The mystery of dreams and their interpretation has occupied men’s thoughts in all ages. The Jews paid great attention to them, as the Old Testament shows, and there is evidence that the prophet Daniel had a shrewd knowledge, based upon psychological facts, concerning dream meanings.
There are probably ‘Dream Books’ still sold which purport to provide interpretations for the enquiring dreamer, but it is only in recent years that the scientific study of dreams has produced useful results.
Freud laid the foundations of our modern knowledge, but unfortunately certain parts of his theories have raised so much antagonism that the sound work he has done is still scorned and dream interpretation is regarded as fanciful; nevertheless I propose to show that in dreams we have a key to the unconscious of the dreamer.
Before attempting an explanation of dreams we must first consider sleep, which is an interruption of consciousness, so that whatever mind work is carried on in sleep is a product of dissociation. The interruption of consciousness is more or less complete, the light sleeper reacting to external stimuli, turning away from a touch or making movements to protect himself from heat or cold, whilst the heavy sleeper fails to react to these minor disturbances. The memory of occurrences in the outside world during sleep may be vaguely present in the waking stage, and some sleepers will answer questions or obey orders without waking and have little or no recollection of them afterwards. Such observations point to a resemblance between sleep and that form of dissociation called hypnosis.
In hypnosis the memories and emotions in the unconscious may be brought to the surface, and in sleep the unconscious, escaping from the control of the consciousness, sends up thoughts and feelings which manifest themselves in dreams. How far external stimuli cause or influence dreams is uncertain, but the more one investigates the less importance does one attach to physical stimuli.
The dreams of adults are concerned largely with what I have described in a previous chapter as repressions. These repressions are buried in the unconscious, and their efforts to come into consciousness cause our apparently senseless and fantastic dreams. If we dreamed distinctly about these forgotten episodes, and remembered the dream on waking, they would come into consciousness and be recognised, but, being buried and refused admission to the wide-awake world, before entering consciousness they are so distorted as to be unrecognisable. To the mechanism that holds them down or distorts them is given the name of the ‘censor’, and the interpreter of dreams must seek to evade the censor and resolve the distorted story into its proper elements.
This method is of value in that treatment of the war-strained soldier which aims at making him face his memories and grow accustomed to them, for if a memory is repressed it tends to appear in the sufferer’s dreams, which give an opportunity for its recovery by dream analysis. The opponents of this method picture the analyst, armed with a dictionary of dream meanings, listening to a patient’s account of a dream, then giving him an explanation and persuading him to believe it; but, though a shrewd guess may often be made as to the meaning of a dream, the interpretation, to be of any value, must come from the patient. He is made to close his eyes and, visualising the dream, to describe it carefully. If it is a terrifying dream the telling of it will reproduce the feeling of terror, and appropriate questions will recall the occasion on which the same feeling first occurred. If the real incident is recalled there is an emotional outbreak which often startles the observer, who has the satisfaction of knowing that the greater the outbreak the greater will be the benefit.
Here is an example of the practical use of a dream: The patient had lost all memory of his experience in France, and this loss spread to his life before the war so that he failed to recall even his former employment; he slept badly and had terrifying dreams, one of which was as follows:–
‘I was on a pleasure steamer with a lot of cheerful people; it went to sea and then entered a dark cavern. On the floor of the cavern were broken skeletons, and at the far end of the cavern was a hole with light showing through. Two pirates with cocked hats came and led seven of us up the cavern, where we saw some old men with whiskers. The pirates were quite kind and led us through another hole into a small cavern; the wall of the cavern began to fall down, so I picked up a broken sword and began to bore into the wall. Then something like a ball of fire came at me, and I woke up frightened.’
Though the reader could probably guess what the dream was about yet the man had no idea of the meaning, for the censor was still at work. He was made to close his eyes and visualise the ball of fire till he became frightened again, so frightened, indeed, that he was in a state of dissociation, his stream of consciousness being filled by the feeling of terror and only in relation to the outside world by means of the voice of the questioner. (The fact that memories restored by this method are often forgotten again as soon as the patient opens his eyes is proof of a dissociation.) At this stage he was told, ‘You felt like that in France, what was it?’ The normal stream of consciousness being cut off, the censor was now out of action, and the man, putting his hands to his head, cried, ‘It’s a Minnewerfer’, and when he became calmer told of a dug-out being blown in and several of his mates being killed. Then he was taken over the dream and made to look at the various parts and tell what they ‘turned to’. The pleasure steamer was the boat in which he went to France, the cheery people on board being other soldiers; he now recognised the place from which the boat started and the port where he landed. The cavern was a tunnel up which a captain and a sergeant-major (the pirates) had led seven men; the cocked hats resolved into the sergeant-major having a piece torn from the cloth cover of his helmet which flapped in the wind; the broken skeletons were the bodies of his slain comrades; the second cavern was the dug-out; the broken sword a bayonet which broke when he tried to dig his way out with it; the old men were German prisoners, and the ball of fire was the flash of the explosion.