The Unconscious World of Dream

An Introduction to Jung's Dream Psychology


also read Frieda Fordham's An introduction to Jung's psychology

Jungian Psychology is as much as state of mind as a system of theory and practice

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Freud vs Jung
Freud's View
Freud believed that during sleep forbidden wishes are liberated from their daytime inhibitions and made conscious. Because they are 'forbidden' they are disturbing to the ego and capable of waking one up. In Freud;s view it is the function of dreams to prevent this from happening, to protect the ego by transforming the unacceptable wish into an acceptable set of images. This allows the dreamer to go on sleeping and not disturbing sleep.

In Freud's theory the mental institution responsible for this protecting function is the 'censor' or super ego which causes the forbidden wish {Freud's latent content} to be disguised and appear in a form which will not disturb or wake the dreamer. The dream itself is the manifest content of the disguised wish. To disguise the latent content there is a number of techniques used such as displacement, condensation, symbolization and pictorialization. Freud also proposed that the bizarre, irrational nature of dreams is evidence for the existence and function of the censor in disusing the dream's true meaning

In Freud's theory the goal is to undo the work of the censor by the technique of free association.One starts with a dream image and allows their thoughts to associate with it without hesitation and in complete freedom. By free association the dream image is decoded and can be reduced to their basic meaning. Freud was convinced that these formulations solved the riddle of the meaning of dreams.

Jung's View
Jung initially went along with this theory but soon realized its limitations. Whereas Freud believed that dreams fashioned their manifest contents out of memory residue, those from the previous day and from childhood. Jung accepted this but went much further, maintaining that dreams drew on a third, much deeper source, belonging to the evolutionary history of our species. Jung called this the collective unconscious. Freud also believed that the forbidden wishes were predominantly sexual in origin. Jung was convinced that dreams had their origins in much wider concerns, namely, the basic issues of human existence.

After Jung's break from Freud Jung felt free to develop his own approach to dreams but was never dogmatic about it as was Freud. He proceeded to reject the basic tenets of Freud's theory and replaced them with his own. Most of Freud's hypotheses have proven untenable in the light of new dream research while Jung's have stood the test of time. For example, the well established observation that all mammals dream and that human infants devote much of their time to REM {rapid eye movement} dream sleep, both in the womb and post-natally, would seem to dispose of the idea that dreams are disguised expressions of repressed wishes or that their primary function is to preserve sleep. Jung maintained that dreams are natural products of the psyche and perform a homeostatic {maintain internal equilibrium} or self-regulatory function. They obey the biological imperative of adaptation in the interests of personal judgement, growth and survival. Jung's theory of dreams can be summarized under for headings:

  • Dreams are natural, spontaneous events, which proceed independently of conscious will or intention
  • Dreams are both purposive and compensatory in that they serve to promote the balance and individuation of the personality
  • The symbols are true symbols, not signs, and they possess a transcendent function
  • The therapeutic power of dreams is better served by the techniques of amplification and active imagination than by interpretation based on free association.

Pure Nature

Dreams do not deceive, they do not lie, they do not distort or disguise. They seek to express something that the ego does not know and does not understand. The dream is a spontaneous self-portrayal, in symbolic form, of the actual situation in the unconscious. To quote the Talmud, 'The dream is its own interpretation'. Why do dreams need to be interpreted? Not because they are disguises but because their meanings are formulated in a pictorial 'language' that is understood by the ego when put into words through a proper interpretation of the symbols.

Dreams are impartial, spontaneous products of the unconscious psyche, outside the control of the will. They are pure nature; they show us the unvarnished, natural truth, and are therefore fitted, as nothing else is, to give us back an attitude that accords with our basic human nature when our consciousness has strayed too far from its foundations and run into an impasse...Carl Jung

Compensatory Function

Jung proposed that dreams performed a compensatory function by balancing the one-sided attitudes of the ego-consciousness. Jung asserts that 'the theory of compensation is a basic law of psychic behaviour' where 'too little on one side results in too much on the other'. The relation between conscious and unconscious is compensatory and is one of the best proven rules of dream interpretation. When interpreting a dream it is always helpful to ask, 'What conscious attitude does it compensate?' Dreams add something important to our conscious knowledge and a dream which fails to do so has not been properly interpreted. Dreams always stress the other side in order to maintain the psychic equilibrium.

Jung thought the purpose of dreams was to serve individuation by making valuable unconscious potential available to the whole personality. In contrast to Freud's causal or reductive approach which traced dream contents back to their infantile instinctual origins, Jung advocated a constructive, teleological approach which sought to discover where the dream contents might be leading. To plough a symbol back into its past was to deprive the dreamer of its contribution to the present and the future, and to adopt an essentially reductive role was to negate the creative, goal-seeking powers' of the psychic system. 'No psychological fact can ever be explained in terms of causality alone; as a living phenomenon, it is always indissolubly bound up with the continuity of the vital process, so that it is not only something evolved but also continually evolving and creative.

Accordingly, dreams serve the 'teleological' {attaining the goal of completeness} imperative of the Self, which works unceasingly towards its own realization in life.

