Freud begins this lecture with the suggestion that he should revisit the theory of dreams, which “occupies a special place” in psychoanalysis since it marked a major turning point in the study of human psychology (8). He explains how dream analysis evolved from a “psychotherapeutic procedure” to a “depth psychology” (8). He further suggests that he has often relied on a patient's dreams in order to direct him towards the source of that patient's neurosis.
He announces his intention to address how dream theory has been developed since its inception, and uses the International Journal of Medical Psychoanalysis as a case study. The first professional journal dedicated to psychoanalysis, it initially featured a regular section on dream interpretation, but eventually ceased including that feature, suggesting that dream interpretation was no longer considered important.
However, Freud considers dreams as essential to understanding the human psyche, and provides a hypothetical situation to illustrate his argument. He suggests that a patient might describe a seemingly nonsensical dream to a psychoanalytic therapist, who then transforms that dream into "normal communication" by distinguishing between its manifest content and its latent content (11).
Freud describes the manifest content as the "text" of the dream, the actual images or events that the dreamer observes (11). The latent content, however, contains the underlying thoughts or feelings that provoked the dream in the first place.
He argues that the goal of psychoanalysis is to transform the manifest content into the latent, and to thus explain why the latent content became manifest in the dreamer’s mind. Therefore, psychoanalysis involves both the practical task of interpreting the manifest content of dreams, and the theoretical task of explaining how the latent content has been shaped into its manifest content. In other words, a psychoanalyst must first interpret the dream, and then explain to the patient how dreams are formed.
Continuing his hypothetical scenario, Freud describes how the psychoanalyst must listen attentively to the patient’s description of the dream, but resist the urge to interpret the dream's manifest content. Instead, the analyst must ask the patient to focus on the dream's separate portions, relating them either chronologically or in order of clarity, and on the associations these separate elements have for him. The patient should be encouraged to mention any feelings, memories, or seemingly unrelated thoughts that come to his mind during this process.
Focusing on the dreamer's associations (rather than upon the manifest content that evoked these associations) serves to clarify what these images mean to the dreamer, and hence why his mind selected these particular images. It is only at this point that the analyst should interpret these associations, making a final connection between the manifest and latent content. Freud acknowledges the argument that the analyst forces an interpretation onto the dream through this process, but counters that clinical experience reveals the effectiveness of such a treatment.
Next, Freud discusses the common resistance to dream analysis. He admits that the technique is limited, especially because it must work against many resistances that a patient might have to analysis. Sometimes, the patient unknowingly withholds important associations by relaying other less important associations. Other times, the patient may forget his dreams, misremember certain aspects, or even unconsciously refuse to relate important associations. These resistances can hinder dream interpretation, but they are also significant because they arise from the same origin as the dream. In other words, they are born from the same psychological issue that prompted the dream.
To explain his point, Freud makes a direct comparison between the state of sleep and that of psychosis (extreme mental illness). In both instances, the subject turns away "from the real external world" (19). In the case of psychosis, the subject 'turns away' because the conscious mind cannot handle reality, and so allows the unconscious to redefine the world. It is an extreme means of repressing unpleasant thoughts that the real world forces on the subject. However, sleep is only a temporary and purposeful retreat from outside reality. Thus, the psychic energy usually used on repression is relaxed during sleep. The dreamer's mind can relax, and the unconscious indulges its desires through the “hallucinatory satisfaction” of dreams (20).
Freud then addresses the question of what useful function dreams serve. Sleep is essentially threatened by three forces: random bodily stimuli; lingering mental impressions, or feelings from the day; and unconscious desires that rise up while the conscious mind is relaxed. Freud argues that dreams provide an outlet for a sleeper’s unconscious, repressed urges to connect with the lingering “day’s residue” in a harmless way (22). In other words, the unconscious may use images or feelings from the day to express its otherwise repressed desires. The fact that certain dreams awaken and alarm the sleeper merely confirms the fact that dreams are delving into repressed urges. When these urges are too deeply hidden, the dreamer's mind reacts with alarm and wakes him before the repressed content can harm him.
Having explained the practical task of dream interpretation, Freud discusses the theoretical task of explaining the dream work. He believes that latent thoughts are transformed into manifest thoughts via the same psychological mechanisms that construct neurotic symptoms. Therefore, understanding dreams will help us treat neurotic patients.
