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Self-Knowledge Through Dream Study

( Originally Published 1920 )

Dream study enables us to unravel the mystery of sleep. We sleep that we may dream and, while dreaming, gratify the many cravings which in our waking hours must remain unsatisfied if not severely repressed. Dream study will likewise prove helpful in acquiring that most elusive form of knowledge, knowledge of ourselves.

It is comparatively easy to know others. Our unconscious imitation of their attitudes when we observe them makes us experience in an obscure way the mental and chemical processes of which those attitudes are surface manifestations.

Only in very few cases are the conclusions we draw from our observations of others or which we derive from our unconscious imitation of them, biased by friendship or hostility. In the majority of cases we are probably impartial judges, as impartial at least as our complexes allow us to be.

How difficult it is for us, on the other hand, to judge ourselves.

We may stand before a mirror and try to observe our own attitudes, but as soon as we see our reflection, we involuntarily modify our pose and facial expression and assume others more in harmony with our idealized conception of ourselves. We make infinite allowances for our shortcomings, mental and physical. We refuse to see ourselves as others would see us.

That refusal is simply one of the protective measures life has forced upon us, one of the repressions which in certain cases create bad complexes. The object and subject are too close to each other.

On many occasions we suspect that our unconscious may be thwarting our views of others and we may make an effort at being fair. But we are seldom in doubt as to our opinion of ourselves. And yet how many times do we surprise or grieve ourselves by behaviour for which we can not ac-count satisfactorily.

Some unconscious factor forces our hand at times, we lose control of ourselves, we begin some-thing and suddenly abandon it, we break our promises and suffer remorse and refer to the situation by saying: I don't know what made me do that.

Knowledge of our autonomic tendencies throws light upon the general direction of our unconscious activities, but the information thus gathered is not sufficient to enable us to devise plans for constructive behaviour.

While the Aschner test merely warns us against overdetermination by "nervous" factors, dreams will furnish us with particulars of our unconscious cravings and reveal them to us one after another.

The thing to do then is to collect our night dreams and study them carefully, translating into understandable stories the symbolic pictures which often disguise our night thinking.

But a serious problem has to be solved first: Many people forget their dreams completely and boldly assert that they never dream. All of us dream all night long at a terrific speed. Wake up at any time during the night the most. "dreamless" sleeper and he will awaken out of a dream. Wake him up by means of some painful stimulus, like a pin prick, and he will tell an extremely long story built around that pin prick in perhaps a couple of seconds.

How shall we then remember some of those numberless dreams?

We must first of all "wish" to remember them.

Every wish influences our dreams to a certain extent. Such a wish formulated by an ailing person preoccupied with his health is likely to be a strong one and will be more or less completely gratified in his sleep.

This statement will be met with incredulity by many laymen who have not made the attempt. Subject after subject, however, who concentrates on that wish at the time of retiring reports the same experience in almost the same words: I had many dreams that night and during those dreams I was repeating to myself : this is something I must re-member so as to tell my analyst.

The first attempts are not all successful. Many subjects simply become conscious of the fact that they dream but remember only scraps of dreams.

Those scraps, however, are valuable and will help in many cases to reconstruct the missing parts of the story.

It may happen also that the subject has, when awaking, a clear memory of several of the night's dreams but proceeds to forget them by the time his eyes are fully open and he is again conscious of his surroundings.

A simple expedient can be used then which will be found very effective. Set the alarm clock an hour ahead of the time at which you usually awaken. Have a pad and pencil ready near your bed and when the alarm rings begin to jot down without arising your dreams, which will then be very fresh and graphic.

Any one, concentrating on dreams before retiring and awaking himself suddenly in the early morning by means of an alarm clock, should within a week train himself to remember very clearly at least one of each night's dreams.

Dreams must be transcribed at once. Our un-conscious is both anxious to express itself and afraid of being detected. By five o'clock in the afternoon, the dreams which were so vivid to us on awaking have either dissipated or been "edited." If you write down your dreams in the morning and try to write them down again from memory at night, the discrepancies between the two versions will prove amusing if not distressing.

Those discrepancies should be the first point on which your investigation should bear. "I- was walking in the woods with a blonde woman," a patient wrote in his note book immediately on awakening. "I was walking in the woods with some people," he wrote the same night, when re-writing the same dream in accordance with my instructions.

