A Cognitive Theory of Dream Symbols
Calvin S. Hall
Western Reserve University
NOTE: If you use this paper in research, please use the following citation, as this on-line version is simply a reprint of the original article:
Hall, C. S. (1953). A cognitive theory of dream symbols. The Journal of General Psychology, 48, 169-186.
It is not my intention in this article to discuss
theories of symbolism in general, nor even to review the history of
thought regarding symbols in dreams. Rather I have set for myself the
more modest task of proposing an alternative theory for one which now
occupies the center of the stage whenever dreams are mentioned. I
refer, of course, to Freud's theory of dream symbolism.
In order to gain some perspective on the
psychoanalytic theory of dream symbols, let us consider briefly the
origin and history of dream books, a task that H. B. Weiss has made
lighter by his interesting and informative article on them (Ref. #12). We
learn from this article that the first dream book was written by an
Italian physician, Artemidorus, who lived in the second century A.D.
Artemidorus collected reports of dreams in his travels, through
correspondence, and by the purchase of manuscripts. From these
sources, he compiled a work of five volumes under the title
Oneirocritics, a word which means the art of interpreting dreams.
Following the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth
century, Artemidorus's work was widely published, going through
numerous editions in various languages. Oneirocritics is the Adam of
all dream books, past and present. The first American dream book, The
Book of Knowledge, was published in Boston in 1767. It was followed
by a spate of others so that today there is a wide selection
available to those who seek help in interpreting their dreams.
A dream book is actually a special type of
dictionary, in which the entries are words or phrases descriptive of
dream items followed by their meanings; that is, symbols and
referents. In a typical dream book, the referent is usually either
"good fortune" or "bad fortune," since the dream book exploits the
notion that dreams are prophetic and that what most people want to
know is what the future holds for them. Dream books also rest on the
assumptions that dreams are symbolic and that the symbols of dreams
have universal significance. For example, we read in Artemidorus that
to dream of eating cheese signifies profit and gain to the dreamer.
It is not stated that sometimes this is its meaning, or that it
depends upon the state of the dreamer, or upon the context in which
this activity appears. The meaning of eating cheese in dreams is
univocal, universal, and timeless. It is this feature of universal
symbol-referent connections that accounts for the popularity of dream
books. Since they do not make qualifications and exceptions which
would require the use of judgment and discrimination, anyone can
decode dreams and foretell the future if he has a dream book handy.
Freud borrowed two of the dream books assumptions,
dream symbols and the universality of some dream symbols, and
rejected the third, the prophetic character of dreams. Why are there
symbols in dreams? Freud answered that symbols appear in dreams
because the referents for which the symbols are surrogates are
distasteful to the censor. The dreamwork can smuggle reprehensible
things into a dream by transforming them into innocuous symbols. One
dreams of climbing a tree instead of masturbating because climbing
trees (the symbol) is condoned and masturbating (the referent) is
condemned. In short, symbols are disguises for referents.
In order to determine what referents are commonly
symbolized, a search of the psychoanalytic literature was made by the
writer and his students. Although not exhaustive, our search turned
up 709 symbols. The two most popular referents are penis for which
there are 102 symbols, and vagina for which there are 95 symbols.
Other referents that have a large number of symbols are death (62
symbols), coitus (55 symbols), masturbation (25 symbols), mother (15
symbols), father (14 symbols), breasts (13 symbols), and castration
(12 symbols). Be it noted, with the possible exception of death, all
of the referents are concrete things, people, or activities, and
similarly all of the symbols, as gun for penis, bag for vagina,
ploughing for coitus, playing the piano for masturbating, queen for
mother, king for father, apple for breast, etc., are concrete things,
people, or activities. In short, something concrete, the symbol, is
substituted for something else concrete, the referent.
If one adopts Freud's theory of symbolism, an
essential feature of dream interpretation consists of finding a
referent for each symbol. Since the meaning of numerous symbols has
been set forth by psychoanalysts it is fairly simple for anyone to
decode his dreams by using a modern psychoanalytic dream book, for
instance, Gutheil's Language of the Dream (Ref. #3). The following dream
reported by a young woman can be readily deciphered.
I was in a big room talking to one of my friends. She
said she was going riding and I decided to join her. I waited for her
to come back for me; when she did return, she said she had already
ploughed the field and that the horse was upstairs. I said that I'd
probably have trouble getting it down the stairs, and she told me one
of the men had helped her down. However, I decided against riding.
Later we were all sitting around in the room and I
looked up and saw a friend of mine who was in New Orleans. He came
over and we were talking until everyone was handed an enormous gun
and we all started shooting out of the windows. I recall loading and
reloading the gun.
