It’s odd: We go to bed at night to get some peace and recuperation by sleeping, yet suddenly find ourselves in a fantasy world full of bizarre images, strange and familiar people, animals, and even weird beings and landscapes. We have the most unbelievable experiences and witness irrational scenes. Space and time seem to be non-existent. Mother Nature can go crazy, anything is possible. Wishes suddenly come true, or we experience failures and breakdowns that can even lead to death. We often wake up and are happy that it was all just a dream. Frequently though, we often regret it was just a dream.
This other world we encounter every night is so exciting that people have been occupied with their dreams since primeval times. The oldest records and interpretations of dreams can be found in the hieratic dream book that was carved in stone around 4,000 years ago in Egypt. The preoccupation with dreams and search for new dream interpretation methods is age-old, goes by many names, and came to a peak in the late 19th/early 20th century thanks to research by S. Freud and C.G. Jung. Their findings established a basis that is still used today when we examine dreams and their contents.
Freud and Jung: The founding fathers of dream interpretation
Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), the founder of psychoanalysis, described dreams as “the royal road to the unconscious”. The contents of a dream are interpreted by the dreamer freely associating with the symbols that appear in his or her dream. In psychoanalysis, this is how one eventually arrives at the roots of a patient’s problem, which originates from traumatic childhood experiences. According to Freud, dream interpretation is therefore based on the past. Freud also always ascribes symbols to a sexual aspect.
Carl Gustav Jung (1875–1961), a former school friend of Freud, takes a different approach. He did indeed emphasise the same associative aspects. However, he said these should be not be made freely, but instead remain oriented on the symbol and thus focus on the dreamer’s current situation in real life.
Jung did not only attribute a sexual meaning to the respective symbol from a dream, but also took the personal view of the dreamer into account, as well as inherent traits that all humans have in common. In such, the symbol of death, which according to Jung stems from the dreamer’s collective subconscious (the unconscious, yet existent primal knowledge shared by the entire human race), has the same fundamental meaning for all people since we all realise that we are mortals. Jung referred to such generally valid symbols as archetypes.
Everybody dreams, even if they don’t realise it
Every one of us dreams, even if we can’t always remember our dreams. We have around four to six dreams each night and when we weren’t dreaming—so we think—, that really only means that we can’t remember our nocturnal fantasy adventures. This can have different causes: a fear of disagreeable messages in the dream, refusal and disapproval of the dream’s contents in general (“how ridiculous” is something we often hear), stress factors, or even certain sleep medication one takes can inhibit dream activity.