How to analyse your dreams
Dreams are an essential part of psychoanalysis. Author and psychoanalyst Gisèle Chaboudez is particularly interested in Freud and Lacan’s methods of decoding dreams. She reveals the keys to unravelling the hidden meanings behind our dreams.
Doctissimo: Why do we dream?
Gisèle Chaboudez: Freud was the first to try and answer this question by developing the theory that the dream was the ‘guardian of sleep’. He thought that acting out your unconscious desires during your sleep stopped you from waking up often and calmed the inner tension created by those desires. This theory was challenged by sleep neuroscientists in the 1950s, when it was discovered that dreams were produced during a certain type of sleep called paradoxical or REM (rapid eye movement). This type of sleep comes in cycles during the night. It was then concluded that dreams were also cyclic and that their content was irrelevant. Their purpose, however, remained a mystery.
Later experiments on animals provided evidence that longer periods of REM sleep after stressful experiences apparently soothed anxiety. In these cases, the body’s physiology seemed to support Freud’s theory that dreams had a protective role to play. Lacanian psychoanalysis takes this theory further. Lacan described dreams as an ‘encryption’ or code based on pleasure, but limited pleasure. They transfer and conquer more dangerous desires, so dreams help us get a good night’s sleep, but in a more general sense — they stop you having to face real trauma.
Doctissimo: Have our dreams evolved with society?
Gisèle Chaboudez: By their very definition, dreams reflect the context of the dreamer’s desire. More specifically, this desire is for the Other — something different to what the individual deals with in his or her life. This ‘otherness’ is therefore incredibly variable, while still containing a number of recurring characteristics and symbols.
Doctissimo: Is it possible to interpret dreams accurately?
Gisèle Chaboudez: It’s absolutely possible to interpret dreams. You just need a bit of training so you can understand how the dream itself works. You can’t really interpret dreams by yourself except in rare circumstances. It’s easier to interpret dreams as part of psychoanalysis, as decoding dreams is central to this process. The inner workings of the unconscious are revealed most clearly in your dreams, so you can learn to use them as tools.
Dream dictionaries are based on the idea that dreams contain symbols that are common to all of us and that you just need to recognise them. This is a dream in itself. Each person, and even each individual dream, has a unique set of symbols that can only be deciphered using the dreamer’s conscious thoughts. There are a few symbols that occur in everyone’s dreams, but they are only rarely determining factors in the dream’s interpretation.
Doctissimo: You lean towards Lacanian theory in your work. How does his approach differ from Freud’s?
Gisèle Chaboudez: Lacan’s approach is fundamentally similar to Freud’s famous book The Interpretation of Dreams. When Lacan studied dreams in the 1950s, psychoanalysis seemed to have moved past the ideas that Freud presented in his work. These were that the dream was a montage of scraps of memory and language that created fantasy, symbols and the representation of instincts. The Lacanian approach takes this further. As well as treating the dream as a coded message, Lacan’s theory includes the idea of otherness in the dreamer’s desires, which Freud never touched upon. Lacan’s approach shows how the development of a dream is anchored in symbols of sex without ever quite representing sex itself.
Doctissimo: What do you think about premonitions in dreams?
Gisèle Chaboudez: I don’t think opinions on this subject have changed much since Freud’s time. There’s no basis for the idea that there are premonitions in dreams and that they can predict what will happen. Dreams don’t foresee anything. They illustrate desire according to what the dreamer has seen in the Other. The dreamer’s anticipation or impatience about a happy or unhappy event might mean it’s represented in the individual’s dreams. When the desire for something to occur becomes part of waking life, there’s more chance that it will actually happen and the dream will then seem like a prediction. If individuals expect to have premonitory dreams, it’s usually because they believe that life is preordained for better or for worse. This relieves them of the responsibility of controlling their own destiny.
Doctissimo: Do nightmares have any particular significance?
Gisèle Chaboudez: Nightmares signify the same things as any other type of dream, except for the fact that they represent failure. Dreams work over any traumatic experiences in such a way that when the trauma gets too much and is represented in the dream, we wake up. This happens, as Lacan pointed out, so that the mind can continue dreaming and therefore distance the dreamer from the real experience, which was suddenly represented in the dream. Nightmares can actually teach us a lot, and show negative things like failures. What use is a dream that ties up all the loose ends?
Doctissimo: Can you explain the phenomenon of recurring dreams?
Gisèle Chaboudez: When dreams recur, it means you’re preoccupied by an important unanswered question. Dreams develop solutions to obstacles in the way of our hearts’ desires. When a dream can’t get past something, it will be repeated. A recurring dream will often miss out on interpretation during psychoanalysis, as it will have happened so often the patient might not tell the analyst about it. This means the patient won’t have sufficient understanding of what the dream is about.
Doctissimo: Are erotic dreams a sign that all is not well in your relationship?
Gisèle Chaboudez: You could almost say that every erotic dream is a sign that there’s a problem in your relationship, but in the sense that human relationships cause problems by their very nature. The unconscious treats this issue constantly, and it’s not just erotic dreams that result from this. Dreams are deeply rooted in sex generally – not only in the sense of the physical act itself, but also in your relations with another person. Dreams are constantly trying to develop what it means to be a couple without ever being able to symbolise it.
Doctissimo: Do children’s dreams have the same meanings as adults’?
Gisèle Chaboudez: Our dreams take on the same structure quickly, and children’s dreams become as complex as those of adults quite early on.
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