In psychoanalytic dream language this dream is a
versatile portrayal of sexuality. Riding, ploughing a field, climbing
stairs, and shooting symbolize masturbation or coitus. Gun, horse,
and plough are phallic symbols, room and windows are vaginal symbols.
Being handed an enormous gun = being given a penis. Apparently the
dreamer's wish is to be a man.
According to Freud, how does a symbol become a
symbol? How does it happen that one object or activity becomes a
stand-in for another object or activity. Freud draws upon the laws of
association, particularly the law of resemblance, to explain the
formation of symbol-referent connections. Some of the ways in which
association by resemblance operates are as follows:
In addition to association by resemblance, there are
several other ways in which two items may become paired as symbol and
- Association by resemblance in shape. All
circular objects and containers = vagina, and all oblong objects =
- Association by resemblance in function. All
objects that are capable of extruding something, e.g., gun, fountain
pen, bottle = penis.
- Association by resemblance in action. Any act
that separates a part from a whole, e.g., beheading, loosing a tooth,
an arm or a leg, having a wheel come off an automobile = castration.
By the same token, dancing, climbing stairs, riding horseback, going
up and down in an elevator = coitus.
- Association by resemblance in color. Chocolate =
feces, yellow = urine, milky substance = semen.
- Association by resemblance in value. Gold =
feces, jewelry = female genitals.
- Association by resemblance in number. Three = penis and testicles.
- Association by resemblance in sound. The blaring
of a trumpet or bugle or the sound of a wind instrument = flatulence.
- Association by resemblance in quality. Wild
animal = sexual passion, horse = virility.
- Association by resemblance in personal quality.
Policeman, army officer, teacher = father, nurse = mother.
- Association by resemblance in physical
position. Basement = the unconscious mind.
- Association by resemblance in status. King =
father, queen = mother.
- Association by contiguity. Church = virtue,
night club = sensuality, bathtub = cleanliness.
- Association of part with whole. A specific
accident = difficulties of life, a school test = a test of fitness
- Association by contrast. Crowd = being alone,
clothed = naked, to die = to live. Freud wrote that "inversion or
transformation into the opposite is one of the most favored and most
versatile methods of representation which the dreamwork has at its
disposal" (Ref. #1, p. 352), thereby acknowledging one of the oldest maxims
of dream lore "that dreams go by contraries."
My skepticism regarding Freud's theory of
symbols-as-disguises began with a simple question for which I could
find no satisfactory answer within the framework of Freud's theory.
Having read hundreds of dream series in the past few years, I noticed
that within the same series outspoken dreams occurred along with
"symbolized" dreams. It is fairly common for one to dream of sexual
activities in the frankest terms one night and in disguised terms the
next night.. Open incest dreams alternate with camouflaged incest
dreams. Parricide and fratricide are sometimes overt, sometimes
concealed. I wondered what was the sense of preparing an elaborate
deception in one dream when it was discarded in a subsequent dream.
To this question I could not find a convincing answer.
Freud, S. A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis. Garden City: Garden City Publishing, 1948.
Gutheil, E. A. The Language of the Dream. New York: Macmillan, 1939.
Hall, C. S. Diagnosing personality by the analysis of dreams. J. Abn. Soc. Psychol., 1947, 42, 68-79.
Hall, C. S. A cognitive theory of dreams. J. Gen. Psychol., (in press).
Kaplan, A., & Kris, E. Esthetic ambiguity. Phil. & phenomenol. Res., 1948, 8, 415-435.
Langer, S. K. Philosophy in a New Key. New York: Penguin Books, 1948.
Partridge, E. A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (Third edition). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1949.
Reis, W. A comparison of personality variables derived from dream series with and without free association. (Unpublished Ph.D. thesis on file at Western Reserve University, 1951.)
Schorer, M. Fiction and the "matrix of analogy." Kenyon Rev., 1949, 11, 539-560.
Spurgeon, C. Shakespeare's Imagery and What It Tells Us. New York: Macmillan, 1935.
Weiss, H. B. Oneirocritica Americana. Bull., N. Y. Publ. Libr., 1944, 48, 519-541.
Another flaw in the Freudian theory appeared. In
collecting dreams, I often ask a person to give his interpretation of
the reported dream. I found that many people have real talent for
dream interpretation although some of these have little or no
information about Freudian symbolism. Why should one bother to
deceive oneself by dreaming in symbols when they can be translated so
readily by the dreamer himself? Again I could not find a plausible
answer within the context of the Freudian formulation.
While thinking about the lay person's ability to
translate his dreams, it occurred to me that people have been using a
consciously contrived form of symbolism in their daily speech for
centuries. It is called slang. Although there are slang expressions
for many things, much of it is sexual in character. In order to get
evidence concerning the relation of slang to dream symbols, I went
through Partridge's A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English
(Ref. #8) noting every slang expression for penis, vagina, and coitus.
