Freud: ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’

Freud interpretation of dreams

In this article we’re going to explore some of Sigmund Freud’s most famous and influential work on dream analysis. The book he published on this topic was called ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’.


Freud started off his career in medicine and quickly moved onto understanding and decoding the structure and processes involved within human personality.

He was the founding father of psychoanalysis which is a method within psychology for treating mental illness and is often referred to as the talking cure.


Freud referred to dreams as ‘the royal road to consciousness’ and that dreams are the expression of the inner workings of the mind. Therefore dreams have two levels of content:

  • Manifest: What the dreamer remembers that are often based on events of the day
  • Latent: Hidden, symbolic and unconscious meaning which are the underlying wish of the dreamer

‘Dream work’ is a process by which latent content is transformed into manifest content via displacement. Displacement being one of Freud’s defence mechanisms and involves redirecting unacceptable feelings from the original source to a safer, more suitable target.

An example of transforming the latent object of concern into a manifest object could be thinking of someone as a dog while conscious, then dreaming of strangling a dog.

Freud also referred to universal symbolism in dream analysis and many of these were sexual in nature:

  • Poles, guns and swords represent the penis
  • Ship, tunnel represent the vagina
  • Horse riding and dancing representing sexual intercourse

Freud acknowledged that symbols cannot be interpreted without knowing a persons circumstances, for example:

  • What does a wriggling fish symbolise?
  • Patient – “it must be a penis!’

Freud explored this further, a woman’s mother who was an astrologer and a Pisces, was on the patient’s mind because she disapproved of her daughter undergoing psychoanalysis. Freud suggested that the fish represented the patient’s mother rather than a penis!

Freud was cautious about symbols and in general symbols are more personal rather than universal. A person cannot interpret what the manifest content of a dream symbolized without knowing understanding the context of a person’s circumstances, as described above.

‘Dream dictionaries’, were a source of irritation to Freud, these are still popular nowadays and regularly used.

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