributing to behavior and human functioning? We have a long way to go before we know the answer to that question.
Binswanger, R. (2016). Dream Diagnostics: Fritz Morgenthaler’s Work on Dreams. The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 85(3), 727-757.
Bion, W. R. (1992). Cogitations London. New York: Karnac.
Ogden, T. H. (2007). This art of psychoanalysis: Dreaming undreamt dreams and interrupted cries. Routledge.
Vinocur Fischbein, S., & Miramón, B. (2015). Theoretical trajectories: Dreams and dreaming from Freud to Bion. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 96(4), 967-992.