Exploring Dreams

Exploring everyday dream life can be richly rewarding and a source of personal enrichment and personal growth. Let’s start with Sigmund Freud’s (1856-1939) pioneering approach.


To unlock dreams, Freud proposed four dream processes or mental filters that disguise the meanings of dreams. The first is Condensation in which several people or events are combined into a single dream image. A dream character, for example, that looks like a teacher, acts like your father, talks like your mother and is dressed like your grandfather, might be a compilation of authority figures in your life.


Displacement is the second process of disguising dream content. Displacement may cause important emotions or actions of a dream to be moved toward safe or seemingly unimportant images. Thus, a student who is angry at his parents may dream of accidentally wrecking their car instead of directly attacking them.


The third dream filter is Stabilization. Freud believed that dreams are often expressed in images that are symbolic rather than literal. That’s why it is important to ask what feelings or ideas a dream image might symbolize. An example might be that a student dreams of going to class naked. A literal interpretation would be that the student is an exhibitionist. A more likely symbolic meaning is that the student feels vulnerable or unprepared in class.

Secondary Elaboration

Secondary Elaboration is Freud’s fourth process by which dream meanings are disguised. Secondary Elaboration is the tendency to make dreams more logical and to add details when trying to remember them. For that reason, the fresher a dream memory is, the more useful it is likely to be. 

Dreamer as Playwright

Looking for Condensation, Displacement, Stabilization and Secondary Elaboration may help you unlock your dreams but there are other techniques that may be more effective. Dream theorist Calvin Hall (1974) preferred to think of dreams as a play and the dreamer as the playwright. Much can be learned by simply considering the setting, the cast of characters, the plot and emotions portrayed in the dream.

Others suggest that dreams are primarily “feeling statements.”  The overall emotional tone of a dream is a major clue to its meaning (Cartwright & Lamberg, 1992). Because each dream has several possible meanings or levels of meanings, there are no fixed ways to work with it.

The meaning of most dreams can be discovered by a little detective work. Try asking a series of questions about dreams you would like to understand.

  • Who was in the dream? Were there humans, animals or mythical characters? Can you recognize any of them?
  • What social interactions were taking place? Were there any physical activities? Friendly? Aggressive? Sexual?
  • What activities were taking place? Were there physical interactions?
  • Was there any striving? If so, was the striving successful?
  • What emotions were present in the dream? Was there any anger? stress, happiness, apprehension or confusion?
  • What were the physical surroundings? What was the setting? Did you recognize any of the features? What physical objects were present?

(Adapted from the Hall-Van DeCastle System of Dream Content and Analysis, Domhoff, 2003)

What’s Missing?

If you are still having trouble finding the meaning of a dream, you might consider that most dreams are a special message about what’s missing in your life. What we avoid doing or feeling that needs to be acknowledged. Dreams may be a way of filling in gaps in personal experiences (Perls, 1969).

Wish Dreams

Freud studied his own dreams in his book “The Interpretation of Dreams.” He claimed that every dream enacts a wish fulfillment, and the more unpalatable the wish is to our conscious mind, the more hidden or distorted the desire becomes in our dreams, so the unconscious, he wrote, sends messages to us in code.


In many ways, dreams can be thought of as messages from yourself to yourself. Thus, the way to remember them is to write them down. Look for the messages they contain and become acquainted with your own symbol system.

The great psychoanalyst Carl Jung (1875-1961) once observed that man “can make no progress with himself unless he becomes much better acquainted with his own nature.”

How to Catch a Dream

  • Before going to sleep, plan to remember your dreams.
  • Keep a paper and pen or a tape recorder on a table near your bed.
  • If possible, allow yourself to awake gradually without an alarm. Natural wakening almost always follows soon after a REM period.
  • Upon wakening, lie still and review your dream images with your eyes closed. Try to remember as many details as you can.
  • If you can, try to make a dream record either by writing or recording, with your eyes closed. Opening your eyes will disrupt the dream recall.
  • Dream memories disappear quickly so write or record as many details as possible.
  • Be sure to describe the feelings you had in the dream as well as the plot, the setting, the characters and actors.
  • Keep a dream diary in chronological order and review them periodically. This important procedure will reveal recurrent themes, conflicts and emotions. This almost always produces valuable insights.
  • Keep in mind, drugs and alcohol affect dreaming by interrupting and reducing REM sleep.

This report is not a diagnosis. We hope this information can guide you toward improving your life.

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