In the course of the day his unconscious had attempted to blur the memory of a woman who played in his life a part more important than he was willing to confess even to himself.

The next step in the study of a dream is to take every word of it and to determine its associations. Close your eyes and think of the word or sentence and let your mind use it as a starting point for some short "day dream." Note down whatever ideas are brought forth by that word or sentence, without exercising any critical censorship over the results. The associations may be silly, shameful or merely unpleasant. Honesty in recording them will be, not only a scientific way of collecting material, but a beginning in the training to face facts which every normal or abnormal person, especially the latter, must undergo in order to acquire insight.

Read over the list of associations brought forth by ,all the words or ideas of the dream until they begin to tell you a story.

Do not, however, expect the first dream or the first ten or twenty dreams to tell you all you wish to know.

This work, slow and tedious, must be kept up day after day, week after week, until you are able to classify your dreams and the various pictures which they present.

Certain dreams will reappear frequently, certain characters will take part in every action presented on the dream stage, certain details of scenery will recur night after night, and so will certain situations, emotions, etc.

According to whether the majority of dreams refer to the past, the present or the future they may reveal a regressive, a static or a positive tendency. A neurotic has a tendency to regress to an easier, more protected form of life, symbolized by his childhood. When acquiring insight and improving, he will, in all likelihood, formulate solutions for the problems of the present day in terms of the present day. After recovering he will, in his dreams as in his waking hours, make plans for the future.

It will be found that the "purely obvious" dreams are very scarce and that even those lend themselves to a symbolic interpretation.

The emotional nature of a dream is not a safe guide as to its actual importance. A woman patient dreamt that she was seated in the balcony of an Episcopal church. A man she loved was seated with his wife in one of the pews and looked bored.

The woman was a Christian, the man a Jew and she was extremely jealous of his attentions to his wife. The egotistical desire for domination was strong in her.

The dream, apparently indifferent and unemotional, gratified all her cravings in the following way:

She was seated in the balcony above her lover and his wife.

They had come to attend the services in her church; that is, they had adopted her point of view.

He looked bored, hence was not enjoying his wife's company.

The character of the building precluded between man and wife any of the intimacies to which my patient objected so strongly.

Even as the patient remained unmoved through the dream owing to her inability to understand its meaning or her unconscious resistance to accepting its meaning, others will be extremely agitated by emotion connected with a dream whose horror is not real but only symbolical.

Nightmares, as I stated in the preceding chapter, often melodramatize very simple actions the desire for which we have so repressed that they only break through the repression after an intense struggle. The struggle translates itself into a feeling of horror which is in no way justified or reasonable.

It may be stated that no nightmare has a purely physical cause, such as overeating, bodily discomfort, etc. Thousands of people sleep peacefully after a heavy dinner or in spite of great suffering.

There are many convenience nightmares which endeavour to interpret physical stimuli in a plausible way so that the sleeper will not awake. They spin a story about the pain or discomfort which may be felt and explain it away, so to speak. Others seem to use the actual pain or discomfort as a basis for a horrible presentation which tortures the sleeper and often wakes him up.

Certain nightmares have the value of a warning, for instance in cases of incipient disease which has escaped observation. Heart, stomach or lung disturbances may be revealed by dreams in which those organs play a prominent part. Silberer dreamt several times that a black cat was clawing his throat. Soon after, examination of his throat, made necessary by a severe cold, brought to view a small tumour which necessitated a surgical intervention.

But even in such cases, the choice of dramatic means employed by the unconscious to visualize the cravings depends, not on the nature of the physical stimulus, but on the nature of the cravings and complexes seeking an outlet.

In other words, no nightmare should be dismissed as unimportant for it always has a deep meaning, sometimes a twofold one. It reveals a fierce struggle for freedom of something that should be set free if possible and in this respect alone is worthy of serious consideration. While visualizing itself, that struggle may take advantage of some physical condition which in certain cases is unknown to the sufferer and this, too, has to be attended to without delay.

Whenever an organ plays a constant part in night-mares, it should be investigated by a physician as it may constitute in the organism a point of least resistance.

In certain cases thorough examination may be valuable in proving to the subject that certain fears of his are ungrounded. A subject bothered by many dreams of impotence was examined by a specialist and pronounced absolutely normal sexually.

His dreams of impotence which had always been connected with great anxiety were soon after re-placed by dreams of normal sexual gratification.

