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The Interpretation of Dreams

Sigmund Freud’s influential cornerstone work

By Sigmund Freud
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The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud’s cornerstone work, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), was one of the most influential books of the twentieth century and continues to shape the way we think and create. These blinks offer a fascinating insight into Freud’s understanding of dreams: what they mean, where they come from, how they are formed and how we can understand them.

Key idea 1 of 9

Ancient interpretations of dreams were unscientific. A far better approach is to relate dreams to real psychic memories.

Dreams can be confusing, often making no apparent sense whatsoever. Throughout the ages, humankind has worked to understand them and penetrate their mysteries.

In classical antiquity, it was believed that dreams were prophecies from divine sources. To understand these predictions, our ancient ancestors would draw on two methods of interpretation.

The first was to interpret the dream in its entirety before relating it to the future. An oracle or dream reader would usually be responsible for this process.

In the second technique, the dream reader would deconstruct the dream and translate it piece by piece. For instance, Alexander the Great had a dream while he was fighting a battle for the ancient Phoenician port city of Tyre. In this dream, he saw a woodland god known as a satyr dancing on his shield. In the dream reader’s interpretation, “satyr” was taken as “sa tyros," which meant “Tyre will be thine,” so the dream was thought to mean that Alexander would win the battle.

The problem with this approach is that it was basically unscientific guesswork. A more sophisticated technique for interpreting dreams is relating the content of the dream to the real psychic memories and experiences of the dreamer herself.

Freud once dreamed that he was with three people: a friend named Otto, an authoritative psychologist named Dr. M and Irma, a family friend whom Freud had treated. In the dream, Dr. M says that Irma is sick because of an infection, likely caused by Otto having used a dirty needle to inject her with.

This dream related to a real phone conversation that the author had with Otto just the day before. In the phone call, Freud felt that Otto was blaming him for Irma’s poor health. Yet in the dream, it’s Otto, not Freud, who is actually to blame for the illness.

The dream was telling Freud, “it’s not your fault," thereby fulfilling his wish to not be responsible for Irma’s sickness.

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