Letter 5: Dreams  

 July 2016

Dear Lucy and Isobel,

One night last month I had two dreams. They were so vivid that I was sure I would remember them when I woke up. But in the end I had only a hazy memory of them. That is the way with most of our dreams; they trickle away on waking like water through a sieve. Or as psychologists put it, they fail to be laid down in short-term memory; they disappear, literally, without a trace. All I now recall of those two dreams is the emotion associated with the first. I was strongly attracted to someone in my dream, a woman I think but even that’s not clear. It was a feeling I haven’t had for decades and the effect was one of nostalgia, the combination of recognizing the feeling and knowing that it was in the past and that I will never feel that way again. A few nights later I had another dream that on waking I made a concerted effort to keep it in my mind. But it also trickled away except for one fragment. I was in the foyer of a theatre or cinema with lots of people milling around. My friend Geoffrey Finn came up to me and told me that Vote Leave had won the EU Referendum by 48. Forty-eight thousand, I asked? No, just 48 votes, he replied. This was just before the 25th June, the date of the referendum, the result of which was to throw the country into such turmoil. Vote Leave did win a majority, much to their own surprise, but by more than 48 votes. In the referendum 48.1%, about 16 million people, voted to remain in the EU while 51.9%, around 17 million people, voted to leave. You can read more about this in my Letter 6: Democracy. In some quarters my dream might have been taken as prophetic, anticipating the unexpected result, and capturing one of the key figures, 48, even if it was for the percentage for the Remain not the Leave side. You are probably skeptical about this as indeed I am. But the notion of dreams being prophetic has a long history.

Prophetic dreams

In the Bible the Book of Genesis recounts a famous story of prophetic dreams and their interpretation, the story of Joseph and his brothers. Even if you have not read the account in the Bible, you may well know a version of it from the acclaimed musical by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.[1]

Joseph, the youngest son of Jacob [or Israel as he is also called], is favoured by his father. He gives him a beautiful coat of many colours, provoking the envy of his eleven brothers. Joseph has two dreams that he unwisely recounts to his brothers. In the first, his brothers were binding sheaves of corn and “lo, my sheaf arose, and, behold, your sheaves stood round about, and made obeisance to my sheaf.” In the second, “the sun and the moon and the eleven stars made obeisance to me.” The suggestion that Joseph will rise above them and they will worship him angers the brothers. They bitterly resent his favoured status. When one day Jacob sends Joseph to check up on his brothers who are out tending the sheep, they conspire to kill him. Reuben, however, persuades the others not to kill him. Instead, having relieved him of his lovely coat, they put him in a pit without food and water, killing by omission rather than commission you might say. Then a company of Ishmaelite merchants comes by on the way to Egypt and the brothers sell Joseph into slavery for twenty pieces of silver. They tear up his coat, kill a kid and dip the torn coat into the blood, presenting it to their father on their return. Jacob is distraught, believing his son must have been devoured by a wild animal. So far Joseph’s dreams are far from prophetic; they have brought him nothing but misery.

In Egypt Joseph is bought by the Pharaoh’s captain of the guard and, because of he is favoured by the Lord, he and the captain’s household prosper. But Joseph is coveted by his master’s wife and, when he refuses to lie with her, she accuses him of rape. He is sent to gaol. In gaol he interprets the dreams of two fellow prisoners, predicting correctly that one would live and one would die. Years later, the Pharaoh has two puzzling dreams that he wants to understand. These two famous dreams are:

Dream 1: From the Nile came seven cows of handsome appearance and robust flesh, and they pastured in the marshland. And behold, seven other cows came up after them from the Nile, of ugly appearance and lean of flesh, and they stood beside the cows that were on the Nile bank. And the cows of ugly appearance and lean of flesh devoured the seven cows that were of handsome appearance and healthy.

Dream 2: Seven ears of grain were growing on one stalk, healthy and good. And behold, seven ears of grain, thin and beaten by the east wind, were growing up after them. And the thin ears of grain swallowed up the seven healthy and full ears of grain.

The Pharaoh calls on all the wise men in Egypt to interpret the dreams but none of their interpretations satisfies him. His chief butler is none other than the prisoner who was with Joseph in gaol and he recommends Joseph to the Pharaoh. Joseph tells the Pharaoh that the dreams are messages from God. They foretell that there will be seven bountiful years through all of Egypt and these will be followed by seven years of terrible famine. Joseph recommends that the Pharaoh appoint a wise man to oversee Egypt and ensure that enough grain is saved during the years of plenty to counteract the years of famine. Surprise, surprise the Pharaoh appoints Joseph to that role and, as the Bible puts it, the events came to pass and Joseph saves Egypt from famine. 

