What are the key similarities and differences between Freud and Jung’s theories of dreams?

What are the key similarities and differences between Freud and Jung’s theories of dreams?


Historically, dreams have often been given cultural significance all over the world, and various speculations abound on the origin and function of this intriguing phenomenon. However, it was the pioneering work of Freud in the late 19th Century which truly revolutionised the way dreams are discussed in much contemporary discourse. Although as a theory it is unfalsifiable and does not easily lend itself to empirical investigation, it subsequently remains somewhat outside of the conventional scientific approach to the study of psychological phenomena, as do the ideas of Jung. Psychodynamic theories have nonetheless been influential particularly with regard to dreams since their exact purpose and the genesis of their content is not demonstrably explicable in terms of mechanistic perspectives on sleep and mind. Clearly then these theories appeal to people, and they have resulted in psychotherapeutic methods of analysis that have been helpful to some people (Freud, 1940). With this in mind, this essay will seek to establish the individual contributions of Freud and Jung, where they concur and where their theories come into conflict. In order to do this each theory must first be outlined.
Freud ascribed a crucial central position of dreams in his overall model of the psyche (Jones, 1913). He saw dreams as indicative of pathologies and emotions affecting conscious life, either directly or through the action of his proposed concept of the unconscious. Freud believed that in fact the majority of the mental processes governing an individual’s thoughts, feelings and therefore behaviour, take place in the unconscious mind, and that an intrinsic censor keeps these processes and underlying drives from conscious awareness (Freud, 1922). This unconscious-conscious distinction is necessary, Freud argues, because the feelings evoked by conscious knowledge of true motivational drives and internal struggles would be unacceptable, and therefore these must be hidden in the unconscious. These unacceptable notions only become available to consciousness in transformed appearance; becoming something analogous but more acceptable to the individual. One of the primary ways Freud supposed that the unconscious communicated its contents to the conscious mind was via dreams. The actual experienced content of dreams Freud names the manifest content, whereas the true meaning of the dream as it is stored in the unconscious was dubbed the latent content (Freud, 1900). Through the method of psychoanalysis, utilising such techniques as free association and projective methods using external stimuli, such as the Rorschach inkblot test, Freud believed the latent content of dreams could be uncovered, and that the revelation of this information In the light of consciousness could alleviate many neurotic symptoms (Fenichel, 2006).
As far as Freud was concerned, dreams communicate their message through symbolic means. Images encountered in dreams represent some aspect of the dreamer’s psyche and their interpretation can result in profound insights into the inner life of an individual. For Freud, the meaning of certain dream symbols could be ubiquitous between individuals; if one person was dreaming of the Eiffel tower then this could be interpreted in much the same way as if another person were also dreaming of the Eiffel tower. The only way the interpretation would differ would be in regard to the dream context; that is, the place the object of the Eiffel tower occupied in relation to other dream objects, the motifs and themes involved in the dream as well as more ambient feelings surrounding dream objects. Therefore, two dreams involving the Eiffel tower could be interpreted quite differently, but the symbolic Eiffel tower could be said to have similar if not synonymous meaning between persons, according to Freud (1954).
A key aspect of Freud’s theory of the unconscious is that the ego (the symbolic self) develops defence mechanisms to protect itself from thoughts and feelings that it finds unacceptable, typically these are feelings of inadequacy, social comparisons or unbearable desires of some kind. This arsenal of defence mechanisms includes repression, denial, sublimation and projection. This list is not comprehensive but these are the primary mechanisms by which feelings that are deemed harmful to the ego are exiled to the unconscious (Freud, 2011). In Freud’s theory, these unconscious desires and feelings then manifest themselves symbolically in dreams through almost universally recognisable and interpretable symbols. Another aspect of this theory is that dream objects may form categories. In other words, different but perhaps similar objects may mean the same thing in terms of latent content. One classic example of a semantic category of this kind is phallic symbols; essentially anything cylindrical is often interpreted to denote a phallus, or more abstract ‘power’ (Orrells, 2013). The dream analysis would then proceed with the latent content supplanted in the place of the manifest content, and the true meaning of the dream could be interpolated depending on the dream context. Freud was essentially working towards an encyclopaedic knowledge of the meaning behind each dream symbol (Freud, 1900) and although there was some acknowledgement that these symbols could be represented differently between diverse people, much of his theory lacks generalizability. This point becomes especially relevant when it is remembered that his theory was developed using only qualitative data obtained from neurotics (Freud, 1922).
