The hierarchy of dreams

Freud’s Traumdeutung, or theory on the interpretation of dreams, focuses on unconscious wishes and desires. This sets dream theory apart from drive theory, where biologically inspired drives constitute the underlying focus of attention.

Dreams capitalize on repression

According to Freud, dreams are wishes. Although Freud, in some of his later works, discusses dreams that do not appear to be wish-fulfillment, the idea that dreams are attempts by the unconscious to resolve repressed conflicts related to wishes remains his central thesis. Freud argues that a dream can be thought of as a symptom of repression. Dreams are essentially a compromise between repressed wishes and reality. Repression is key, and dreams capitalize on it.

Think of the dream as a place where the unconscious is realized and presented as such. The actual dream itself, i.e. the way it presents itself to you, is what we call the manifest dream. It’s the symptomatic manifestation of repression. The true meaning behind it, i.e. the unconscious wishes that make up the dream or provide the foundation for it, is what we call the latent dream. Because the unconscious contains information that is often unruly and disturbing by nature, the censor (i.e. the ego) will not allow it to move into the conscious unaltered. The manifest dream is the alteration, and is therefore not what it appears to be. ‘Dreams are the royal road to the unconscious’, Freud famously said.

Dreams are the guardians of sleep

The unruly and often disturbing elements that dwell within the recesses of our unconscious would disrupt our sleep if they were to enter the conscious mind unaltered. The ego prefers to express wish-fulfillment in a symbolic manner in an attempt to avoid feelings of fear and distress. This is why dreams can be thought of as guardians of sleep. At times, however, the ego fails in these attempts and we experience what we call nightmares.

Now that I’ve gotten the basics out of the way, I will endeavor to explain an insight I’ve had pertaining to a succession of dreams I had a while ago. The content of these dreams isn’t relevant to this writing. In other words, the objective of this article isn’t to engage in dream analysis. Rather, I hope to demonstrate that dreams are more than just meaningful psychological structures in the sense that they reveal the contents of our unconscious, but that the way by which different dreams are organized can be thought of as meaningful as well.

Allow me to elucidate. One night, I had three successive dreams. These dreams were seperate from one another. There’s a difference between having one dream that contains different and seperate events occurring within the context of that one dream, and having different and seperate dreams, all during one session of sleep. In my case, it was the latter. One could say I had a dream, followed by a short interval of dream absence, of which I was aware, followed by another dream, and so on.

Chronologically, the first dream lasted significantly longer than the second, and the second lasted significantly longer than the third. Furthermore, the first dream contained explicit elements and events that could be considered surreal, i.e. things that could not possibly happen in real life; things that contradict the laws of nature (for example, floating in the air). The third dream was charactarized by a complete and total absence of such elements. Even though the content of the third dream may have been unlikely (or even illogical) to have happen in real life, none of the events that took place in that dream were, strictly speaking, impossible. The second dream was a mixture of the two, i.e. containing some elements that could be considered surreal, but less so than the first one, and containing some elements that could be considered plausible or possible, but less so than the third.

The more repressed the unconscious wish, the more surreal the dream.

My hypothesis is that a hierarchical structure has revealed itself to me, and that an important structural principle can be applied to human dream mechanics. It would seem that dreams that present themselves first in the chronological order have a stronger (i.e. more unruly and disturbing) unconscious basis than the second, and the second more so than the third, and so on. This would explain why the first of my dreams was so incredibly surreal, and the third not at all. If the manifest dream is an expression of the latent dream, and the level of ‘unruliness’ of the latent wish can influence the way the dream is manifestly presented, the first dream would have been the expression of an unconscious wish that is more repressed than the unconscious wishes that formed the basis of the second and third dream. Or to put it simply: the more repressed (i.e. the more unruly or disturbing) the unconscious wish, the more surreal the dream.

But there’s another important factor at play. The relationship between the level of repression and the dream manifestation has, by itself, no bearing whatsoever on the chronology of multiple dreams. In theory, the third dream I had could have been my first, and the hypothesis I just put forth would still be valid. Yet this wasn’t the case. The succession of dreams clearly showed a decrease in the level of surreality, suggesting a meaningful order. This may have something to do with the human sleep cycle. Sleep is a state of mind characterized by altered consciousness, and can be divided into cycles. During the various stages of sleep, brain activity fluctuates. It has been argued that this has some bearing on the level of consciousness one experiences during sleep. During my first dream, I had the distinct feeling of being ‘in’ the dream. In other words: I was less (or almost not) aware of the fact I was dreaming. The dream I was having felt more ‘real’ and drowned out the slight or almost non-existent awareness that the dream was in fact ‘unreal’. This wasn’t true for the third dream. During the third dream, I had the distinct feeling (or awareness) that I was ‘in a dream’. In other words: I was consciously aware of the fact I was dreaming, and I shifted from a participant-perspective to an observer-perspective when comparing the first and third dream, respectively.

The ego presents dreams in a specific order parallel to the level of consciousness one experiences during sleep.

My second hypothesis is therefore that the ego-censor is aware of the fact that there are fluctuating states of consciousness that occur during sleep cycles. When considering this fact, the ego would benefit from presenting dreams in a certain order. In order to guarantuee the role of ‘guardian of sleep’ (cf. supra), the ego would have to present dreams in a specific order parallel to the level of consciousness one experiences during sleep. Dreams that capitalize on more repressed elements have to be presented first, when levels of consciousness are minimal, and dreams that capitalize on less repressed elements have to be presented last, when levels of consciousness are maximal. Reversing this order would be illogical: if this were the case, the ego would allow those dreams with the most unruly and disturbing nature to manifest themselves during moments of maximal awareness. This would be an illogical fit and would go against one of the principal functions of dreaming.

To summarize, I propose the following hierarchical structure to be part of human dream mechanics:

  • First dream: characterized by:
    • High levels of repression
    • High levels of surreality
    • Low levels of awareness
  • Second/third/… dream: characterized by:
    • Gradual decrease in level of repression
    • Gradual decrease in level of surreality
    • Gradual increase in level of awareness
  • Last dream: characterized by:
    • Low levels of repression
    • Low levels of surreality
    • High levels of awareness

I might revisit this idea later on. I hope to be able to substantiate this hypothesis with further dream sesssions.

Auteur: S. E. George

Steven Joris

Steven Joris is klinisch psycholoog (visumnummer 260924), onderzoeker en hoofdredacteur van De Jonge Psycholoog. Steven is werkzaam binnen het Psychodiagnostisch Centrum (Thomas More Antwerpen) en werkt als psychodiagnosticus op zelfstandige basis. Daarnaast zetelt Steven in de Testcommissie van de Belgische Federatie van Psychologen en is voorzitter van de Divisie Psychodiagnostiek binnen de Vlaamse Vereniging van Klinisch Psychologen.

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