There were 200 expressions for penis, 330 for vagina and 212 for
coitus. The results of this study will be published elsewhere;
suffice it to say here that many of the dream symbols for the sex
organs and for sexual intercourse are identical with those found in
Partridge. Many of these slang words have been in the English
language for centuries.
If slang and dream symbols coincide as closely as
they do and if the referents of slang are as well known as they are,
how can these same expressions (or visualizations of them) function
effectively as disguises in dreams? It would be absurd for a dreamer
to deceive himself with symbols during sleep when these same symbols
are used so self-consciously during waking life. This is not the
place to discuss the motives for the development of slang; at another
time we intend to show that the same principles govern slang
formation as govern dream symbol formation. Both spring from man's
disposition to express his ideas in concrete form; slang uses figures
of speech and dreams use images.
These explorations in the world of slang led me to
consider the psychological significance of figures of speech or
tropes, of which four principal varieties have been delineated: (a)
synecdoche, (b) metonymy, (c) metaphor, and (d) irony. Synecdoche is
a figure of speech in which a part is used for a whole, a whole for a
part, the cause for the effect, the effect for the cause, the name of
the material for the thing made, the species for the genus and so on.
Metonymy is a figure in which the name of one thing is changed for
that of another to which it is related by association and close
relationship. A metaphor is a figure which consists in the
transference to one object of an attribute or name which strictly and
literally is not applicable to it, but only figuratively and by
analogy. Irony, is a figure whose intended implication is just the
opposite of that which is stated. One associates figures of speech
with poetry, although they are used more or less widely in all forms
of writing and speaking. Modern literary criticism and research have
become awareof the importance of trope analysis in shedding light
upon the intrinsic meaning of a literary creation and upon the
personality dynamics of the creator. Noteworthy among those who have
analyzed writings and writers by paying attention to figures of
speech is Caroline Spurgeon, whose exegesis of Shakespeare is a
remarkable tour de force (Ref. #11) although wanting in the insights that
dynamic psychology might have provided. Another example of this
approach is found in Mark Schorer's Fiction and the "Matrix of
Analogy" (Ref. #10) in which he scrutinizes Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, and
George Eliot through their metaphors.
The relation of tropes to slang and of both to dream
symbols is one of psychological identity. Slang expressions are
figures of speech; they are an idiom by which the person tries to
communicate his conceptions. It is the thesis of this paper that
dream symbols belong to the same idiom ; a dream symbol or any
symbol, for that matter, reveals thought rather than conceals it.
Before developing this thesis, two other flaws in Freud's
theory of dream symbols will be mentioned. We have seen that a
multitude of symbols can stand for the same referent. Why is it
necessary to have so many disguises for the genitals, for sexual
intercourse and for masturbation. Psychoanalysis has not given this
question proper attention. If one hypothesizes that dream
symbols are the embodiments of conceptions, then the reason for the
multiplicity of symbols for a single referent becomes clear. People
have many different conceptions of the same object; thus they need a
versatile idiom for conveying the precise shade of meaning for each
Finally a critique of Freud's position regarding
dream symbols should take note of an assumption that is implicit in
his theory, namely, that the mind works in a very complex manner
during sleep. To assert that part of the work done by the mind in
forming a dream consists of transforming referents into symbols for
the purpose of veiling the referents is to ascribe to the sleeping
mind a heavier responsibility than seems warranted. Since we usually
think of sleep as a period of reduced mental activity, would it not
be better to formulate a theory of dream symbolism that makes
symbolizing dependent upon simpler processes?
These questions prompted me to reexamine the whole
structure of Freud's theory of dreams. Upon undertaking this task I
discovered that Freud had proposed two reasons why symbols appear in
dreams, one is the necessity to smuggle contraband psychic material
past the border separating the unconscious from the conscious and the
other is what Freud called regard for representability. The latter
formulation states that in order for such abstract and impalpable
mental contents as thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and impulses to
appear in dreams, they must be converted into sensible, palpable
forms. These forms are usually pictorial in character, so that it may
be said that the pictures of a dream are symbols of mental states.
For example, conscience may be symbolized by a church, chastity by a
lily, the sex impulse by fire, feelings of inferiority by nudity. and
remembering the past by walking through a series of rooms.
When one compares Freud's two hypotheses regarding
the function of dream symbols, it is evident that they are
diametrically opposed to one another. In one, a symbol conceals the
referent, in the other, a symbol reveals the referent. Preferring the
simplicity of a single hypothesis to the complexity of two separate
and incompatible hypotheses I decided to explore the possibility of
abandoning the disguise theory and let regard for representability
carry the whole burden of explaining dream symbols.
