Freud’s most famous book, “The Interpretation of Dreams” was published 115 years ago this week. The “Dream Book’, as it became known, together with Freud’s other major work of popular psychology, ‘The Psychopathology of Everyday Life” (called “The Joke Book”) popularised Freud’s new discipline of psychoanalysis. They became widely available and he publicised them by lecture tours across Europe and the USA to clinicians and other interested members of the public. In those traumatic years marked by two World Wars, the study of the unconscious mind and its mechanisms proved fascinating to a generation coming to terms with the human capacity for repression and ultimate cruelty.

Psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic psychotherapy is a clinic of the unconscious: a practice in which the analyst listens for the un-said, the piece of material whose non-sense reveals the client’s unwitting truth. When a client attends for psychoanalysis, it remains customary to encourage the client to speak freely of all the material covered in the Dream-book and the Joke-book.

“Please say whatever comes into your mind,” we ask. “Try not to censor anything. Everything you say here is significant. Mistakes, slips of the tongue, when you have found yourself surprised at something you have said or done, speak of it here. And dreams… tell me about your dreams.”

Freud’s dreams revealed to him ‘the royal road of the unconscious’, an alternative universe in which his most primitive wishes and anxieties were played out in fantastical detail. The lessons he learned in his own self-analysis and in his developing psychoanalytical practice are the basic material of the Dream-book. It remains a classic textbook, still taught today, its chapter-headings dividing the dreams by topic and theme: anxiety dreams, wish-fulfilment dreams, symbols and representation in dreams…

Although Freud’s book is called the ‘Dream-book’, it has been the study of nightmares that confirms its value as a clinical textbook. Veterans returning from the battlefields of two terrible world wars suffered from traumatising re-enactments of these scenes in their dreams. The treatment of these soldiers and subsequent generations of veterans, right up to the modern PTSD-victims of Afghanistan and Iraq, has validated Freud’s discoveries of 115 years ago.

Each dream is a symptom. It is a treatment in itself, an unconscious coping mechanism that seeks to resolve a conscious dilemma. When we dream, the superego relaxes, the veneer of civilisation is temporarily dropped and a more primitive agent assumes the role of Director: the stage is set for a very different working-through of our waking preoccupations.{: .clear}

When a client recalls a dream I ask them to simply tell it as they remember it. Even a fragment of a dream can be revelatory because remembering the dream is itself an attempt to put meaning on it. I ask them to make associations: names and places leading to further remembering and other stories. The emotions roused by the dream are named and reflected upon: familiarity, fear, inappropriate calm in the face of danger.

Disturbed sleep leads to poor cognitive and emotional processing, to increased physiological stress and chronic sleep disorder is associated with serious mental illness. The primary purpose of dreaming is to permit us to sleep and rest our uneasy minds. It is not sleep but rather dreaming that Macbeth praises:

“the innocent sleep, Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care, The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath, Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, Chief nourisher in life’s feast.”

The narrative of a dream will usually contain some elements which are current, something which is historical, and something which approximates to a future outcome. In this way, a present dilemma is resolved and one’s sleep remains undisturbed. When one is woken by a dream or a nightmare, it usually marks the limit of representation of that resolution. We are woken by anxiety or dismay, so that we might attempt once more to sleep and perhaps this time to dream more successfully.

Dream interpretation is the work of the client. Making the associations, following the clues, identifying the emotions, forming a hypothesis…

A woman whose relationship with her mother has been the unhappy focus of a year’s work, dreams of meeting her mother and inviting her for a drink. “I’ve never had a drink with my mother in my life!” she exclaims. Later, she considers that this dream-mother might represent the mother-of-good-experiences, a mother with whom she might share a drink, or at least, a dream.

Not all dreams are, or need to be, interpreted. Many are sufficient unto themselves, the memory of the dream enough to soothe without further explanation. Some are recurring, repeating over time with little shifts in the story or the setting to reflect how the trauma is resolved piece by piece.

Over the course of one man’s treatment, he had a series of dreams in which he met an old boatman. The boatman, he remembered, had the same name as his grandfather. The dreams and their associations recalled a man he rarely met but very fondly remembered. During an otherwise extremely bleak childhood, his grandfather’s unconditional regard had nurtured his fragile developing ego. All it takes, as Winnicott said, is ‘one good parent’. These dreams had carefully preserved that nurturing experience, to be produced in recurring dreams at times of crisis.

Occasionally, the words spoken in a dream are extremely significant…

“I was walking though the house and I went into the bedroom at the end of the hall. I opened the door and walked in and then I felt… alone. I looked around the room and I realised it was the nursery where she would have slept, all wrapped up in new pink and white blankets. My husband was behind me and he looked at me as if to ask what I was doing. I turned and said to him, “I was just having a little meander.” I never use that word, I didn’t even know I knew it. What a strange thing to say: meander.”

I repeated slowly, “Me… and her.”

“Me… and her”, she repeated softly.

This is the enduring significance of dreams for the psychoanalyst and her clients, over a century later, still travelling together on Freud’s “royal road”.

“I have spread my dreams under your feet, Tread softly because you tread on my dreams…” – WB Yeats.

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