What about the first two dreams that Joseph recounted to his brothers where they bow down and worship him? This too comes to pass as Jacob, hearing that there is food in Egypt, sends his remaining sons, all bar Benjamin, to Egypt to purchase corn. Joseph recognises his brothers though they do not know him. There follows some trickery by Joseph – it is worth reading the full story in the Bible if you do not know it – that results in the brothers bowing down to Joseph as the dreams had predicted.

The story of Joseph is more than an entertaining tale. It is sacred to the Jews for it tells of the beginnings of Israel, hence ‘Israel’ as Jacob’s alternative name. For God comes to Jacob in a dream in which he commands him to go to Egypt to be reunited with Joseph, which he does despite being 147 years old, and, as God says in Genesis, “I will there make thee a great nation.” 

Freud and the Interpretation of Dreams

Dream interpretation was given a modern gloss in The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud published in 1900. Many commentators regard this book as the pinnacle of Freud’s work in which his ideas about the unconscious come to fruition. It opens with a bullish assertion: 

“In the following pages, I shall furnish proof that there is a psychological technique which permits the interpreting of dreams, and that with the application of that procedure every dream reveals itself as a meaningful psychical structure, which can be inserted at and assignable point into the mental activities of waking life.” [My italics] 

What supreme confidence! In the book Freud stated that dreams are “the royal road to the unconscious,” thereby privileging dream interpretation over other psychoanalytic techniques like free association. How did Freud set about dream interpretation? How plausible is it? What does it tell us about the nature of dreams?

Freud drew a distinction between the manifest [open] content and the latent [hidden] content of a dream. While the manifest content of dreams may take various forms, sometimes bizarre, sometimes banal, the hidden meaning is what matters. For example, Joseph’s dream of his brothers’ sheaves of corn bowing down to him is readily understood by them as seeing himself as superior to them. There the latent content is not particularly well hidden. Freud went further, suggesting that all dreams expressed unconscious desires [wish fulfillment] and that in dreaming, the internal censor that prevents our unconscious desires from being acknowledged is weakened. A dream therefore always has deeper meaning even if it is usually distorted. To the experienced psychoanalyst the manifest content of the dream provides clues to the latent content. That is why Freud claimed that every dream reveals itself if you know how to interpret it. 

Had Joseph been his patient I suspect that Freud would have been interested in what the dream implied about Joseph’s relationship to his father. After all, in the paternalistic society of the time, the biggest sheaf is the father. Did Joseph have an unconscious desire to unseat or kill his father? The Oedipus complex was to become a cornerstone of psychoanalysis with Freud’s claim that all young boys want to castrate their father and marry their mother. Ridiculous as that may sound to the modern ear, and certainly to most psychologists today, the notion of masculine rivalry between father and son is perfectly understandable. In his coat-of-many-colours Joseph, beloved of his father, treated as special, could also have hated his father for putting him in this elevated position, alienating himself from his brothers. Who knows? Let us not dwell on Joseph who may or may not have been a real person. The simple point Freud made about dreams was that were signposts to unconscious desires or as he put it: 

“We may us assume as the originators giving dreams their shape, two psychical forces (currents, systems), of which one forms the wish brought to expression by the dream, while the other exercises censorship on the dream-wish and by this censorship compels a distortion of its utterance.” [My italics] 

Freud also understood that dreaming often contains the residue of the day’s experience. If you watch a thrilling movie, your dreams may well incorporate aspects of it into their structure. Last night [10th July] I had a long dream in which I was involved in a battle of some sort with groups of people on both sides and I ended up mowing down the opposition with a machine gun! I woke up disturbed by the violence and my part in it. Mary and I had spent yesterday evening at the Behkradnias watching the final of Euro 2016 in which Portugal beat the hot favourites France. The team game crept into my dream. And the violence? I am not sure where that came from. It might have been a reflection of the increased violence of these times. The commentators mentioned the time France played in the Stade de France in November last year when a bomb was set off near the ground. I am not convinced by this explanation though. Another possibility is that the dream drew upon my unconscious desires for even when the day’s residue colours a dream, it is never just about the real world, at least according to Freud. 

