Jung's Theory of Dreams

by Mark L. Dotson

Spring 1996

Why do we have dreams? Where do they originate? Do they have meaning? Are dreams of any value to us, or are they just so much nonsense? These questions have puzzled thinkers since the dawn of humanity. Every culture in the world has offered explanations. For instance, the Australian Aborigines believe that what we consider the realm of dreams is the real world (the Dreamtime), and the world we experience with our senses is a dream.

C.G. Jung put forth a theory of dreams which is quite popular today. Following in the footsteps of Sigmund Freud, Jung claimed that dream analysis is the primary way to gain knowledge of the unconscious mind. He says that the dream is a natural phenomenon which we can study, thereby gaining knowledge of the hidden part of our mind. The images are symbolic of conscious and unconscious mental processes.

There is a significant difference between a symbol and a sign in Jung's view. A sign merely points to something. For instance, a red stop-light points to the idea that we should stop our car; the green light points to the idea that we should go. These lights are not symbols, because a symbol, according to Jung,

is a term, a name, or even a picture that may be familiar in daily life, yet that possesses specific connotations in addition to its conventional and obvious meaning. It implies something vague, unknown, or hidden from us (Jung 3).

A good example of a symbol is the American flag. If one who did not know what the flag symbolized saw it for the first time, he or she would not be able to relate the connotations attached to it that we, as American citizens, are familiar with. It is not obvious to a foreigner what deeper meaning the flag holds for us. Another good example of a symbol which holds deep meaning is the swastika.

For Jung, dreams originate in the unconscious. They are naturally occurring phenomena, arising spontaneously and autonomously into the conscious mind. Generally, we cannot decide beforehand which dreams we will have each night. It would be interesting to know what Jung would think of present-day research into "lucid dreaming," where one is said to be aware, while in the dream state, that one is in a dream, thus allowing one to guide the outcome. In this type of dream, the spontaneity and autonomy of the dream seem less evident; the dreamer seems to have more control.

Jung explains the phenomenon of dreaming by saying that the psyche regulates itself by a process of compensation. He was influenced here by psychologist, Alfred Adler, who introduced the notion of compensation into psychology. Jung was also inspired by the Greek philosophers, Heraclitus, and Anaximander. Heraclitus taught that "when a one-sided attitude persists, . . . the opposite attitude comes to the fore in an automatic attempt to restore a balanced attitude" (Bennet 92). Anaximander talked about a continual, cyclical process by which opposing forces do battle. Taking these views into consideration, Jung developed a theory which claimed that, when there is an imbalance between the conscious and unconscious minds, a neurosis or psychosis occurs. This is a fragmentation of the personality, in the sense that the psyche is split into two opposing energies which refuse to be reconciled. Schizophrenia is a good example of such a conflict. In schizophrenia, the intellectual faculties and the affective elements of the personality become dissociated, i.e., there is a split between the rational elements and the emotional elements. As compensation for the imbalance, the psyche will attempt to right itself by providing clues, or possible solutions to the problem through dreams, according to Jung. He claims that if the dreamer can understand and apply what the dream is saying, the imbalance will be corrected. As evidence for this, he offered many case studies where dreams would give him an idea of the problem confronting a particular individual, and how to proceed with treatment. He claimed to help many of his patients in this manner.

"Imbalance" sounds very negative and pathological to our ears. I do not think Jung meant for the idea to be taken that way. For the psyche to be perfectly balanced at some point in one's life, one would have to be in a state of perfection, or so it seems to me. Very small fluctuations between the energies would constantly be correcting themselves via dreams (if Jung is correct, that is). These small fluctuations would not result in full-blown mental pathology, but rather in something like very mild mood-swings. It is obvious that we all experience these.

Jung believes that the unconscious communicates with the conscious mind through dream imagery. When the dream is considered, one finds in one's consciousness certain associations which are connected to the images. Associations, in this context, are ideas or feelings which arise in the mind of the dreamer when contemplating the dream. Jung contends that only through these associations can the true meanings be discovered. He referred to this as amplification.

Unlike Freud, Jung did not believe the dream should be interpreted using "free association." Rather, he claimed that one could come closer to the meaning by focusing on the specific images that the dream provides. For instance, one person might dream of an obelisk, and another of a Saturn rocket. Freud might claim that both are, in general, phallic symbols, and may allude to some sexual dysfunction, depending on the context of the dream imagery. On the other hand, Jung would want to know why one dream contained an obelisk and the other a rocket. This difference could affect the entire interpretation. In Jung's words, "I concluded that only the material that is clearly and visibly part of the dream should be used in interpreting it" (Jung 14). A dream image, he says, can have many different meanings according to the dreamer's associations. Because of this, Jung was vehemently opposed to any kind of "dream dictionary," where the images are given fixed meanings.

Jung believes that creative ideas can come to us through dreams. He points to the nineteenth-century German chemist, Kekule, and his discovery of the molecular structure of benzene. It seems that Kekule dreamed one night of a snake swallowing its own tail. He took this to mean that the structure was a closed carbon ring. Jung also refers to the author of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson. The plot for the book came to Stevenson one night in a dream. For Jung, the unconscious is a "rich vein" of creativity and the source of all genius (Jung 25-26).

