How Does Dream Analysis Work?

Humans have been fascinated by their dreams since the days of the Egyptians and the Babylonians, where it was believed that dreams represented messages from the Gods. Still today, dreams are often thought to carry mystical and metaphysical qualities, supposedly enabling us to predict the future or connect with alternate realms, for example. Their content can range from the mundane to the mysterious, magical, moving or just plain terrifying; and dreams often stir up powerful emotions and associations which may linger with us for a long time after we’ve woken up. In this article, we explore the science and art of dream analysis, giving you an understanding of how a psychologist might guide you in learning the secrets of your unconscious mind.

Dream Analysis: What is it?

Dream analysis, also known as dream interpretation, is the act of assigning meaning to and making sense of a dream. There is no set way of analyzing a dream and the broad range of people who claim to interpret dreams – from alternative healers and fortunetellers to mystics and religious figures – may practice in widely differing ways. But dream analysis is a technique that’s also practiced by trained psychologists, especially those from the psychoanalytic or psychodynamic school; and also at times by Gestalt therapists, art therapists, and cognitive-behavioral therapists. In this article, we’re going to be focusing on the forms of dream analysis typically used by mental health professionals.

Dream Analysis Theory

Dream analysis typically forms a part of psychoanalytic theory and practice. What exactly is psychoanalysis? Very broadly, this theory tells us that our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and personalities are affected by the unconscious – that part of the mind which we’re not consciously aware of. The contents of the unconscious are thought to be abstract, illogical and difficult to understand: fantasies, symbols, memories, emotions, instincts, desires and of course, dreams.

How Does Dream Analysis Suggest the Mind Works?

From the perspective of psychoanalysis, dreams represent the link between our conscious and unconscious minds. For this reason, Freud famously referred to dreams as ‘the royal road to the unconscious’. In other words, when we’re dreaming, this is a spilling-over of content from the unconscious into our conscious awareness. The way that a psychologist understands this unconscious content depends on their theoretical school and different practitioners have suggested different ways of interpreting dreams.

Important Practitioners in Dream Analysis

Within psychoanalysis, there are two broad approaches to dream analysis, each of which was forwarded by two of psychology’s most famous figures, who we discuss below.

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud lived from 1856 to 1939. He was a Viennese neurologist and the developer of psychoanalysis. He spent most of his life in Vienna, but in 1938 he moved to the United Kingdom to escape the Nazis. In 1899 he published The Interpretation of Dreams. Freud’s ideas continue to influence psychology today.

The Freudian school believes that the unconscious is filled with experiences that we ‘repress’ (i.e. unknowingly push out of our awareness) because of their distressing or shameful content – usually socially unacceptable impulses related to sex or aggression. What does this mean for dream analysis? Freud believed that the symbols and emotions in our dreams can help us to understand the cause of our problems in life, including relationship difficulties and symptoms of mental illness.

Carl Jung

Carl Jung was a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst from Switzerland. Born in 1875, he worked extensively with Freud. Jung’s dream analysis theory was initially influenced by Freud’s, but Jung went on to publish his own theory, the Psychology of the Unconscious, in 1912, which created a massive rift between the two analysts.

The Jungian school differs from the Freudian school in terms of how the unconscious is viewed and how dream analysis is conducted. For example, Jung believed that our dreams contain symbols from the collective unconscious – ideas and symbols (called archetypes) that are shared by all people across cultures. For Jungians, therefore, dream analysis is about recognizing these symbols and linking them to one’s personalities in order to discover how to fulfill one’s creative potential as a human.

How Does Dream Analysis Cause Change?

Dream analysis helps us to develop a better understanding of ourselves and the unconscious dynamics that may be affecting us. For people who experience recurrent dreams, it can provide a sense of relief to understand their significance; and dream analysis more generally can help us to identify aspects of our emotional lives that may need further support or development.

What Happens in a Dream Analysis Session?

Most forms of dream analysis begin in the same way: after describing your dream to your therapist, the two of you will work together to identify the salient themes in your dream. Your therapist may also ask questions to elicit other themes that are potentially relevant, and in describing your dream to your therapist often you will be able to recall other aspects of the dream that you hadn’t initially remembered.

Dreams are said to have two layers of meaning: manifest and latent content. Manifest content refers to the above-mentioned themes that are clear and obvious, while latent content refers to more subtle meanings and associations. For example, if you dream of yourself flying, the manifest content is flight, while the latent content is the meanings that you attach to flight: liberation, lightness and childhood memories of flying your kite, for example. By using their knowledge of you as a person, as well as other psychological techniques which we describe below, your therapist will help you to determine the latent content in your dream and to understand what this might mean for your life.

Techniques Used in Dream Analysis

  • Free association is a psychoanalytic technique whereby the client speaks (or writes) freely about whatever comes to mind without censoring the content. This is a powerful way of understanding the latent content of a dream, by revealing any associated meaning that we might have been unaware of.
  • Amplification is a technique that’s rooted in Jungian dream analysis. This technique uses universally accepted or historical meanings of the symbols in the dream to make sense of the symbols. The individual’s interpretations are explored within the context of widely accepted beliefs about the symbol. In this way, the meaning of seemingly obscure symbols is clarified.
  • Take the Part of” refers to a technique used in Gestalt dream analysis. The client is asked to record everything they can remember about the dream. The therapist then asks the client to act out parts of the dream, playing different roles and developing a dialogue.