Careful study of a nightmare always causes it to disappear or to lose its painful effect. A night-mare, as I explained in the preceding chapter, is simply a symbolic expression of a wish subjected to a strong repression. When we face reality and confess to ourselves certain cravings whose existence we have been trying to deny they no longer assume a symbolic mask in our dreams.

The young woman attacked in dreams by various animals and who forces herself to realize that she is tortured by sexual desires, will in all likelihood dream that her desires are gratified in a normal way. The beasts may reappear but her insight will remain even in her sleep and she will not experience any fear for she will know that "it is only a dream."

A subject of mine anxious to become a public speaker but hampered by various circumstances in the realization of his wishes, dreamt night after night that he stood on the platform and tried to speak but was interrupted by small boys creating a disturbance and, at times, drowning his voice with their shouts.

Analysis of that nightmare proved that his persecutors were conjured up by his unconscious in an egotistical effort to explain away certain deficiencies. Small boys appeared again in the subject's dreams, but they were no longer hostile factors and after a while they disappeared entirely.

Nightmares may be the precursors of a neurosis.

Unconscious habits of thought revealed by dreams easily come to dominate our waking thought. A benign neurosis is after all a dream (wish-fulfilment) from which we are trying to awaken ourselves and a pernicious neurosis is a dream from which we do not wish to free ourselves.

Insight into one's mental workings causes them without any exception to become more normal.

When we are fully aware of the childish, regressive character of some of our dreams, they begin to change and to acquire a more positive tenor. A change for the better as well as a change for the worse always appears in the unconscious before it is observable in our conscious states. Even as a nightmare may warn the observer of an oncoming neurotic attack, a positive dream of peaceful accomplishment generally heralds a return to normality.

The results of dream study have many applications to our conscious waking life.

Many family conflicts are due to perfectly unconscious father or mother fixations. A neurotically inclined boy, overattached to his mother, may unconsciously hate his father and unconsciously direct all his energies toward defeating all of his father's plans. A neurotically inclined girl, overattached to her father, may also hate her mother unconsciously and conduct unconsciously a constant campaign of disparagement against her mother.

Dreams will reveal that situation very soon. The subject, victim of a fixation, will often dream of the favourite parent who appears in complicated situations, especially in nightmares, to solve all difficulties. The hated parent will either never appear or be placed in a situation of inferiority. One subject with a father fixation saw her mother in a dream as a drunken beggar. One man with a mother fixation saw his father driving his automobile from a back seat while he sat in the front seat and gave his father directions.

Warned by their dreams of such absurd situations of which they are not conscious, students of dreams can revise their attitudes to members of the family circle. Knowing that certain complexes of a childish character are prejudicing them against some one they can effect a readjustment in their relation to that person.

Dreams not only tell us what we unconsciously think but how we think. The more normal and independent we are, the more obvious our forms of wish-fulfilment are likely to be. Complicated, symbolic dreams should therefore be characteristic of repressed, pent up personalities.

The man with a mother fixation who simply relies upon his mother in dream emergencies is undoubtedly of a less assertive and less carnal type than the one who has the typical Oedipus dream of incest with his mother. The man who either kills his father or attends his father's funeral in a dream is very different in his make up from the man who places him in the back seat of an automobile and orders him about.

Also a knowledge, however superficial, of the most common dream symbols may prevent us from worrying about certain dreams of a primitive and childish type, such as the Oedipus dreams.

The man who commits incest or kills his father in dream is not by any means abnormal or perverse and should not consider himself as such. He is simply expressing in a very crude way his affection for one parent and his indifference to the other.

The young mother who dreams of the death of her children may be simply hankering for a little more freedom from household cares and expressing it in the archaic fashion which our unconscious often affects.

Dream murderers, however, can save themselves from further dream guilt by acquiring insight into the meaning of their sleeping fancies.

Our unconscious dominates our thinking by our leave only. When we set to work to watch our un-conscious it is soon shorn of its harmful power and can become a great power for constructive work.

For almost every one of the cravings revealed by dreams there is some form of positive satisfaction. When we seek that satisfaction normally our dream work no longer gives it to us in an abnormal form.

Nietzsche spoke truly when he said that we must not seek to dodge the responsibility for our dreams, for nothing, he adds, is more completely the work of our "mind."

Dream Mysteries
The Quantitative Study of Dreams


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