As a contemporary of Freud’s, Jung developed his theories largely without his input. When the two met they found that most of their ideas regarding the unconscious and its expression in dreams were compatible if not identical. However, there were some key areas of divergence; chiefly there are new concepts introduced by Jung, and disagreements over the exact nature of the unconscious. Despite specific differences, there is no denying the striking similarity of the theories with regard to the genesis of dreams, the structure of the individual psyche and to a large extent the interpretation of dream content.
Freud and Jung agreed that dreams harbour feelings, thoughts and desires which are unacceptable or painful to conscious awareness. Jung took this notion a step further and coined the term ‘complex’. A complex centres on a certain theme which pervades a person’s life again and again in many different ways. It must be a recurring theme which profoundly influences the psychology of the individual. Unlike the more general terms used by Freud, the idea of a complex provides a more structured way of understanding an individual’s unconscious expressions through the methods used in psychoanalysis, and the term was adopted by Freud into his psychology (Schultz and Schultz, 2009).
Jung also introduced the concept of the collective unconscious, as he felt that Freud’s formulation of the unconscious was apt when applied to the individual, but incomplete as it could not account for the consistency of certain dream themes and even specific symbols between individuals (Jung, 1981). Jung believed that the consistency of dreams between individuals was best explained by introducing a new level to the unconscious; a communal level where universally relevant archetypal symbols filter in disguised form into the conscious awareness of individuals through dreams. These archetypes are fundamental aspects of life which apply to all people, and as such are ingrained in some way in all cultures, but are expressed differently between cultures in their respective myths, legends and deities. For Jung, archetypal images include that of the mother, to give an idea of the sort of motifs supposedly inherent in the collective unconscious. Although Freud would later acknowledge the idea of a collective unconscious (Jung, 1936), he still did not attribute particular importance to it like Jung did, seeing it as more of an ‘appendix’ to the personal unconscious.
The collective unconscious was of paramount importance in Jung’s theory of dreams; he supposed that many dream images and themes could be interpreted as representing archetypes present in the collective unconscious (Jung, 1981). It is necessary here to delve a little further into Jung’s theory of the general human psyche to fully appreciate his perspective on dreams. Jung believed the ultimate goal of life was ‘individuation’ (Jung, 1923), which refers to the unification of personality, and an acknowledgment of all unconscious impulses. This integration of the unconscious with consciousness can only occur with the two still operating in relative autonomy but with the conscious mind achieving a degree of acceptance of the unconscious; both the collective and personal unconscious that is. Until individuation can be achieved, the individual must continue to attempt to differentiate themselves from the collective consciousness through the establishment of an individual persona. The persona is shaped through the processes of socialisation and individual experience and therefore the persona an individual choses to project may not truly reflect how they are feeling or thinking. Jung argued this persona is also shaped by the collective unconsciousness, and this struggle for individuation against the archetypes, and the strain felt by wearing the persona like a ‘mask’ is expressed in dreams (Jung, 1923).
The idea of integrating opposites features heavily in Jung’s theories, and he believed that dreams could be expressions of this internal struggle, which is a perspective shared by Freud. However, it is clear that there is disagreement on the origins of the internal struggles; for Freud they arise only from the pressure of individual desires which are deemed as unacceptable by the conscious mind, whereas Jung saw in dreams the process of socialisation via exposure to the collective unconscious and the archetypes, while at the same time the ego struggles against such influence for the possibility of individuation.
It can be gleamed from this description of the theories of Jung compared to those of Freud that Jung’s had more of a spiritual aspect to them. The idea of a collective unconscious inhabited by concepts that are familiar to all people does have an air of transcendence compared to the personal unconscious, which is concerned only with the unbearable thoughts of the one individual concerned. The objectivist worldview of Freud can be clearly contrasted here with that of Jung who did not discount spiritual perspectives, but saw in them analogies, representations and affirmations of his own concepts, albeit expressed with some artistic licence and cultural influence. The goal of individuation, Jung thought, was at the mystical heart of all religions, whereas the collective unconscious gave rise to all manner of representations in religious texts.