Up until now, the discussion has focused on dreams which are of a personal nature. Sometimes, however, a "collective dream," may appear, which contains symbolism pertaining to an entire culture or race, or perhaps even the entire human population. Jung once visited a primitive tribe called the Elgoni in East Africa. They told him they distinguished between "big dreams" and "little dreams." According to Jung, the former refer to collective dreams, which arise from the collective unconscious; the latter to personal dreams, emanating from the personal unconscious. Collective dreams contain symbols which are common to all human beings. For example, in most religious mythologies, there are stories of a destruction of the world by the supreme deity. In the Bible, we read of Noah and the great flood, and of the battle of Armageddon. In Germanic mythology, there is the tale of ragnarok, which is the Norse myth of the final battle of gods and warriors. The Cherokee believe that someday the earth will sink into the ocean (Eliade 59). Collective dreams are not easily understood by the dreamer because they are of an impersonal nature. Usually, with these kinds of dreams there will be few, if any, associations. Why these images exist in the human psyche remains a mystery. Jung says "their origin is so far buried in the mystery of the past that they seem to have no human source" (Jung 42). Thinking along Jungian lines, perhaps there is a need, at times, for a balancing of the collective psyche of humanity, just as the opposing energies of the individual personality are stabilized by dreams. The apocalyptic myths may be adjustments to the attitude which assumes that the world is permanent and indestructible. Surely all the movies and books in the last fifty years about nuclear holocaust helped adjust our thinking about the permanency of the human race and this planet.

Jung's theory is quite popular in our modern culture, even though there are several things which must be closely pondered. First of all, the fact that the dream is a subjective phenomenon makes an objective study nearly impossible. The only dream images we can examine are our own. We have no assurance that others will relate their dreams accurately and truthfully. And even if they do, how do we ascertain their relevance? On the other hand, there is at least one subjective phenomenon which science gives credence to, namely, pain. We all experience pain just as we experience dreams. We must relate our pain to our doctor so that he or she can make a diagnosis of our condition. The difference, however, is that modern medicine can find empirical evidence that pain exists by finding the effected physical component, whereas no physical component can be found which corresponds to a certain dream image.

Also, there is the problem of dream interpretation. How can we test an interpretation for accuracy? How can we be certain that the associations which arise in our minds are really connected with the dream? They may simply be our overactive imaginations. Moreover, how do we know that the interpretation we decide upon (if we ever do) is correct? The answer is, we have no certainty in these areas. Jung seems to believe that whatever interpretation one comes up with is the correct one for that person. The result is that objectivity is impossible in these interpretations.

The notion of compensation is intriguing, but is there a way to test this hypothesis? What if we conducted an experiment where we allowed one person to sleep and dream normally, and another we deprived of sleep, and hence of dreaming as well? Does the person who is deprived of sleep act in an abnormal manner? Does he seem to be out of balance in some way? Does he exhibit any symptoms of neurosis or psychosis? I have read that persons who are deprived of sleep for a few days sometimes suffer from hallucinations. Could this be the psyche attempting to right itself, as in Jungian dream theory?

And what of Jung's idea of the collective dream? We can plainly see there are striking similarities between the religious mythologies of different races and cultures, even between those which are separated by thousands of miles of ocean. The end-of-the-world motif mentioned earlier is one example. Another would be the idea that all cultures seem to have heroes who deliver the people from evil. Christ is an obvious example. Others which come to mind are the stories of Krishna in Hinduism, and of Gautama in Buddhism. There seems to be evidence for a comparative mythology, but is its source a collective unconscious?

Jung's ideas concerning dreams are a fascinating topic for casual conversation and speculation, but they are by no means on a solid scientific foundation, at least not yet. Perhaps future discoveries in dream psychology will give us more to work with.

His thoughts on comparative mythology and collective dreams have some objective support, but not in the sense of empirical, objective scientific investigation. Rather, it is akin to the manner in which Immanuel Kant spoke of the a priori as an underlying reality that is prior to experience, and hence makes experience possible. Similarly, it seems that Jung's theory of the collective unconscious (and collective dreams) rests on the assumption of a transcendental (in the Kantian sense) objectivity. Just as Kant posited a priori structures of the mind which make human experience possible, Jung posits a certain structure, the collective unconscious, which is the source of all mythology (and possibly all experience as well).

Jungian dream theory is open to much scrutiny at this point in the history of science and philosophy. It is impossible to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was correct because his theories are akin to literary interpretations. He gathers various dreams from his patients and then tries to interpret them into a meaningful framework to support his theories. Pending new discoveries in dream research, one should remain quite skeptical.


Bennet, E.A. What Jung Really Said. New York: Schocken, 1966.

Eliade, Mircea. Myth and Reality. New York: Harper, 1963.

Jung, Carl Gustav. Man and His Symbols. New York: Dell, 1964.

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(c) copyright 1996 Mark L. Dotson. All rights reserved.