Repression and Dreaming

Sigmund Freud said, “Dreams are the royal road to the unconscious.”

And you might say, “Whadya mean unconscious?”  In the simplest sense, everything in your mind that you are not paying attention to right now is unconscious.  What you are attending to with your mind’s eye (or eyeballs, ears) is conscious.  You can think of the unconscious as the hard drive on your computer.  The computer screen, what you can attend to directly, is conscious.

If they are encoded or saved in the first place, most memories of episodes and thoughts you’ve had can probably be called up to conscious awareness.  Some things may be impossible to be aware of. These include firmware that regulates the most basic operating processes of computers. The brain is like a biological computer and has its own type of firmware. No amount of motivation will work to make firmware conscious.

However, motivation does influence the ease of recall of other unconscious contents. For example, we are motivated to push memories of conflicting, painful, thoughts and feelings from conscious awareness.  Freud labeled successful attempts to keep painful feelings and ideas from awareness repression.  

Repressed memories of conflict can wreak havoc upon the mind.  For example, if one had a sexual feeling that conflicted with their moral standards, they might repress awareness of either the sexual feeling or the moral standard.  Either way, there would be no conscious conflict and no guilt, anxiety, or sadness. 

Huge amounts of biological energy are expended to reduce awareness. This involves so called ego-defensive operations. Defending awareness from one or the other side of a conflict involves efforts to constantly scan for the feared idea or feeling, and then move attention away from it.  This leaves less energy and time to spend thinking about the external world—the not me. Accordingly, one’s competence to solve problems in the external physical and social worlds are reduced.  

Almost all severe to mild psychiatric disorders are manifestations of an inability to regulate one’s focus of attention.  Attentional lapses cause overt behavior, expectations, feelings, and thoughts to become under-controlled.   This is seen in anxiety, depression, bipolar, somatization, cognitive, and psychotic disorders.

So, it should be clear that bringing repressed items to awareness, lifting repression so that real or imagined conflicts might be resolved, is of critical importance for reducing suffering and increasing mental competence.  Interpreting dreams is the best current method for making conscious repressed contents of mind.  Why?

Because successful repression only operates while one is awake.  When awake executive functions (ego functions) scan the contents of awareness for evidence of repressed content, and then push it out of focal attention.  But such ego-defensive operations do not operate efficiently when one is asleep and dreaming.  Memories that have not been forcibly repressed can also emerge in dreams. But for the most part, Freud considered dreams “the royal road to the unconscious” because they can reveal repressed contents.

All this implies that analyzing dreams can make available to a person information that they already have in mind but are unaware of.  Of course, “If ignorance is bliss, tis folly to be wise”.  But frankly, striving for ignorance seems like a losing strategy.   

2 thoughts on “Repression and Dreaming

  • I dream vividly, and very often. I gave up trying to work them out a long time ago though.
    Many thanks for following my blog, which is appreciated.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  • One way to understand dreams is to ask, What happened the day before that got into the dream? So called ‘day residues’ indicate that you are trying to understand some situation that occured before you went to sleep. Also, of course, free associating about aspects of a dream will reveal much of a dream’s meaning.

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