This enterprise led to the formulation of a cognitive
theory of dreams which is presented in another paper (Ref. #5). In that
paper, I set forth the view that I dream is a perceptible embodiment
of a dreamer's conceptions (ideas). Dreaming is pictorialized
thinking the conceptual is made perceptual. I now intend to show how
this view leads directly to the formulation of a theory of dream
symbols. Both theories represent extensions of Freud's concept of
regard for representability.
A dream symbol is an image, usually a visual image,
of an object, activity, or scene; the referent for the symbol is a
conception. The function of the symbol is to express as clearly as
possible the particular conception that the dreamer has in mind. For
example, a dreamer who conceives of his mother a nurturant person may
represent her in a dream as a cow. Or a young woman who conceives of
sexuality as a powerful, alien, and criminal force which she is
unable to control might have the following dream, as one of our
I was the warden at a very inefficient prison for
criminals. All at once the gates to the prison opened and all of the
criminals tried to escape. They tried to beat me up and trample on me
and I was left standing there completely helpless.
A young man conceiving of his phallus as a dangerous weapon might
picture it as a gun or sword in his dreams. A woman who thought that
her marriage was going on the rocks dreamed that she was looking for
her wedding dress and when she found it, it was dirty and torn. In
these examples, the visualization is an expression of, not a disguise
for, an idea.
An object, activity, or scene is selected to serve as
a symbol because the dreamer's conception of the object, activity or
scene is congruent with his conception of the referent object. A
nurturant mother appears as a cow because the dreamer conceives of
cows as nurturant animals. If the dreamer thought cows were
dangerous, a cow could not serve as a mother-symbol unless at the
same time he conceived of his mother as dangerous. Occasionally, a
change of conceptions can be detected as in the following dream.
I dreamed that an old man was coming towards me with
a gun. I become frightened and put my glasses on to see him better.
Then I noticed that he was not holding a gun but a bottle of whisky.
The young woman's first conception of the man is that he is
dangerous, but this idea gives way to the contradictory one that he
is harmless. The change in conceptions is symbolized by the act of
putting on her glasses; the better view follows this act.
In some cases, a symbol may represent several ideas
concurrently. In psychoanalytic writings, such a symbol is said to be
over-determined. This term is not a happy choice since no phenomenon
is ever over-determined; it is always just determined, never too
little or too much. I prefer to call symbols condensed. The moon, for
example, may be thought of as a condensed symbol for woman. The
monthly phases of the moon resemble the menstrual cycle, a
resemblance that has support from etymology since the words moon and
menses are derived from the same Latin word. The filling out of the
moon from new to full stimulates the rounding out of the woman during
pregnancy. The moon is inferior to the sun, a male symbol. The moon
is changeable like a fickle woman while the sun is constant. The
moon sheds a weak light, which embodies the idea of female frailty.
The moon controls the ebb and flow of the tide, which is another
likeness to the female rhythm. Rhythm change, fruitfulness, weakness,
and submissiveness, all of which are conventional conceptions of the
female are compressed into a single visible object. As Susanne Langer
observes, the choice of moon as a symbol of woman is determined by
the many ways in which lunar characteristics are congruent with
popular conceptions of the female. Langer reminds us that the
conceptions develop first, followed by the selection of a symbol
which will best represent all of the conceptions.
When one analyzes a series of dreams from a person,
various symbols for the same referent object may be found. As we have
seen, the male member may be symbolized in no less than 102 different
ways. According to our theory of dream symbols, since the referent is
not an object, person, or activity but a conception, the 102
different phallic symbols represent 102 different ways of conceiving
of the male genital. Thus in a dream series one may find multiple
conceptions of the same phenomenon because the dreamer conceives of
it in diverse ways at different times. A father may be represented as
a teacher, a policeman, a king, and an army officer in order to
depict the multiple conceptions of a wise, guiding father, a punitive
father, an exalted, remote father and a disciplining father.
To recapitulate, regard for representability explains
why symbols are found in dreams. Dream symbols are visible
representations of conceptions. In order for an object, activity, or
scene to serve as a symbol, it is necessary that the dreamer's
conception of that object, activity, or scene be identical with his
conception of the referent object.
It is now time to say how we would limit the use of
the term, dream symbol. Since dream images are images and not
perceptions of reality, it could be argued that all images are
symbols. One might even go further and assert that everything mental,
whether perceptions, memories, or images, is really symbolic since
the mental is not the real world but only a representation of the
real world. We prefer, however, to restrict the definition of a dream
symbol to an image that does not embody the referent object directly.
