Compendium of Horror, Fear, and the Grotesque

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Freud on Dreams

Before looking at Freud's dream interpretation methods, it's a good idea to review the components of his personality theory. Most of Freud's terms have entered the vernacular so they should be familiar to most of you. Freud's personality model consists of three main aspects: the id, the ego, and the superego.

According to Freud, the id is the incipient part of the mind. All of us start our lives as pure id. The id is our instinctual and basic nature. It is interested only in obtaining pleasure and satisfaction for itself. If its requirements are not met effectively, the id behaves badly and demonstrates its true primitive nature. Freud regarded the newborn as pure id, perceiving itself as the entire world. Experience had not yet taught newborns that they are separate from their surroundings so their approach to the world is by nature selfish.

The ego emerges from the id as the child grows and learns that things outside of itself are separate and don't always conform to its needs and wishes. This component represents the personality's view of itself as becoming a separate entity from its surroundings. The ego learns to interact with the real world in ways the id never had to. Eventually the ego becomes a translator for the expressions of the id to ensure successful communication with the real world. Freud ascribed three aspects to the ego: the subconscious, the preconscious, and the conscious. The ego in this model forms the entire mind. The ego is tasked with keeping a balance between the primitive wants of the id and the highly moral demands of the superego.

The superego is the moral authority or conscience of the personality. According to Freud, this aspect begins to emerge around age 5 or 6, the traditional "age of reason" in western civilization. The superego contains all the moral lessons and counsels we get from parents, teachers, and spiritual authorities. It also houses all the negative strictures and warnings learned from pervious transgressions. The superego is diametrically opposed to the id.

Freud developed his dream interpretation theory based on his model of the psyche. Dreams, he argued, are expressions of wishes originating in the id which the superego attempts to censor. Freud viewed the subconscious as wanting to project a visual representation of wish fulfillment. So the dream to Freud is a kind of analog of what the subconscious mind demands. The superego reacts and engages in censorship. In order to get its wish across to the conscious mind and avoid censorship by the superego, the subconscious uses what Freud called "transformations." These transformations are similar to Trojan Horses in that they package the forbidden dream content in what otherwise appears to the dreamer as innocent imagery. The purpose of expressing forbidden wishes by the id and subconscious mind is to attempt to resolve some inner conflict in the dreamer. The purpose of transforming those wishes is to avoid censorship by the superego.

Freud listed four specific transformations: symbols, representations, displacement, and condensation. Symbols are surrogates for people, specific actions, or even ideas. Representations are broader; they represent a single thought translated into multiple images. Displacement is replacing an emotionally charged object with a substitute that disguises the original object. Condensation is using a single object to represent multiple thoughts. Transformations are tools that the subconscious uses to to mask what Freud called latent content by changing its appearance to manifest content; i.e., what the dreamer literally sees in his dream.

Dream interpretation for Freud required first understanding the structure and dynamics of the psyche; then studying the specific imagery presented in a patient's dream. His most acclaimed work on dream analysis is The Interpretation of Dreams. In it he shows how his method differs from previous methods of dream interpretation, primarily in that his method focuses on interpreting symbols and imagery as related specifically to the dreamer. The notion of using an index of universal symbols to interpret dreams was unacceptable to Freud. 

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