Do Dreams Reflect Unconscious Desires?

Do Dreams Reflect Unconscious Desires?

Do dreams reflect unconscious desires?

Check out this answer from Consensus:

The literature suggests that dreams are indeed a reflection of unconscious desires, serving as a complex interplay of physiological, psychological, and instinctual factors. While the psychoanalytic perspective emphasizes the role of dreams in revealing the unconscious, contemporary research also acknowledges the constructive and diagnostic potential of dreams. It is clear that dreams are not mere byproducts of sleep but are integral to understanding the depths of the human psyche.


The exploration of dreams has long fascinated psychologists, with significant contributions from the field of psychoanalysis. Dreams are often considered a window into the unconscious, revealing desires and thoughts that are not accessible during waking life. This article delves into the question of whether dreams truly reflect unconscious desires, drawing on contemporary research and psychoanalytic theory.

The Essence of Dreams

Dreams have been described as the ultimate form of unconscious imagination, a psychological activity occurring during sleep that is both aimless and involuntary1. Psychoanalysis posits that the essence of dreams is indeed unconscious, with dreams emerging from an interplay of deep-seated causes, physiological mechanisms, and individual psychology1.

Constructive Forces in Dreams

Contrary to the view that the unconscious only harbors irrational and destructive desires, recent work suggests the presence of rational, constructive forces within the unconscious2. These forces can move individuals toward emotional health and are expressed through dreams, which are seen as one of the most important manifestations of these unconscious activities2.

Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Dreams

The foundational belief in psychoanalysis is that dreams can release a person’s deepest unconscious wishes and desires3. Freud and Jung, prominent figures in psychoanalysis, have emphasized the significance of dreams in providing access to the unconscious3. Dreams are seen as a “little hidden door” to the innermost secrets of the psyche3.

New Insights into the Unconscious

A new psychological model suggests that the unconscious is not only a repository for instincts and intuitions but is also closely related to hallucinations4. Dreams are hypothesized to occur due to sensory deprivation during sleep, leading to illusions and reactions at the level of the unconscious4.

Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams

Freud, often referred to as “the Father of psychoanalysis,” viewed dreams as the royal path to the unconscious5. He believed that dreams allow the conscious mind to passively observe the emergence of unconscious contents in symbolic forms5. Dreams are thus seen as a crucial means for the ego to encounter the self in its most intimate sense5.

Dreams in Clinical Diagnosis

Dreams have also been utilized in the clinical diagnosis of brain-injured patients, revealing a reality that contrasts with the patient’s conscious self-perception6. The unconscious content of dreams can provide diagnostic and prognostic insights that are otherwise obscured by cognitive deficits and defense mechanisms6.

Unconscious Fantasy and Conscious Experience

Unconscious fantasies, fulfilling unconscious wishes, form the common basis of dreams and certain symptoms of hysteria7. These fantasies can intrude upon conscious experience, causing disturbances that can only be explained by the presence of an unconscious fantasy7.

Organizing Functions of Dream Mentation

Freud’s classical model of dream formation emphasizes the wish as the primary impetus for dreams, representing instinctual drives seeking gratification8. Dreams are considered regressed products involving primitive modes of functioning and are shaped by defenses that result in a distinction between manifest and latent content8.


Do Dreams Reflect Unconscious Desires?

Melanie G Rosen has answered Extremely Unlikely

An expert from Aarhus University in Philosophy

Dreams sometimes reflect our conscious desires — we might dream of doing something we enjoy. Dreams also can be very random, and it is likely that alterations to the brain that occur in sleep lead to lack of binding and these random associations. Using dreams to unlock unconscious desires is not backed scientifically.


Do Dreams Reflect Unconscious Desires?

Eugene  Subbotsky has answered Near Certain

An expert from Lancaster University in Psychology, Child Development

Sigmund Freud made a strong point that people have desires that are socially frowned upon or completely banned, and sometimes people see these desires fulfilled in their dreams. Almost every person who sees dreams can testify that this is true, though this is hard to prove objectively because people are reluctant to acknowledge their secret desires and sometime are unaware of such desires. But dreams also reflect unconscious biases, attitudes and fears. For example, in Western countries people’s attitude towards magic and witchcraft contains two opposite compounds: curiosity and fear. These psychological compounds of our attitude towards magic are reflected in art, in the famous poem “Faust” by Johann Wolfgang Goethe, and the novel “Doctor Faustus” by Thomas Mann. Since most rational people today despise true magic as a false belief, the compound of fear descended into the subconscious, but can be revealed in dreams.

 In one of my experiments, people who denied their belief in magic were offered a magic spell that would help them see their desired dreams. Participants in the control group were simply told that they might see their chosen dreams, but no offer of a magic spell was given. Those participants who had received the magical help did indeed see their chosen dreams more often than those in the control group, though the difference was not statistically significant. However, the people who had received the magical aid also saw frightening dreams statistically more often than participants in the control group. This result indicated that rational people who openly claimed their disbelief in magic subconsciously still believed in that making a deal with magic might be a dangerous thing to do, and this subconscious belief manifested itself in them having scary dreams.


Do Dreams Reflect Unconscious Desires?

Susan  Llewellyn has answered Likely

An expert from University of Manchester in Sleep Research, Psychology

The answer depends on whether the question refers to all dreams or only some dreams. If all dreams the answer is no. If some dreams the answer is yes.

To take the yes- for some dreams- response first. The continuity theory proposes that the concerns, fears, hopes, problems, wants and desires that pervade your waking life also feature in your dreaming life. So if you have a desire in wakefulness you will probably experience this in your dreams too. The evidence comes through comparing peoples’ waking life reports on their concerns (including desires) with their dream reports. One study (Fosse et al, 2003) reported that 65% of waking life experiences (activities, events and concerns) could be identified in dreams. Of course if a desire is reported then it clearly isn’t unconscious. For this we turn to research on suppressed thoughts and memories.

Two studies (Malinowski, 2015; 2017) on suppression found, first, that that people who often suppressed thoughts (termed “high thought suppressors”) dreamt more of their emotional life experiences than low thought suppressors and, second, high thought suppressors dreamt more of negative (but not positive) life experiences. This research demsonstrates the dream rebound effect i.e. if you repress thoughts and memories they are more likely to appear in dreams- than if you don’t suppress them. Neither study focused specifically on desires but there is no reason to suppose that desires are exempt from the dream rebound effect. Also evidence from a study (Fischer et al, 2011) which asked people to repress memories showed these were poorly remembered during wakefulness but after a night with rapid eye movement sleep- when most dreaming occurs- the suppressed memories were better recalled. This study didn’t ask people for dream reports so we cannot be sure that the repressed memories appeared in dreams but it seems probable, given the evidence that suppressed concerns in wakefulness reappear in dreams.

The question feels Freudian- the concept of the unconscious is, of course, strongly associated with Freud. Most would now accept that 95% of brain activity is unconscious but this does not, of course, mean that 95% of our decisions, emotions and desires are repressed. Many brain processes are unconscious because they are automatic. Also the concept of the unconscious is used in many different ways. At any moment in time most of your emotions, problems, hopes, fears and desires are unconscious- in the sense of out-of-consciousness. Otherwise you wouldn’t be able to focus on the task at hand.

Given research on the wide variety of concerns, problems, hopes and fears that permeate waking life and reappear in dreams- the premise that all dreams reflect desires is highly unlikely. Nevertheless, the link between repression and dreams is still powerful. We shouldn’t reject the idea of unconscious desires surfacing in some dreams.  

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