If one dreams of his mother, the image of the mother in the dream
does not qualify as a dream symbol. If one dreams of a cow and the
image of the cow stands for the mother, then the cow is said to be a
dream symbol. According to this view, symbolizing in dreams consists
of transforming one object (the referent object) into another object
(the symbol), and this transformation is made in order to convey the
dreamer's conception of the referent object. Cow is substituted for
mother because the dreamer's conception of his mother is that of a
cow-like person, i.e., one who is nurturant. Similarly gun symbolizes
the dreamer's conception of the phallus as a dangerous, powerful
weapon. Slang and metaphor may be explained in like manner; they are
used to convey one's conceptions of referent objects. If one speaks
of sexual intercourse as grinding one's tool, it is clear that the
speaker conceives of coitus as a mechanical operation performed by a
mechanical tool, the penis. Quite different but no less revealing
conceptions of intercourse are conveyed by the slang expressions stab
in the thigh, playing at horses and mares, and doing the naughty.
Symbols raise hob with dream interpretation since one
must not only translate symbols into referent objects, e.g., cow into
mother, gun into penis, playing the piano into masturbating, but one
must also discover the dreamer's conception of the symbol. If one
dreamed only of referent objects it would be relatively simple to
discover the dreamer's conceptions of these objects by observing the
context in which they appear. That is, if one dreamed of his mother
performing nurturant acts it would be apparent that he conceived of
his mother as a nurturant person. If she appears as a cow it is
necessary to decipher cow into mother and then decide upon the
dreamer's conception of cows in order to determine his conception of
There are several lines, of evidence that tell us
when it is necessary to decipher a dream and how the deciphering
should proceed. This evidence is of two kinds, internal and external.
Internal evidence is that which is found in the dream itself or which
is furnished by other dreams of the same dreamer. External evidence
is secured from information external to the dream.
The following dream reported by a young woman
illustrates the way in which a symbol is detected from internal
I was riding a horse with a saddle and everything was fine. All of a
sudden the saddle and reins fell off except for one rein. The horse
was a large, powerful horse. The horse told me that he was going to
try and throw me off. I told him that I would stay on no matter what
happened. He kicked and ran between trees as fast as he could. I
stayed on him and then woke up.
The presence of a symbol is suggested by the "talking horse." One may
converse with a horse, but save in fairy tales horses do not talk
back; only other humans do that. Accordingly, we feel that it is
justified to translate horse into human. Since the horse is referred
to by the masculine pronoun, it is assumed to be a male. The
description of the horse as large and powerful suggests that the male
is an adult. The identity of the man, whether father, brother, boy
friend, or someone else cannot be determined from the dream. It is
possible however to interpret the dream as one that reveals the
girl's conception of her relationship with an adult male.
A second kind of internal evidence is that which is
obtained from other dreams of a series. For example, if other dreams
of the girl who had the "talking horse" dream disclosed that she was
having a conflict over her relationship with her father, that she
felt he was trying to get rid of her, this knowledge would support
the equation, horse = father. Then the looks and actions of the horse
would divulge the dreamer's conception of her father.
This second line of internal evidence may be
illustrated by the dream of a young married woman. She dreamed that
it was her first wedding anniversary and that they had planned to
reenact the ceremony. She could not find her wedding gown and
searched for it frantically.
Finally when I found the gown it was dirty and torn. With tears
of disappointment in my eyes I snatched up the gown and hurried
to the church. Upon my arrival my husband inquired why I had
brought the gown with me. I was confused and bewildered and felt
strange and alone.
A literal interpretation of this dream might be that the dreamer is
unhappy because her dress is dirty and torn and because her husband
asks her why she has brought it to the church. Suppose we assume,
however, that the state of the wedding dress symbolizes the dreamer's
conception of her marriage, and muster what evidence we can to
support this assumption. It might be argued that her emotional
reactions are out of proportion to the stimuli of a dirty wedding
dress and a husband's question, that the intense feelings which these
conditions produce are appropriate to something more vital, such as
an unhappy marriage. If the reader remains unconvinced by the
evidence from a single dream, other dreams of this young woman can be
summoned to give their testimony. Here are the themes of some of
- She dreams about a recently married girl who is getting a divorce.
- She dreams that she is riding on a streetcar with her husband
through a poor section of the city.
- She dreams that she is waiting for her husband but he does not
appear. She learns that he has tuberculosis.
- She dreams that the diamond in her engagement ring is missing.
- She dreams that her girl friend who is getting married receives
a lot of useless bric-a-brac for wedding presents.
- She dreams that she is shopping and has to wait a long time to
be served. She worries about getting home to her husband on time. She
loses her way, falls on the sidewalk, and is delayed by a train.
These dreams indicate that the dreamer conceives of her marriage as
an unhappy one and corroborate the hypothesis that the torn and dirty
wedding dress is a concrete embodiment of this idea.
The analysis of a dream series provides, in our opinion, the best
evidence for the validity of symbol translation. Since many dream
series contain unsymbolized versions of the dreamer's conceptions,
one may use these bareface dreams as a check on one's interpretation
of dreams freighted with symbolism.
