Skip to main content

Until Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams appeared in 1900, dreams were considered either to belong to the realm of mysticism and superstition, or were the object of unscientific "dream books" that told the reader what the dream meant. After the publication of what must be considered Freud's most important book, dreams were taken seriously in psychotherapy. Today, whatever the school of therapy, it would be rare not to give dreams some significance. This is entirely due to Freud, who called dreams "the royal road to the unconscious."

While the details have not stood the test of time (Freud's use of "universal" symbolism was questionable then and even more questionable now, since there appears to be no such animal), the larger venture has become part of the language. It is impossible to read The Interpretation of Dreams without coming away wiser. I have read it three times, and each time the experience enriched me. Psychoanalysis as it is still practised today is heavily dependent on dreams, and the ability of the analyst to interpret a patient's dreams is considered basic to the possibility of a "cure." One can be skeptical of this possibility (I am), but it is sacrosanct in the profession.

That dreams give us access to thoughts and feelings that may not be available to the conscious mind is first seriously discussed in Freud's book. Few would dispute this. If, today, nobody is mocked for recounting a deep dream to a loved one, we can thank Freud.

Freud used this book to reveal much of his inner life. This required courage, and encouraged others to take the same route. Even if we reject Freud's interpretations of his own dreams, or find them lacking in scientific rigour, we cannot fail to admire them as remarkable literary achievements. Probably no other author, ever, has subjected his or her own dreams to such merciless investigation.

Fortunately, Freud does not always abide by his own principles: All dreams, he claims, can be reduced to an infantile wish. But the clinical examples he provides often contradict this theoretically restrictive assertion, to the benefit of his analyses. His claim that all dreams are simple wish fulfilment fails to take into account the many deeply disturbing, even terrifying dreams he honestly records, particularly dreams of early trauma. To his credit, he never attempted to belittle the significance of these traumas, and the fact that they are revisited in dreams may have been problematic for his theories, but cannot but affect the reader, and they provided a rich mine of material for later psychologists. Similarly, his claim that each dream has a simple "manifest" content and a much more highly disguised "latent" meaning (to be unearthed only through analysis) is questionable, but highly suggestive, and has proved a boon to psychiatry and psychotherapy.

If not all scientists agree that the dream serves a "venting" function by acting as an outlet for wishes that for one reason or another cannot be consciously voiced, there is evidence that when people are deprived of REM (rapid-eye-movement) sleep - hence considerable dream time - they may suffer serious psychological effects. Some researchers, however, consider this a dated notion. While some scientists believe dreams are simply random excitatory inputs from the brain stem into the cortex, a form of "neural dumping," many more believe Freud was correct, and that dreams are as significant as fantasy and thought in general.

Freud touched on one of the great mysteries of the human mind: Why is it that we can feel emotions in a dream that are not available to us in everyday life? Thus a man who claims never to have felt sexual jealousy can experience it in exquisite detail in his dreams.

Freud was once asked: "Can a man be held responsible for his dreams?" His brilliant, witty answer: "Whom else would you hold responsible?" Taking responsibility for one's dreams is perhaps the hardest lesson anyone can learn. We would never even have considered it without Freud.

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson edited Freud's letters to Fliess. His upcoming book is "The Interpretation of Dreams: The Illustrated Edition for Sterling Publishing."

Next week: Gulliver's Travels.