Whatever happened to Sigmund Freud? Of course, the answer is that he died, but not before taking modern science down a fifty-year rabbit hole.
Freud came of age in the early 1900’s, a time when science was first beginning to wrap its mind around brain function, including dreaming. The big question in 1895: what is the essence of dreams? Freud thought he had the answer. To him, it was all about wish fulfillment of repressed feelings. He saw dreaming as the “royal road to the unconscious.”
Saul Mcleod of simplypsychology.org explains that Freud distinguished between the manifest content of a dream—the actual story—versus its latent content, the symbolism.
Through the process of condensation, you transform a wish, perhaps strangling your sister-in-law, into a dream about strangling a small dog. In this way, you lessen your own guilt regarding deeply held negative feelings about your sister-in-law. (Freud’s example, not mine.)
Secondary elaboration occurs when the dreamer’s subconscious takes a series of wishes and builds them out in a logical order, both making the dream believable and obscuring the its true significance.
Freud even postulated that there were universal latent symbols that reoccurred in our dreams. Some of these manifestations are sexual in nature and, to nobody’s surprise, have made their way into our cultural vernacular, thus keeping Freud’s dream theory alive.
One problem with Freud’s theory: it’s basically impossible to test. Nevertheless, for some fifty years, the focus for sleep research was on trying to establish the meaning of our dreams.
It wasn’t until the early 50‘s that Eugene Aserinsky, doing research at the University of Chicago, discovered the five stages of slumber, and as a result, ushered in modern day sleep analysis.
With Aserinsky’s discovery, dream research began to turn away from the business of interpreting symbolism to understanding sleep as a biological process for memory pruning, information acquisition, storage, and pattern association.
Unfortunately, this neuroscience-based idea of dreaming is not as sexy. So even today, Freud’s concepts get plenty of traction. The cloak and dagger intrigue of the subconscious brain acting out fantasies holds a lot more cache than dreams as your brain’s janitorial service at work.
Still, modern dream research argues that after a party, somebody’s got to take out the trash and tidy up a bit. It may not be very glamorous, but the service is essential to both your living room at home, and the one above your neck.