External evidence as to the meaning of symbols may be secured from
several sources. The traditional method is to ask a person to "free
associate" to the various dream items. The free association method
of deciphering dream symbols is a valuable one, but as Walter Reis
has shown (Ref. #9) the dream series method yields almost as clear and as
complete a picture of the dreamer's personality as do dreams plus
free associations. A practical drawback to free association is that
it is time consuming. Although this may not be a limitation whendreams are being interpreted during therapy, it is when one is doing r
esearch on dreams. For the latter purpose, the dream series method is
The identification and meaning of dream symbols may be determined by
the "acting out" that occurs during nocturnal emission dreams. The
writer has collected a number of such dreams and the outcome of an
emission often proves unequivocally the meaning of the symbols
occurring in the dream. The following dream reported by a young man
demonstrates the equivalence of "opening a door" with "sexual
My sister's girl friend came in the front door and smiled at me. She
continued on through the living room and I arose from my chair and
followed her. She walked through a hallway and into the bathroom of
our home and closed the door. As I opened the door I had an emission.
Another nocturnal emission dream in the writers' collection validates
the sexual significance of a number of dream symbols.
I and four or five companions of the same age got out of our car at
some place that was like Mentor Park. It was winter and the place was
abandoned. Ice was all over the ground. We walked across an open area
and as we passed through some passageways we found ourselves
threading our way down a sunny mountain trail looking for gold. We
noticed small animals resembling pigs running around. As we got into
the jungle proper which was very light and sunny we saw all sorts of
wild life, lions, giraffes, pythons standing out in my mind. For
safety we decided to climb trees. I first climbed a small tree but
found it was not safe enough so I came down and began to climb a
larger tent pole which I had not noticed before. As I did so, I had a
The outcome of a sexual ejaculation suggests that the climatic change
from cold to warm, the change in setting from an icy, abandoned park
to a light, sunny jungle, the searching for gold, the passageway, the
entrance into the jungle. the animals, and the trees and tent pole
are objective representation, of the dreamer's conception of
sexuality. Lacking the outcome of an emission, one might have
inferred that this dream is replete with sexual symbols; with the
outcome the meaning of the symbols is more firmly established.
Finally, external evidence for the meaning of dream symbols is found
in such diverse material as slang, figures of speech, myths, fairy
tales, the visual arts, and word origins. Since these sources have
been exploited fully by psychoanalytic investigators, they will not
be discussed in this paper. The writer has found them, particularly
slang and etymology a great help in recognizing and deciphering dream
symbols. Although evidence secured from such sources is suggestive
rather than definitive, a suggestion often puts one on the track of
an inference that can be verified by other evidence.
Now let us see how the dream symbol theory as it has been formulated
on the basis of regard for representability meets the criticisms that
we made of Freud's symbol-as-disguise theory. In the first place, we
criticized the latter theory because it does not account for
unsymbolized dreams appearing in the midst of symbolized ones. Our
theory states that symbols do not serve as masks; consequently, the
presence of symbols and referent objects in the same dream series is
not paradoxical. In fact, it is to be expected if one holds a
cognitive theory of dreams. Since dreams are representations of
conceptions, a dreamer may convey his ideas either by having a
referent object behave in a certain manner or by symbolizing the
referent object, in which case the symbol chosen conveys the
dreamer's conception. In either case, the dream is a series of images
that embody the ideas of the dreamer. In waking life, symbols and
referent objects are used interchangeably to communicate ideas; it
has never been suggested that the object of using symbols in waking
life is to hide one's thoughts. On the contrary, symbols are often
thought to be more expressive than referent objects.
Since dream symbols are ways of expressing conceptions, it is not
surprising that some people can decipher their own dreams. On the
other hand, we would not expect all people to have this ability since
many people are not aware of their conceptions. Probably a great deal
of thinking, which we define as the forming of conceptions, is
The present theory integrates dream symbols with other symbolic forms
of expression, such as slang and figures of speech, and provides
thereby the basis for a general theory of symbolism. The task of
formulating a general theory of symbolism has already been done by
Susanne Langer (Ref. #7), and our special theory of dream symbolism is
congruent with this larger formulation.
With respect to multiple symbols for the same referent, it is
asserted here that the same referent object not the same referent,
may be symbolized in various ways. The referent is always a
conception of a referent object; thus, the versatility with which a
referent object may be symbolized is restricted only by the number of
ideas that can be developed regarding a given object.
Finally our theory does not rest on the assumption that during sleep
one performs complex mental operations such as is assumed when one
sees the dream as an elaborate subterfuge. We believe that dreaming
is a simple form of thinking in which one uses the language of
pictures instead of a more abstract mode of expression. We agree with
Freud that dreaming is a regressive and archaic mental process.