This brings us to another way in which the theories differ. Freud conceptualised the unconscious as being overwhelmingly focused on negative emotions and thoughts concerning the ego. The complex for Freud was always a malevolent phenomenon. Jung did not believe this necessarily had to be the case, and stipulated that the unconscious could contain desires, thoughts and feelings of any emotional valence. Jung believed that the contents of the personal unconscious could have been repressed from consciousness for any number of reasons, which differs drastically from the opinion of Freud who believed that this was only possible through the activation of the defence mechanisms he conceived of. Indeed, Jung saw many of the archetypes as benign abstractions (Jung, 1981) shared by all cultures which are universally effective in shaping the socialisation of all members of a society. Jung’s theory then has greater scope, in encapsulating the macro-level influences which affect all people as well as individual tendencies expressed in dreams; Freud focused to heavily perhaps on the individual and their immediate relations.
Both Freud and Jung believed that unconscious underlying emotions for certain concepts drive external behaviour, the primary disagreement is over the placement of these emotional drives. Jung proposed that images filter up from the collective unconscious and are given individualised guises appropriate to each individual (but they nonetheless represent the same archetype). Feelings regarding this archetype arise from personal experience and inherent inclinations. These feelings are then expressed in the personal unconscious through dreams and take on personal significance in the conscious mind. In Freud’s theory, the process of unconscious expression takes place solely in the personal unconscious and is concerned with emotions, thoughts and desires surrounding personal relationships and experience (Williams, 1963).
Both of these psychodynamic theorists saw dreams as a key diagnostic tool in psychotherapy. However, there was some divergence in interpretative technique; primarily that Jung did not believe that the meaning of one dream symbol could be transferred effectively between people. To reuse the earlier example, to dream of the Eiffel tower could be interpreted completely differently depending on who dreamed it, their personal circumstances and the dream context. The dream image of the Eiffel tower for Jung does not inherently mean anything in and of itself. Although both methods of interpretation have resulted in the lessening of neurotic symptoms for some patients (Freud, 1954; Jung, 1936) the fact that these theories are essentially speculative cannot be overlooked lightly. Both Freud and Jung attached paramount significance to dreams in the functioning of the human mind, reading great meaning into sometimes seemingly arbitrary dream images, but the fact that these theories cannot be empirically tested and rely on mainly neurotic patients for the acquisition of evidence is a serious criticism of both theories.
The purpose of dreams is another area in which these theories put forward different views. Both theorists agree that the unconscious is expressed in dreams, but Jung adds that socialisation occurs through exposure to the collective unconscious, and individuation is sought through the establishment of an appropriate place for the ego in relation to the archetypes (Jung, 1936). Therefore, dreaming is a process of growth for Jung, whereas Freud saw dreams as expressive and in need of interpretation for them to really be of use to the dreamer. A common theme in both theories though when it comes to the purpose of dreams is compensation. In psychoanalytic theory, it is assumed that dreams can arise to compensate for a conscious attitude thus balancing the position of the ego, this perspective is shared by both Jung and Freud. In a compensatory dream, the dreamer may be expressing a contrary attitude to one consciously held, although this would occur in disguised form as the manifest content in the dream. This assumption would factor into the psychoanalytic strategy employed by both theorists, where they would most notably differ would be in their interpretation of the meaning of certain symbols; whether they represent archetypes (as in Jung’s theory) or are analogous to personal relationships with people or objects in conscious life (as in Freud’s theory).
To conclude, there initially appears to be many more similarities than differences between the theories of Freud and Jung regarding dreams. Both postulate the existence of an unconscious which expresses itself with symbolic images through dreams for the purpose of compensation; both see the interpretation of the unconscious expression as potentially beneficial, and the pathology of neuroses is seen to have a causal influence in the unconscious desire. Despite these fundamental similarities there is also much divergence. Most of the theoretical difference is created by the proposition of the collective unconscious by Jung. This introduces a spiritual element, and an additional purpose of dreaming, which involves communing with archetypal forms to establish personal identity, and maintain a properly socialised persona. This is mostly incompatible with Freudian theory, which takes a more objective view and focuses on patterns of unconscious expression within the personal unconscious between individuals, seeking to establish a universal method of dream interpretation, something Jungian theory would deem impossible.


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