Angry retribution at the people who voted to leave the EU could well have played a part in my dream. In the pub on Saturday Tim brought his Marxist friend Alex Calinicoss, a Professor in European Studies at King’s College, London. He told me he voted to leave the EU because he had always opposed what is a capitalist block. I felt a surge of anger at his complacent Marxist purity. Fortunately the conversation veered elsewhere before I could challenge him. And even as I write this, I recall fierce arguments with my father when I was an adolescent in which he took a similar purist Marxist stance despite the fact that he was a successful capitalist and a millionaire. My dream may have tapped into a deep well of unconscious anger dating back to those times. And then another possible association is that Mary and I watched the Brecht-Weill musical, The Threepenny Opera, on Wednesday with our friends the Greenhalls at the National Theatre in London. In one of the songs, Pirate Jenny, a young waitress/skivvy imagines a black freighter in the harbor mowing down all the people who order her about.[2]

You may think these associations are far-fetched and you may be right. Nevertheless, they may be useful. When I worked as a psychotherapist I did not specifically ask patients to tell me their dreams as a psychoanalyst might. But a dream would sometimes come into the session and when that happened, I would encourage the sort of associative thinking that I have just engaged in. The dream was a point of departure for exploration. Its oddity was its strength for it allowed my patients to put aside their normal defenses and explore potential deeper meanings. It didn’t matter that neither I nor my patient could know for sure whether the associations were true or not. Dream interpretation was not about finding a definitive meaning. It was a process of seeking a deeper and more personal meaning and that was always a collaboration between the patient’s and therapist’s understanding.

Anxious dreams

Dreams are often infused with anxiety. Tapping into unconscious desires is anxiety-provoking, Freud claimed, as the internal censor, weakened as it is in dreaming, tries to prevent the desires from being expressed. But he also recognized that traumas in the real world invade our dreams. Those who have been caught up in major traumas can find themselves revisiting the trauma in their dreams. This is something I wrote about in my books, To Hell and Back and The Trauma Therapies. Or a person may be worrying about something important in their life at the moment such as a difficult relationship or stress at work. Although the anxiety is in part provoked by a past or future reality, it can also link to earlier unconscious fears. For example, a young woman’s anxious dream about the destruction of the Twin Towers on 9:11 provoked deeper anxieties about her world falling apart linked to a difficult, abusive childhood. The external anxiety triggers an unconscious internal one. 

Freud’s protégé and rival, Carl Jung, also used dream analysis. He recounts the dream of a man who had risen from humble origins, worked hard and become a prominent person. In his dream the man is in a great hurry to go on a train journey but cannot find his things to pack. He worries he will miss his train. He runs to the station, forgets his briefcase, goes back for it, continues running but he goes so slowly it is like wading through treacle; he hardly makes any headway. Most of us have dreams of this sort when we are desperate to get somewhere and yet unable to move at more than a snail’s pace. Eventually in the dream when the man gets to the station, he sees the train leaving. As he looks at it, he realizes that it is going to crash on a bend and that the last carriages will be derailed, which then happens. It is a terrible catastrophe. He wakes in terror. Jung had no difficulty understanding the latent meaning of this dream. Despite all the man’s hard work in advancing himself in the world, the struggle is at a cost. He cannot get rid of his earlier self [the back carriages] and his fear is that they will bring him down with a crash. It is also possible that a part of him may unconsciously want the train to crash because the struggle to succeed is so punishing. 

You might think this is rather glib or that the psychoanalyst is too clever by half. After all, a dream interpretation is just that, an interpretation. How do we know that the analyst’s interpretation is correct? Critics have pointed out that there is a self-fulfilling aspect to analytical dream interpretation. The presence of anxiety in a dream, for example, suggests to the psychoanalyst that there is conflict between desire and the internal censor. Equally, the absence of anxiety in a dream could suggest there is still a conflict but it has been successfully defended against. This is why many have claimed that analytic interpretations are unscientific; they are true whether the patient accepts their truth or denies it.[3] Both Freud and Jung were confident that dreams are interpretable. Here’s Jung’s claim to that effect:

 “Since my judgment is fallible, why should my conjecture be better than his [the patient’s]? At this point the dream comes in as expression of an involuntary, unconscious psychic process beyond the control of the conscious mind. It shows the inner truth and reality of the patient as it really is: not as I conjectured to be, and not as he would like it to be, but as it is. [Original italics] I have therefore made it a rule to regard dreams as I regard physiological facts: if sugar appears in the urine, then the urine contains sugar, and not albumen or urobilin or something else that might fit better with my expectations. That as to say, I take dreams is diagnostically valuable facts.” 

No hint of doubt here. If I might interpret the dream interpreter, I note Jung’s reference to science to bolster the dream interpretations; there are facts that will be revealed to the experienced observer. Does he protest too much? I think so for there is no way any dream interpretation will be as definitive as finding sugar in the urine. The contribution of the minds of both the patient and the analyst form the interpretation making it far from definitive. Different therapists, for example, will arrive at different interpretations using the same material. A better way of understanding dream interpretation is that is throws up hypotheses about potential meanings that may be further explored in therapy.