What takes place in a hallucinatory dream we can
describe in no other way than by saying that the excitation follows a
retrogressive course. It communicates itself not to the motor end of
the apparatus, but to the sensory end, and finally reaches the system
of perception. If we call the direction which the psychic process
follows from the unconscious into the waking state progressive, we
may then speak of the dream as having a regressive character (Ref. #1, p. 492).
. . . primitive modes of operations that are suppressed during the
day play a part in the formation of dreams (Ref. #1, p. 527).
. . . dreaming is on the whole an act of regression to the earliest
relationships of the dreamer, a resuscitation of his childhood, of
the impulses which were then dominant and the modes of expression
which were then available (Ref. #1, p. 497).
Evidence obtained from studies of children, primitive
people, psychotics, and brain injury cases suggests that their modes
of thought bear some resemblance to the characteristics of dreaming.
Having introduced this paper with a discussion of
dream books, let us bring it to a conclusion on the same theme. Is it
possible to develop a dream book on the basis of the ideas presented
in this paper? This is tantamount to asking whether there are any
universal symbol-conception connections. In order to establish
universality it would necessitate collecting a representative sample
of dreams from the world's population. obviously, such an undertaking
would present difficulties of such magnitude that it is hardly worth
considering. About the most that could be done would be to
investigate whether there are common symbol-conception associations
in a given culture or sub-culture. Since no such studies have been
done, we can only speculate about what might be found. Having read
thousands of dreams, it would not surprise the writer if some fairly
common symbols for conceptions of referent objects exist. We have
been struck by the prevalence of guns and other weapons in dreams,
and how often they seem to stand
for the conception of the penis as a dangerous weapon: Similarly,
pocketbook or purse are fairly common dream objects and appear to
symbolize a conception of the female genitals as a place where
valuables are stored. It seems to me, after studying a large number
of dreams of normal people, that many of the symbol-referent linkages
discovered by psychoanalysis are valid. However, I would warn against
any mechanical decoding of dreams using a psychoanalytic dream book
for two reasons: first, because more proof is needed of the fixed
connection between symbol and referent, and second, because it is the
conception in the mind of the dreamer and not the referent object
that needs to be discovered.
I suspect that many condensed symbols exist in
dreams, symbols that express a variety of conceptions like the
example of moon mentioned earlier in this paper. It may very well be
that there are types of condensed symbols which correspond to the
types of ambiguities discussed by Kaplan and Kris in a penetrating
article on esthetic ambiguity (Ref. #6). They distinguish four main types
of ambiguities: (a) disjunctive, when the separate meanings are
alternatives, excluding and inhibiting one another, (b) additive,
when the separate meanings are not fully exclusive but are to some
extent included in each other, (c) conjunctive, when the meanings are
linked, and (d) integrative, when the meanings form a unified,
To speak the language of Gestalt, in disjunctive
ambiguity there are several distinct and unconnected fields; additive
ambiguity consists in a restructuring of a single field to reveal
more or fewer details; in conjunctive ambiguity several fields are
connected though remaining distinct; with integrative ambiguity, they
are fully reconstituted-integrated, in short, into one complex
meaning (Ref. #6, p. 420).
If there are such types of condensed symbols in dreams, then the task
of constructing a dependable and useful dream book is made more
Until more evidence is made available concerning the prevalence of
fixed symbol-conception linkages in dreams, it would be well for the
dream interpreter to be wary about depending upon such short-cuts as
dream books provide. We believe that dream interpretation can best be
accomplished by working on a series of dreams and by setting as ones
goal the development of an internally and externally consistent
formulation of the person's conceptions.
Freud's theory of dream symbols as disguises for reprehensible
referents has been examined and found wanting in several respects:
(a) it does not explain why censurable referents appear in some
dreams in their naked form and in other dreams as symbols, (b) it
does not explain why some people are able to decipher their own dream
symbols with facility (c) it does not take into account the
self-conscious and intentional use of slang and figures of speech for
referent objects which are symbolized in dreams, (d) it does not deal
adequately with the question why there should be multiple symbols for
the same referent object, and (e) it assumes that the mind during
sleep is capable of performing exceedingly complex operations.
Starting from Freud's other hypothesis regarding dream symbols, that
which he called regard for representability, the following theory of
dream symbols has been formulated: (a) the referent of a dream symbol
is the dreamer's conception (idea) of a referent object, (b) a dream
symbol is substituted for a referent object in order to express
clearly and economically the conception that the dreamer has in mind,
(c) symbols are employed because conceptions are abstract and must be
represented by visible embodiments if they (conceptions) are to
appear in dreams, and (d) a symbol is selected because the dreamer's
conception of the symbol is identical with his conception of the
Dream symbols may be decomposed into conceptions by making use of
various clues: (a) clues that are present within the context of the
dream itself, (b) clues from other dreams of the person, (c) free
association, (d) acting out as exemplified by dreams that terminate
in nocturnal emissions, and (e) evidence from slang, figures of
speech, myths, fairy tales, etymology, and the visual arts.
