How Much Do You Know About Freudian Dream-Interpretation?

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Nobody in modern history did more to change how we view dreams than Sigmund Freud, the Austrian founder of psychoanalysis. Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, first published in 1899, brought to mainstream attention the idea that the symbols that pop up in our dreams — symbols often so bizarre and disjointed we’re tempted to shrug, say Whatever, and move on — offer the key to unlocking our most potent, private wishes and fears, to revealing things about ourselves we might not know or want to know.

Today, most psychologists and psychiatrists don’t view Freudian dream analysis as quite rigorous enough to form a sturdy basis for working with patients. But it’s impossible to deny the profound, fascinating legacy Freud’s views on dreams and the subconscious have had on the cultural and scientific landscape for more than a century, and counting.

How much do you know about this legacy? Take this multiple-choice quiz to find out. (Thanks to Sarah Winter, a professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of Freud and the Institution of Psychoanalytic Knowledge, for her help with this.)

How Much Do You Know About Freudian Dream-Interpretation?

When Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams, what did he view as the main psychological role or purpose of dreaming?

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Especially early on his recent career, Freud focused on the idea that dreams are expressions of wishes — often ones we are too ashamed or scared of for our conscious minds to present them in a more direct manner.

Whose dreams are featured the most in The Interpretation of Dreams?

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Freud was endlessly fascinated by his own dreams, and in The Interpretation of Dreams he analyzed a bunch of them. Some of them are pretty, well, Freudian:

I was very incompletely dressed and was going upstairs from a flat on the ground floor to a higher storey. I was going up three steps at a time and was delighted at my agility. Suddenly I saw a maid-servant coming down the stairs – coming towards me, that is. I felt ashamed and tried to hurry, and at this point the feeling of being inhibited set in: I was glued to the steps and unable to budge from the spot.

Freud’s technique for having patients report their dreams was to have them lie down, think about their dreams, and do what?

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In Freud’s view, having a patient free-associate about the meaning of a dream was the best route for them to uncover what was lurking in their unconscious, because it increased the chances they would report details that were actually key to unlocking their issues — details that might not be the most important-seeming or attention-getting at first blush.

In Freud’s model of dreaming, what are the main types of dream content?

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A dream’s manifest content is its literal content: your dad smoking a giant cigar, for example. Its latent content is what is represented by its manifest content (use your imagination on that one).

Which literary work(s) figure the largest in The Interpretation of Dreams?

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In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud claims to have figured out the seemingly bottomless appeal of these two classics. Oedipus Rex involves the protagonist sleeping with his mother, which was of course a persistent preoccupation of Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis called the Oedipus complex. And in Hamlet, Freud writes, it’s clear that the reason Hamlet repeatedly procrastinates when it comes to the task of killing his uncle, Claudius, is because Claudius has done what Hamlet himself wishes he could, deep down: kill his father, King Hamlet, and marry his mother, Gertrude.

Freud saw dream analysis as a potent technique for understanding and treating _________, a psychological problem which mostly afflicted women, and which brought symptoms ranging from anxiety and insomnia to, at the more extreme end of the spectrum, aphonia (an inability to speak) and even blindness without any apparent physical cause. It had traditionally been treated with hypnosis or even genital stimulation, but Freud mainstreamed the idea of treating it with dream analysis and talk therapy more generally.

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Hysteria was big during Freud’s day, and, as many feminist critics have pointed out, was often used in an overly broad, less-than-rigorous manner as a means of controlling and pathologizing nonconformist behavior on the part of women. At first, Freud thought that hysterics had been the victims of seduction or attempted seduction by male family members or friends when they were younger, and in therapy he would often help patients recover “memories” of these encounters. Eventually, his thinking changed, and he came to believe that rather, these memories reflected fantasies — desires to have sexual relationships with older men. Often, of course, their fathers.

One of Freud’s most famous cases of dream interpretation involved “Dora,” a “hysteric” who suffered from aphonia and other serious symptoms. How did that case turn out?

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“Dora” provided Freud with enough material for his case study “Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria,” published in 1905, which included his interpretation of two of her dreams — in one recurrent dream, as recounted by the scholar Alex Gatlin, Dora’s family’s house is on fire but her mother wants to search for a jewel case before fleeing. But the therapeutic relationship was left unfinished, since Dora suddenly quit her sessions with Freud, which left him frustrated: “[I]f the work had been continued,” he wrote, "we should no doubt have obtained the fullest possible enlightenment upon every particular of the case."

What traumatic early-childhood event, referred to by Freud as “the primal scene,” could stunt a child’s psychosexual development, and would sometimes manifest itself, in various ways, in dreams later on in life?

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As the psychiatrist Anne Skomorowsky wrote in Psychology Today in 2014, Freud viewed a child witnessing his or her parents in flagrante as “a world-shattering event.” To Freud, she wrote, “The horror and excitement of watching his parents’ sexual activities traumatized the child, led to castration anxiety, and set the stage for the development of the Oedipus complex.” Luckily, this is no longer a commonly held belief among psychological researchers.