The psychology of dreams

A few years ago at a literary festival I attended a talk by a psychologist on sleep. He was someone who had spent his academic life in a sleep laboratory studying patterns of sleep include dreaming. I was interested in the talk because after my first degree I flirted with the idea of doing research into the psychology of sleep. Since my teens I had suffered from disturbed sleep including bouts of insomnia. I thought I might learn something that would help me. I suspect it is not uncommon for psychology researchers to be drawn to topics of personal relevance. My academic journey took me elsewhere and I put sleep research aside never to be taken up. But I retained an interest. The psychologist giving the talk was asked about dreams and what meaning they might have. He replied that they had no meaning. They were simply random fluctuations caused by the changes to the electrical activity of the brain. He scoffed at the idea of dream interpretation which he saw as no better than mumbo jumbo. Was he right? It is certainly the case that vast majority of dreams occur in the stage of sleep called rapid eye movement [REM]. We know this from waking people up at the various stages of sleep and asking what was on their mind. Dreams almost always occur in REM sleep. But that doesn’t mean that dreams have no further meaning. All of our experiences, whether awake or asleep, have correlates in the activity of the brain. The meaning we give to experience is significant in itself. When we try to understand the meaning of a dream, brainwave activity is of no help just as an interpretation of a dream is not relevant to the neurological science that underpins dreaming. The psychology lecturer’s dismissal of dream interpretation was, I suspect, not because he had studied it and found it worthless. It was because his interests lay elsewhere. In his world the science of sleep and dreaming meant looking at brain activity not speculating about meaning of the content of dreams. It is obvious to me that you can do both and that each would have its value. One need not exclude the other.


Mary, taking a no-nonsense attitude, regards dreams as of little interest. It is boring to hear someone else’s dreams, she says. Certainly people can become overinvested in their dreams and their meaning. I recall reading about a man who noted down every dream he had for forty years. He wanted to publish a book of them but could find no takers. I am not surprised. Whatever function dreams may have, their value is primarily personal. Only the dreamer and the dream interpreter [or therapist] will be interested in understanding their meaning. As to the suggestion that dreams may foretell the future, that has a long history. In the classical world, priestesses, guardians of the oracle, induced dreams by giving people drugs before they slept. Their interpretations of the subsequent dreams were carefully worded. A general consulted the oracle about an imminent battle and was told that a great victory will be won. He was pleased for he took it for granted that the oracle meant the victory would be his. A great victory was won but unfortunately not by him. 

© John Marzillier, Thursday 13 July, 2016


Last night [28 July] I was woken up by a disturbing dream. As before, I cannot now recall anything of the content even though my eyes were wet with tears when I woke and I lay for a while trying to keep the dream in mind. Had I bothered to get a pen and paper, I could have written a few notes. But I didn’t. Why do I mention it? It made me think that dreaming can be a form of consolation. That night in my dreamworld I experienced some powerful feelings, ones that I now rarely feel, and I relished the intensity even when I was moved to tears. One of the many attractions of spending time with you is that I see that your life has a richness and immediacy that only very young children experience. I love seeing that; I get vicarious pleasure from your pleasure. When, as now, we are back in Oxford, I don’t just miss you but I also miss the intensity of your world. My dreams are as near as I can to experiencing that and that is a form of consolation. Being old – and there is no denying that 70 is old – gives me the wisdom of experience. But it also means I have a thick carapace and the freshness of youth is gone forever except for occasional nocturnal visits in my dreams. For that reason I value my dreams even if I cannot remember them.

[1] In the 1960s a friend told me about a musical that two school friends of his had written and how they were offering shares in it in order to raise enough money to get it put on. Yes, I might have invested in what turned out to be one of the most successful musicals of all time! Well, as gamblers say, you win some you lose some; they usually say it when they have lost heavily.

[2] It contains the refrain, ‘And the ship, the Black Freighter/Turns around in the harbor/Shootin’ guns from the bow.’ Brecht brilliantly taps into the rage of the dispossessed and poor.

[3] They need not be unscientific. For example, when a patient denies the therapist’s interpretation, the therapist might claim that this is the defence of denial. Equally, the therapist’s interpretation may simply be wrong. It should be possible to specify the characteristics that point to the defence mechanism and how they would differ from denial when the interpretation is wrong. These are the clues that suggest to the experienced therapist that the defence of denial is in play.