He describes the analyst's primary goal as identifying the impulse that inspired the unconscious mind to produce the dream - this impulse is the “true creator of the dream,” the source of the psychic energy that constructed it (23). This unconscious wish seeks its fulfillment, and arranges the latent dream-thoughts in order to deliver a version of that wish-fulfillment. Like a drama played out on a stage, the dream is a deliberately constructed presentation meant to deliver a certain fantasy to its audience. In this case, the unconscious is the artist who created the scene, and the impulse is the muse and patron.
Following from this description, Freud then describes the dream as a “compromise-structure” with a dual function (23). It both allows the dreamer to sleep in peace, by disguising an impulse that might otherwise wake him, and allows the unconscious, repressed impulse to obtain some satisfaction in the form of the hallucinated wish-fulfillment.
Freud next provides a more detailed discussion of the dream-work. The unconscious urge that animates dreams can only reveal itself indirectly, through a dream's manifest content. Hence, it must rely on the raw materials of sensory images, impressions, and symbols that lack a “grammar” or a clear system of unification (24).
He proposes two processes that aid the dream-work: condensation and displacement. Condensation creates new unities out of various elements - a single latent dream-thought may express itself through several images in the manifest content, or several latent thoughts might be condensed into a single image that contains them all. On the other hand, displacement involves separating a latent dream-thought from its typical emotional association, and reassigning that association to other images. In other words, an emotion or feeling might be expressed within a dream through an object that does not usually evoke that feeling.
These processes explain why central latent dream-thoughts might sometimes appear as a minor detail in the dream, or why a dream's seemingly central idea is of little actual import. In other words, these processes explain why dreams often seem nonsensical to the dreamer. Freud attributes this "dream-distortion" to the psyche, which seeks to censor the unconscious, repressed urges that inspired the dream in the first place (26).
The dream is finally submitted to a “secondary revision,” wherein the mind attempts to fill in a dream's gaps to make coherent order of it. While this process can further obscure a dream's meaning, it is inessential to comprehending the latent impulses, since it merely reflects the conscious intellect's attempts (26).
Freud acknowledges that he had discovered and shared these essential elements fifteen years earlier, but wishes to share the “changes and new discoveries” that have been made since that time (27). Unfortunately, little has actually changed, in part because scientists refuse to take psychoanalysis seriously. He does mention a few experiments conducted by Viennese researchers on dream symbolism, the most important of which were conducted by Dr. Herbert Silberer in 1909 and 1912. In these experiments, Silberer attempted to turn "abstract thoughts into visual pictures” while in a state of extreme fatigue, and found that his conscious thoughts would be replaced by a vision that often encapsulated his subjective state (28). For Freud, Silberer’s experiment is important because it shows the direct link between a person’s subjective state and the mental images that appear to him.
Freud next discusses the topic of symbolism in dreams, which has been explored since his initial theory was proposed. Symbolism is unique because it relies less on a dreamer's subjective associations than upon an image's shared associations. He cites several studies, including that of: the psychoanalyst Karl Abraham (1922), which proposed that a spider symbolizes a fear of mother-incest or female genitals; and Sandor Ferenczi (1921-22), which proposed that the bridge symbolizes the male organ amongst other things.
Freud then discusses at some length the dream of a young girl who repeatedly imagined finding her father seated upon a stool a large hall. He connects the dream to a familiar fantasy among young girls, wherein they are visited by the father while still in the mother's uterus. He then interprets the dream in some detail, explaining how the dream work helps to connect the specific dream to the more universal fantasy.
Finally, Freud mentions other recent studies that confirm the truth of his theory. The first study suggests that the manifest content of a dream can reveal latent dream-thoughts, in such a way that all of a single night's dream can be interpreted as linked. Another study, conducted by Franz Alexander (1925), has shown that a wish-fulfillment can be split between two dreams.
In conclusion to this lecture, Freud reiterates his theory that all dreams contain at their core a wish-fulfillment, but he acknowledges that the wish can itself appear contradictory. Along these lines, he introduces the concept of the super-ego, the aspect of our psyche which prohibits us from acting on unsafe or unwise impulses. He aligns the super-ego with the censorship function which works to distort latent content in dreams. As he will explain in more detail in later lectures, the super-ego functions in the way a 'conscience' is often thought to work.
Freud ends by identifying two possible challenges to his claim that all dreams are wish-fulfillments, and admits that he has no ready response to either criticism. The first is the fact that people who have experienced extreme trauma often re-experience those events in dreams. Obviously, no person would wish to relive such pain. The second challenge, though less serious, is more frequently encountered in clinical work - repressed and traumatic experiences of early infantile sexuality seem to have immediate access to dreams. As a sort of defense, Freud reminds his audience that dreams are not necessarily always successful at fulfilling a wish, and hence certain traumatic memories and infantile sexual urges are improperly translated by the dream work. Hence, the dream work does not suitably disguise the impulse, and the dreamer suffers rather than hallucinates.