Dreams emerge from the unconscious in an effort to compensate some maladaptive attitude of our ego. Dreams offer potentially valuable alternatives to the attitude of our ego. These alternatives appear in the dream as images which come spontaneously and autonomously from the unconscious. Because our ego has a maladaptive attitude, it has difficulty appreciating the potential value of these images. All too often, our ego experiences these images as a threat, and it reacts defensively. If, however, our ego can respond receptively to these images and engage them appropriately, the dream can transform our consciousness.


Perhaps the biggest disagreement between Jung and Freud were their respective attitude to symbols. To Freud a symbol was a figurative representation of an unconscious idea, conflict or wish. It was a substitute-formation which effectively disguised the true meaning of the idea it represented. To Freud a sword was a symbol of the penis, the sheath a symbol of the vagina, and pushing the sword into the sheath a symbol of sexual intercourse.

Jung did not consider the Freudian symbol to be a symbol at all but a 'sign', for it regularly referred to something already known or knowable and embodied in a meaning that was fixed. To Jung symbols were living entities striving to express something previously unknown. They were intuitive ideas, that at the moment of their creation, could not be formulated in any better way. Thus, symbols 'mean more than they say', and remain 'a perpetual challenge to our thoughts and feelings'.

To Jung symbols were natural growth factors which made possible the development of the personality, the resolution of conflict, and the transcendence of polar opposites. For this reason, he held that symbols possessed a transcendent function, facilitating all transitions from one psychological state to another. Symbols are, therefore, indispensable to healing and to the individuation of the Self. Human beings owe their pre-eminent status in the world to the fact that they are symbol making animals.

Consideration of the transcendent function brings us to the heart of Jung's love of paradox and his celebration of the generative power of opposite. The opposites are the ineradicable and indispensable preconditions of all psychic life. All opposites are intrinsically irreconcilable: but conflict between any pair of opposites generates tension which motivates the psyche to seek a third possibility that transcends them both. If one can learn to bear the tension that opposites invariably bring, then the problem is raised to a higher plane: good is reconciled with evil, love with hate, doubt with certainty, and a new synthesis will follow between conscious and unconscious, persona and shadow, ego and Self. Such reconciliations are attained neither rationally nor intellectually, but symbolically, through the transcendent function of symbols.

Creative work with symbols is, therefore, the key to successful personal development and therapeutic practice.

Symbols are perceived by the senses. They evoke feeling and thought. The ability of the mind to form symbols has a function, the "transcendent function", to unite conscious and unconscious and transform unconscious contents. Symbols are effective mediators because they are relatively undifferentiated, incorporating elements of all the functions - Thinking, Feeling, Sensation, and Intuition. The symbolic nature of stories, ritual, and religion exemplify the central role of symbols in human life

Jung's Dream
An Example of the Four Stages

In working on a dream the starting point for Jung was not the interpretation but 'amplification' - that is, to enter into the atmosphere of the dream, to establish its mood as well as the detail of its images and symbols, in such a way as to amplify the experience of the dream itself. Then its impact on consciousness is enhanced.

Because every symbol encompasses more than can be said about it, it must not be 'reduced' to its origins, but its implications examined in an archetypal light. Instead of breaking the dream down into a series of intellectual formations, one should circumambulate its symbols {literally walk round about them}, allowing them to reveal their different facets to consciousness. Personal associations need to be taken into account, but a full appreciation of the dream's intention can not stop there if one is to receive all that it has to offer.

Though most remembered dreams are little more than fragments or a few brief episodes, many have a story to tell and take form of a private drama. In these a definite structure can be perceived, which Jung divided into four stages. {1}the exposition, which sets the place and often the time of the action, as well as the dramatis personae involved; {2}the development of the plot, in which the situation becomes complicated and a 'definite tension develops because one does not know what will happen'; {3} the culmination or peripeteia, when 'something decisive happens or something changes completely'; and the lysis, the conclusion, the solution, or result of the dream-work.

The Dream

"I was in a mountainous region on the Swiss-Austian border. It was toward evening, and I saw an elderly man in the uniform of an Imperial Austrian customs official [stage 1: the exposition]. He walked past, somewhat stooped, without paying any attention to me. His expression was peevish, rather melancholic and vexed [stage 2: the development ]. There were other persons present, and someone informed me that the old man was not really there, but was the ghost of a customs official who had died years ago [stage 3: the peripetia]. "He is one of those who still couldn't die properly [stage 4: the lysis]."

This is not the end of the dream, however, as the dreamer is transported to another place and a similar narrative structure is repeated: he now finds himself in a city.

The city was Basel and yet it was also an Italian city, something like Bergamo. It was summertime; the blazing sun stood at the zenith, and everything was bathed in an intense light [Exposition]. A crowd came steaming toward me, and I knew that the shops were closing and people were on their way home to dinner [Development]. In the midst of this stream of people waked a knight in full armor. He mounted the steps toward me. He wore a helmet of a kind that is called a basinet, with eye slits , and chain armor. Over this was a white tunic into which was woven, front and back, a large red cross [Peripeteia]. I asked myself what this apparition meant, and then it was as if someone answered me - but there was no one there to speak:"Yes, this is a regular apparition. The knight always passes by here between twelve and one o'clock, and has been doing so for a very long time [for centuries I gathered] and everyone knows about it [Lysis].


Approach the Dream in 3 Stages

Jung approached the dream in three stages. The first attempts to establish the context of the dream in the life of the dreamer so as to understand something of its purely personal significance.
Next, the