The ancients knew about dreams – though we glean most through Biblical accounts – but it was not until the early 20th century that modern dream interpretation gained wider understanding. Instead of burning bushes and fiery chariots – now they sound more like alien craft sightings than a prophet’s warning – dream content held fascinating, intimate detail to professional observers. Their significance was seen as profoundly meaningful, revealing at last the inner workings of the dreamer’s mind.
Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, the acknowledged founder of psychoanalysis, ranks as the foremost leader of talking therapy, the first to recognize the significance of dreams in mental health. He published his book The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900, setting the stage for psychoanalytic theory and electrifying his colleagues with its daring content: Freud believed his patients’ sleep narratives largely held covert sexual conflict.
However, several researchers have wondered since if his own personal struggle with his sexual leanings was not sometimes colouring his interpretations. He insisted that to be accepted by his sceptical peers it was essential to keep to a strict, rational position. He failed to accept any mystical, other-worldlyinterpretations suggested by one or two of his students.
Significantly, Freud saw the connection between the Greek Oedipus Rex tragedy – Oedipus accidentally killed his father and then married his widowed mother, believing he had been adopted at birth – and the hidden, repressed sexual longings in his patients.
Though he is known mostly today for his theory of repression, Freud developed other important ideas still widely respected over a century later by mental health practitioners.
An analytical psychologist and Freud’s student for some years, Swiss-born Carl Jung’s name is synonymous with dream interpretation. Jung has influenced modern dreaming studies more than anyone. Opposed to his mentor’s professed one-track view of dream analysis,Jung broke away, insisting that dreams comefrom a transcendental source, the world of the spirit. He declared they reflect our waking selves and help solve problems: a far more positive take, one which contributed to his philosophy that the human psyche has greater influence than personal experience alone.
So Jung developed his own idea about the value of dreams, far removed from hints at the forbidden in disguised form. He saw a dream as the expression of the wisdom of the unconscious. He believed it was often cloaked in symbolism or metaphor, powerfullyintegrating the conscious with the unconscious – and he valued that concept highly.
Jung saw dreams as useful indicators to determine the dreamer’s journey towards individuation: transforming an unformed person into a unique individual. He maintained that women have a masculine (animus) side to their psyche, men a feminine (anima) side, essential for that journey.
Unlike Freud, he embraced the holistic way of life. Jung believed in alchemy, astrology, and mythology. He had the courage to embark on self-analysis to the point of confronting his own unconscious world, considered a dangerous exercise. But as a result of enduring a mental breakdown he emerged with clear ideas about archetypes, complexes, the collective unconscious, and individuation. All of which still influence psychiatric and psychological trainings today.
Calvin S. Hall
A younger contemporary of Jung, Americanborn Calvin Springer Hall approached the world of dreams from a different perspective. A behavioural psychologist, he developed a cognitive theory of dreams in the middle of the last century, rejecting Jung’s belief that dream content sometimes comes from higher levels, outside the self. He contended they were only the result of the dreamer’s personal thoughts, hopes, fears, and experience.
Hall declared that dreams convey the dreamer’s conceptions of self, family, friends, and so on – and that they revealed qualities, for example, “weak”, “domineering” or “loving”, essentially a mirror of the dreamer’s own views.
American-born Edgar Cayce, the son of a poor Kentucky farmer, became famous in the early part of the 20th century because of his ability to dream clairvoyantly, diagnosing thousands of grateful patients and – from the sleep state – recommending healing remedies.
The dream world was central to his being. Cayce unwittingly illustrated Jung’s own idea of group consciousness, demonstrating how he was able from afar to “see” and diagnose unfamiliar people without any prior knowledge of their condition. But unlike Jung, he claimed to be able to examine trauma in previous lifetimes – as in reincarnation – which frequently explained their present troubles.
Cayce’s story began as a boy. He was upset by his father’s rage at his difficulty learning spelling. Strangely, he lay down with his head on a spelling book, and fell fast asleep. When he woke up he knew all the correct answers.
Later, he learned in the sleep state how to cure his chronic loss of voice and to heal a long-term boyhood accident.
Cayce was affectionately known as “The Sleeping Prophet”. Thousands of patients over the years asked for his help and valued his “prescriptions” – holistic treatments such as homeopathy, essential oils, mud baths, special diets, and meditation. He used to say “Dreams are tonight’s answers to tomorrow’s questions” and – like Jung – used symbols to convey meaning to dreams.