Since the early 70s Freud’s theories have generally been dismissed. One theory in particular that has been disregarded is his theory that dreams represent unconscious wishes. For example, noted “bad-boy” actor Martin Sheen reported that he “dreamed of skiing down a mountain of cocaine that was shaped like a woman.”* This is clearly a wish dream, but dream experts now doubt that all dreams represent wishes. A related aspect of Freud’s theory is that dreams are “the royal road to the unconscious.”

Freud himself admitted later on in life that some dreams could not be explained as wishes, and this turns out to be true. However research has validated his claim that dreams reveal our unconscious thoughts, if not wishes.

Nowadays no one theory of dreams dominates. Instead there are several theories. There are problem-solving dreams, as when former Beatles singer/song writer Paul McCartney could not write a new song so he dreamed it (the song, “Yesterday”.* There are anxiety dreams in which things go wrong, which often express obsessive-compulsive fears. And there are rehearsal dreams in which we rehearse situations that boggle our minds during the day.

Research in the last decade has proved that Freud was right about repressing thoughts or memories that we want to avoid. In a 2004 study, Daniel Wegner noticed that when we are trying hard to ignore or suppress a thought, it often just keeps coming back. He theorized that when we try to suppress a thought, we are conflicted about it. Part of us wants to suppress a thought and part of us wants to know about it. Dreams revive those repressed thoughts in symbolic form.

In an experiment, he had participants identify a person they knew and then to spend five minutes writing a stream-of-consciousness before going to bed that night. The first group was told specifically not to think about the person during their five minutes of writing, whereas he instructed a second group to specifically think about the person. A third group was told to think about whatever it wanted. Ironically, when they reported on their dreams the next morning, the participants who were instructed to suppress thoughts of a person dreamed of that person much more than the participants who were told to focus on the person. Wegner called this the “dream rebound effect”.

Another researcher, Josie Malinowski, found that people who try to avoid and suppress their thoughts not only are more likely to dream about these emotional experiences but also have problems sleeping due to higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression than others. She states, “In fact, we know now that suppressing thoughts is related to a whole host of mental health concerns.”

Freud’s often stated idea that dreams are the royal road to the unconscious has generally been proven and is the general theory used by most psychologists today. What has also been demonstrated by this research is the notion of the unconscious and how we tend to repress thoughts and memories about which we are conflicted.

In one of Freud’s most famous cases, which he referred to as the “Rat Man,” he wrote about a young man who was obsessed with protecting an older lady friend who represented a mother-transference. One morning he removed rocks from a road because he knew this woman friend would be riding her carriage down the road and feared her carriage would hit a rock, turn over, and kill her. However, later he changed his mind and he put the rocks back. Freud interpreted that the patient had a reaction-formation, and that his obsessive attempts to protect her were in reality death wishes.

We are generally conflicted, and as Wegner pointed out, these conflicts are evident in our dreams, particularly in the “dream work,” a term Freud coined to describe how conflicts about our memories cause us to disguise them in our dreams. We want to dream about things and we don’t want to dream about things, so we dream in obtuse ways, often not about ourselves but about other people.

Malinowski notes that although Freud’s theory that all dreams are wish fulfillments has generally been dismissed, an essential aspect of his theory has been validated by such studies. “In at least one respect, it looks like he [Freud] got it right after all: dreams really are the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious–-where banished thoughts live on.” Freud understood the essential nature of the unconscious; thoughts and memories are put into the unconscious, but their force upon our waking life is even stronger because they have been repressed.
Understanding the conflicted, unconscious content of our dreams helps us to know what is gnawing away in us deep inside, while diminishing the power of the unconscious to exert a negative influence on our lives.

We are lucky that Freud discovered the importance of dreams for understanding our unconscious. Today, more than ever, we need to be aware of how our conscious minds prevent a clear grasp of the meaning of our behavior.

*from the Author’s latest book, Dictionary of Dream Interpretation, 2nd Edition.