Does Dream Analysis Work?

Dream analysis doesn’t work for everyone. But for some, it is a powerful tool for exploring the unconscious mind. However, dream analysis works best when it’s used in the context of an established therapeutic relationship with a psychologist. This way, you’re able to collaborate with an experienced therapist – one who already knows your history, struggles, and personality – to derive meaning from the symbols in your dreams. In doing so, you’re able to grow as a person by becoming aware of your mind’s deepest fantasies and desires.

What Kinds of Concerns is Dream Analysis Best For?

Dream analysis may be used in the context of broader treatments for psychological disorders which affect dreaming, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and recurrent nightmares. However, dream analysis is more broadly appropriate for anyone wishing to gain a deeper understanding of who they are and what makes them tick, regardless of whether or not they have any mental health concerns.

Furthermore, some people experience recurrent dreams and they may have a sense that a part of their psyche is desperately trying to send them a message that they’re simply not getting. For these people, developing an understanding of the dream’s significance can provide a sense of relief and fulfillment.

How Are Dream Analysis Specialists Trained?

For psychologists, dream analysis usually forms a part of the broader training that psychodynamic or psychoanalytic practitioners receive. Traditionally, to become a psychoanalyst one must undergo extensive training over several years which includes being psychoanalyzed oneself. However, clinical psychologists who are not formally recognized as being psychoanalysts may learn the theory and principles of the unconscious during their general training – and dream analysis training is often incorporated therein.

Concerns/Limitations of Dream Analysis

Members of the scientific community tend to be skeptical about dream interpretation, given that it has been practiced by soothsayers, charlatans, and pseudoscientists for years. Some researchers have even suggested that dreams can’t be analyzed at all because they hold no meaning whatsoever; and that dreams are just arbitrary thoughts and electrical signals that happen while we’re asleep. Furthermore, dream analysis is not a scientifically backed practice, because there is no way to reliably assess whether a dream interpretation is accurate or not. Despite this, many licensed clinicians continue to perform dream analysis and maintain that this is a useful technique in therapy.

How to Find a Therapist

Ask your local GP to recommend a psychologist near you. Alternatively, an online search should bring up names and websites of psychologists, allowing you to ascertain whether they conduct dream analyses.

What Should I be Looking for in an LMHP?

You’ll want to find someone who is licensed as a psychotherapist whilst also having received training in dream analysis. Therapists who use a psychodynamic framework usually know how to practice dream analysis, although not all therapists choose to do so in their practice, so it’s recommended that you ask beforehand. Once you meet your therapist, make sure that you feel safe and comfortable with them, as this is crucial for a good therapeutic relationship.

Questions to Ask a Potential Therapist

Do you have an interest in dream analysis?

Have you done any training in dream analysis?

What techniques do you use for dream interpretation?

Should I be interested in my dreams?

What form of therapy would be most appropriate for me?

Do you have a specific theoretical orientation?

How much do sessions cost and will this be covered by my insurance?

When will we meet for sessions and how often will they take place?

What is your cancelation policy?

Find a Therapist Now

If you walk into a bookstore, you’re likely to find the shelves lined with pop-psychology dream guides which list the meanings that any dream symbol implies, in the style of an encyclopedia. But this method of analysis leaves many a dreamer unsatisfied. While some psychologists feel that there are certain symbols which have a shared universal meaning, how can someone suggest what a certain symbol means to you without having a real sense of the person that you are?

If a person wants to truly understand the significance of their dreams, they need to delve deep into themselves – and this is best done with the assistance of a trained and licensed mental health practitioner. Thrive Talk is an online platform that connects people with the right therapist for their needs. Many of the therapists on this platform are familiar with dream analysis. With a straightforward sign-up process and a broad range of fully qualified practitioners on offer, this online platform might be just what you need to start making sense of your dreams from the comfort of your own home.

Final Thoughts on Dream Analysis

For centuries, humans have been excited and enthralled by the images that come to them during sleep. A dream can create a powerful sense that something significant is stirring within you; and that the deepest parts of the mind are seeking to be heard. A dreamer yearns to understand the mysterious truths that lurk below the surface of conscious awareness and analyzing your dreams allows you to deepen your relationship with yourself.

In this article, we have covered dream analysis as practiced by clinical psychologists. Although dream analysis is not seen as a scientifically reliable treatment approach, it is still used by many licensed professionals as a way of improving the lives of their clients. In time, with further research and advancements in brain imaging technology, science may be able to shed more light on this technique. Until then, however, dream analysis will continue to be practiced as an art, rather than a science.


author avatar
Angel Rivera
I am a Bilingual (Spanish) Psychiatrist with a mixture of strong clinical skills including Emergency Psychiatry, Consultation Liaison, Forensic Psychiatry, Telepsychiatry and Geriatric Psychiatry training in treatment of the elderly. I have training in EMR records thus very comfortable in working with computers. I served the difficult to treat patients in challenging environments in outpatient and inpatient settings
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