Even today, Freud is arguably best known for having introduced dream analysis into both scientific and lay culture, and this most certainly would have been the case in 1933. So by starting this new collection with a return to dream theory, Freud was both making the book more interesting to readers, and also stressing the importance of his signature achievement.
In the essay, he describes dream theory as key to “depth psychology” (8). In short, this phrase means that dream analysis allows an analyst to go deep into a patient's psyche, to address problems far more rooted than what a dream might suggest. This is the most revolutionary and significant discovery made by psychoanalysis, and also perhaps the most controversial. As Freud himself notes, psychoanalysis had from its inception been dismissed as a pseudo-science because it does not operate by the same empirically reproducible procedures that define other scientific fields of study. To counter such an assumption, Freud takes great pains in the essay to protest that dream analysis is not just important, but central towards understanding the way a human being works.
However, Freud also uses the occasion of this lecture to counter the assumption that there is nothing more to be learned about dreams. While acknowledging that the lack of empirical evidence makes further investigation difficult, he mostly believes it is crucial for the evolution of his science. In many ways, he is both defending his discoveries and ensuring that they can evolve without him. As he notes, the popular image of psychoanalysis remains tied to his seminal work, The Interpretation of Dreams, but believes that professional analysts need to continue further clarifying the ideas contained therein, for both themselves and for culture at large. Otherwise, the discoveries grow static. Amongst the ideas he believes need clarifying are: the relationship between “manifest content” and “latent dream-thoughts”; wish fulfillment; the process of dream interpretation; and especially the “dream work” that is essential to every dream.
Though Freud often notes the limitations of dream interpretation in the lecture, he firmly espouses its value. Because the message of dreams is not immediately recognizable, an analyst immediately faces a choice: should he understand the dream simply as a sign that the patient has slept badly or had a bad day? Or, should he treat the dream as a “valid psychical act” that does in fact contain some form of meaningful communication? Freud consistently insists that a good analyst must recognize the second option, and embrace his task as a professional trained at translating latent content into manifest content. Only by approaching a dream in this way can an analyst thereby treat the patient's deeper neuroses that are based in repressed urges.
Another aspect Freud takes great pains to stress is the ultimate value of dream interpretation. With his outline of psychoanalytic interpretation, Freud pioneered a completely novel approach to understanding the human psyche. In this essay, he mostly restates his ground-breaking theory that unconscious and repressed urges from earlier moments in psychic life continue to play a formative role in an individual’s psychology. The point of psychoanalytic treatment is to resolve unconscious repressions by bringing them to the surface, and allowing the patient to transfer negative emotional energies and affect onto the analyst. Only by acknowledging the existence of these repressed desires can a patient hope to transcend them. Dreams are key to this process, because the dream state relaxes the mind’s conscious repressions, and allows freer reign to the psyche's unconscious urges and impulses. This means that the content and process of what Freud calls “dream work” can be interpreted to reveal the patient’s unconscious desires.
One challenge Freud describes here is the natural tendency to make sense of what we observe. It is crucial to the success of dream analysis that both patient and analyst suspend their inclination to see a dream's manifest content as a “whole” or entire story, with a purpose or a point (Lacan, Seminar IV). Instead, they must follow the pattern Freud outlines here, using associations and suggestions to plumb the true meaning of the dream. In other words, somewhat paradoxically, the analyst and patient must ignore what seems to be the dream's central point in order to make proper sense of the it.
The first lecture, and its emphasis on dreams, is finally in many ways a critical response to then recent developments in the field of psychoanalysis. Freud believed that psychoanalysts had wrongfully abandoned the study and theorization of dreams. When he cites studies by Abraham, Silberer, Ferenczi and Alexander, Freud means to praise his pupils who have continued to investigate dreams while most analysts had not. Because it is so important to him, he takes great pains here and elsewhere in the collection to insist we reapproach his theory so that it might evolve.
A final point can be made about Freud's direct address. While these pieces are technically essays (since they were never orally delivered), he styles them as lectures. This is likely due in large part to the commercial value of associating the collection with his earlier Lectures, but also allows him free reign to speak colloquially at times. By assuming a lay audience who must follow his thought process orally and without pause for reflection, he allows himself to control the pace of the information, and to craft a rather engaging read.