The theory presented in this paper has been called a cognitive theory
of dream symbols because it assumes that the process of symbolizing
is a function of the cognitive system of the ego.
- Freud, S. The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud. New York: Modern Library, 1938.
This, of course, is not all that Freud had to say about
symbolism. He felt that the subject went beyond dreams. Symbolism is
an archaic form of expression, a primordial language which is found
in myths and fairy tales, in popular savings and songs, in
colloquialisms and in poetry. Even if there were no censorship in
dreams, dreams would be rendered incomprehensible by the use of
symbols. The fact remains, however, that Freud believed that
symbolism served the purpose of disguise. He writes: "Symbolism,
then, is a second and independent factor in dream distortion existing
side by side with the censorship. But the conclusion is obvious that
it suits the censorship to make use of symbolism, in that both serve
the same purpose: that of making the dream strange and
incomprehensible" (Ref. #2, p. 150). "Everything points to the same
conclusion, namely, that we need not assume that any special
symbolizing activity of the psyche is operative in dream-formation;
that on the contrary, the dream makes use of such symbolizations as
are to be found ready-made in unconscious thinking, since these, by
reason of their ease of representation. and for the most part by
reason of their being exempt from the censorship, satisfy more
effectively the requirements of dream-formation" (Ref. #1, p. 368). "Dreams
employ this symbolism to give a disguised representation to their
latent thoughts" (Ref. #1, p. 370). Quotations from Freud could be
multiplied to show that for him the most important function of
symbols in dreams is that of disguise.
Freud did suggest an answer in the following passage. "Wherever
he has the choice of several symbols for the representation of a
dream content, he will decide in favor of that symbol which is in
addition objectively related to his other thought material; that is
to say, he will employ an individual motivation besides the typically
valid one" (Ref. #1, p. 370). Had Freud developed the thought of this
passage, he might have come to the conclusion that we have reached,
namely, that a particular symbol is chosen because it expresses
better than any other symbol would the precise conception in the mind
of the person.
Had Freud himself not commented upon regard for representability,
we might still have deduced it from our collection of symbol-referent
pairs. It is obvious that some of the referents are objects which
might be represented directly were it not for censorship while others
are mental states, which require pictorialization if they are to
appear as dream images.
- The term referent will be used to denote the dreamer's conception
and the term referent object will be used to denote the object,
person, or activity about which the dreamer has a conception. Thus,
the referent object of cow is mother, and the referent is the
conception of the mother as a nurturant person.
My great intellectual debt to Mrs. Langer will be apparent to
those who have read her book, Philosophy in a New Key (Ref. #7).
Although no two symbols probably express exactly the same idea,
subtle nuances may be ignored for the sake of reducing the many
particulars to a relatively few general classes. For example, we
found that a large number of the 200 slang expressions for penis
could be categorized under the following headings: (1) projecting or
protruding objects, (2) insertive objects, (3) extruding objects, (4)
suspended objects, (5) burrowing objects or animals, (6) oblong
objects, (7) tools, (8) weapons and (9) body extremities.
For a discussion of the dream series method see the writer's paper
Diagnosing Personality by the Analysis of Dreams (Ref. #4).
Dr. Dwight W. Miles, who read this paper in manuscript, has raised the
question as to why symbols are used on some occasions and why
referent objects are used on other occasions. To this important
question, I would give the following answer, realizing as I do so
that it leaves much to be desired. One uses symbols for reasons of
economy; they are a form of shorthand, by which complex ideas can be
rendered simply. A figure of speech in a poem may be freighted with
meaning; indeed we find that the interpretation of a poetic phrase
often requires a lengthy discourse. Much meaning can be compressed
within a symbol. For example, a dreamer may represent his mother as
performing nurturant act or he may sum up his conception by saying in
effect "My mother is a cow." In order to convey the full significance
of the latter statement by having the mother act out the dreamer's
conception might require a very lengthy dream. Why should he choose a
more difficult task when a simple substitution of cow for mother does
just as well? For less complex ideas, it may be just as easy to use
the referent object directly. To sum up, we would say that referent
objects appear in dreams when the conceptions of these objects are
relatively uncomplicated and may be readily conveyed by the behavior
or appearance of the referent objects, and that symbols appear in
dreams when the dreamer's conceptions are complex, and are not easily
portrayed by actions and appearances of referent objects.
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