36 pages 1 hour read

Sigmund Freud

On Dreams

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1901

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Summary and Study Guide


On Dreams by Sigmund Freud presents an abridged version of the psychologist’s more comprehensive book The Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1900. Freud introduced psychoanalysis, a form of therapy that emphasizes unlocking the unconscious desires and memories of patients to heal, to the world of psychology. Freud’s analysis explores condensation and censorship, the process by which dreams compress and filter thoughts and present repressed concepts through symbolism. Freud argues that almost all dreams are expressions of erotic desire. This concise version of Freud’s longer work focuses on dreams as symbols for desire and wish fulfillment. This guide utilizes the 2014 Digireads edition of the text.


Freud’s abridged On Dreams functions in similar ways to the dream process he describes in the book: It condenses and synthesizes information to make it palatable to the reader. Freud suggests that dreams utilize a similar process. They use condensation to take a plethora of memories and experiences and compress them into the narrative of the dream thought. The mind employs a filter to exclude repressed thoughts. However, repression often does make it past the filter and is presented through a series of images and symbols. Psychoanalysts instruct the patient to engage in a freewheeling discussion of dreams, following each pathway from the symbol to myriad destinations and memories. The analyst is then able to make an interpretation of the dream based upon information from the patient as well as an understanding of common symbols in dreams. Freud’s work offers many themes, including Dreams as Expressions of Desire, Repression and the Unconscious, and Making Meaning Through Analysis.

In Chapter 1, Freud makes the case for dreams as fodder for psychoanalysis, emphasizing the historic importance of dream interpretation. Freud asserts that dreams can be scientifically interpreted by a skilled psychoanalyst. In Chapter 2, Freud distinguishes between the obsessions and phobias of the waking and unconscious mind. Dreams reveal hidden information about the unconscious, and he suggests that analysis can reveal deeper truths about the human psyche. Dreams have manifest content, which are the images and symbols of the dream. Latent content is imposed by the psychoanalyst to replace manifest content.

In Chapter 3, Freud categorizes dreams in three ways. In the first, dreams are intelligible and clear, such as the dreams of a child. The desire represented in the dream is often tangible and equally present in the physical world. In the second, dreams are understandable but also have what seem like meaningless and contradictory details. The third category of dreams has neither meaning nor intelligibility. Chapter 4 explores how dreams undergo a process of compression or condensation which compacts memory and experience into a dream narrative. Psychoanalysis operates as an unraveling of compressed thoughts; the psychologist can determine the meaning and hidden desires expressed through dream symbols.

Chapter 5 presents the concept of dream displacement. Freud asserts that dreams often hide important manifest content by giving equal or lesser importance than other manifest content. Therefore, trivial details should not be overlooked, as they may provide essential meaning. Manifest content forms dream thoughts, characterized by Freud in Chapter 6. Displacement in dream thoughts muddles meaning, and dream thoughts can often seem strange or disconcerting.

In Chapter 7, Freud remarks on the way the mind takes disparate elements, conceals some, and presents them in a semi-coherent dream narrative. He argues that this is the work of the unconscious mind. Chapter 8 explores repression, the process of the mind to conceal certain memories or thoughts from the conscious mind. Some repressed ideas appear in dreams as symbols.

Chapter 9 explores the established understandings of dreams and the processes of the mind to better understand the wishes expressed through dreaming. For Freud, dreams always represent desires, even unconscious desires. In Chapter 10, Freud describes the process of censorship during which dreams withhold information or present it in other forms, using displacement.

In Chapter 11, Freud contrasts how children manage and repress stimuli while waking and asleep. Adults are more equipped to manage repression during the day, and consciousness takes over this work while adults dream, employing displacement, repression, and condensation to control psychical stimuli. The reason many impulses and thoughts must be repressed is due to their erotic nature. Freud argues that most adults are consumed by what Freud calls “infantile sexuality”; their subconscious is controlled by repressed erotic desires. Chapter 12 describes how these desires present themselves as symbols in dreams to be interpreted. In the concluding chapter, Freud argues that dream thoughts are a part of every person’s psychological makeup.