Motivation and emotion/Book/2013/Dreams and motivation

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Dreams and motivation:
What do dreams reveal about our motivation?

Motivation: The driving force that starts, guides, and maintains goal-directed behaviour (Boss, 1963, as cited in Mahrer, 1971).


Dear Dream Guru,

Last night, I dreamed I was in a field of bright flowers and rolling green hills. Suddenly, I was a child again. The flowers died and the grass turned brown. A giant teacher was yelling at me. I jumped into a lake and hid under the water. Please tell me, what does this mean?

Many people search for meaning in their dreams. There are numerous books written on the topic and likewise, various web sites devoted to the decoding of dream symbols (Lipmann, 2000). But is this search for meaning in our dreams justified? Do dreams really reveal something about our unconscious motivations? What is a dream? Read on to find out. It may help you to decide whether keeping that dream journal is worthwhile in your quest towards self-understanding and psychological growth.

Figure 1. The iceberg analogy is a useful way of conceptualising Freud's theory of the human psyche

Freud's psychoanalysis and the unconscious[edit]

Before thinking about what dreams might mean, a brief theoretical background is necessary. Though he did not invent the idea, Sigmund Freud is the man most commonly credited with the development of ‘the unconscious’ (Fayeck, 2005). This is largely because it was the key concept used to develop his comprehensive theory of psychoanalysis (Freud, 1894/1896, as cited in Fayeck, 2005). What is presented here is psychoanalysis as it relates to dreams and unconscious motivation, and not the theory in its entirety. Freud initially developed a theory of the human mind which differentiated between three core components (see Figure 1)(Thwaites, 2007). These were the:

  • Pre-conscious: the part of the mind which is not the current focus of attention but which can be called into consciousness if needed (Thwaites, 2007). This includes memories for things we’ve either implicitly or explicitly learned (Westen, 1999).
  • Conscious: the manipulable thoughts and images currently in our short-term memory (Newell & Simon, 1972, as cited in Westen, 1999).
  • Unconscious: those mental processes and influences which are out of conscious reach (Thwaites, 2007).

These unconscious processes were viewed as motives that influence conscious thought and behaviour (Westen, 1999). Freud viewed the conscious and the unconscious as being separate mental entities, and ones that were often in conflict with each other (Norman, 2010). The unconscious, according to Freud, expresses itself mainly through indirect means (Norman, 2010). For example, through slips of the tongue or within our dreams (Thwaites, 2007). But how is it decided what makes it into consciousness and what remains lurking in the depths of the unconscious?

Freud's Drive Theory[edit]

Freud developed a drive theory which later informed his ideas about the human psyche (Mills, 2004). This theory took a natural science approach to human motivation. He saw the human mind as being driven by unconscious forces that originated from biological deficits. These deficits created the internal experience of pressure or discomfort. This internal pressure then expressed itself as needs, desires, urges or wishes. These driving forces motivated the human to seek out ways of terminating the deficits to bring about satisfaction and pleasure (Mills, 2004).

Unlike animals however, human drives are able to be channelled towards different outcomes; the Ego provides the human with a degree of agency (Mills, 2004). Fulfilment may be achieved through a number of available means, or the drive may be inhibited or deflected altogether (Mills, 2004). This is where Freud’s ideas started to move away from basic instincts and more towards human motivation (Mills, 2004). He added to his psychoanalytic theory the concepts of the Id, the Ego, and the Superego (Freud, 1923/1960, as cited in Segrist, 2009). These three interacting forces of the human mind further explain how unconscious mental processes influence behaviours and cognitions (Norman, 2010).

The Id, the Ego, the Superego[edit]

The external validity of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory has often been doubted because he was mostly concerned with pathology (Norman, 2010). Still, he strove to describe the structure, dynamics and functioning of the human mind (Freud, 1915-1917, as cited in Norman, 2010). In doing so, he came up with three structures which he hypothesised controlled human thought and behaviour (Segrist, 2009). They all interact and function at different levels of consciousness (Segrist, 2009). They are:

  • The Id: the aspect representing unconscious drives and urges of the mind (Doige, 2002); the primitive pleasure-seeker (Segrist, 2009).
  • The Superego: the part representing the influence of morality (Doige, 2002). Includes moral imperatives and social constraints (Segrist, 2009). Operates at both the conscious and unconscious level (Segrist, 2009).
  • The Ego: the moderator between the forces of the Id and the Superego (Segrist, 2009). Channels both their energies and decides on the best course of action based on external reality (Doige, 2002). The most conscious out of all three systems (Segrist, 2009).

The ego in this model is the part of the psyche responsible for coordinating the forces of the Id, the Superego, and the external world (Allport, 1943). The Id and the Superego are seen as competing forces for psychic energy whilst the ego has to watch on and mediate the ongoing conflict (Allport, 1943). If the ego fails in resolving the conflict, a state of uncomfortable anxiety is experienced (Allport, 1943). The person is then driven to reduce the anxiety as it is an unpleasant experience At this point, we can move back to dreams to see how they fit into all of this.

Freudian dreaming[edit]

Figure 2. The original Dream Guru, Sigmund Freud

Freud believed that our deepest unconscious desires and wishes used dreams as a channel to surpass the censorship of the Ego (Freud, 1900/1953, as cited in Lipmann, 2000). This dream disguise was a safe way for the repressed impulses to be expressed, resulting in the relief of pent-up anxiety (Bell & Cook, 1998). The repression mechanism of the Ego (one of many defence mechanisms) was believed to partially relax in sleep, allowing these wishes to slip through (Bell & Cook, 1998).

The Freudian dream was seen as having two parts (Thwaites, 2007):

  • The manifest content: the imagery from the dream which the person is able to recount upon waking (Thwaites, 2007).
  • The latent content: the true meaning hidden within the dream (Thwaites, 2007). This consisted of the repressed childhood sexual and aggressive wishes (Bell & Cook, 1998).

In the Dream Guru box at the beginning of this chapter, Freud would not have seen it as a dream merely about hills, giant teachers and water. These manifest surface characteristics of the dream would have represented a deeper, latent meaning. Because the latent meaning is so carefully disguised, a highly trained professional would have to interpret the dream through psychoanalytic dream-work (Lipmann, 2000). The aim of dream-work being to understand the true motivating forces operating in the person’s mind (Lipmann, 2000).

Based on this theory then, your dreams would appear to hold complex meanings about your true motivations. That dream journal seems like a worthy endeavour. Unfortunately, Freud’s theory is not without its critics. The hypothesised function of reliving pent-up drive tensions whilst keeping anxiety at manageably low levels has not been supported by empirical dream studies (Bell & Cook, 1998). It has also been indicated that dreams reflect the person’s conscious concerns and personality characteristics (Brown & Donderi, 1986, as cited in Bell & Cook, 1998). As noted previously, the applicability of Freud’s findings to the general population has been questioned because he initially sought to find the aetiology of hysteria (Jones, 1910). Still, his contributions to the conception of unconscious mental processes are noteworthy. This is one part of his theory which has endured; that people are not always consciously aware of the motivational forces underlying their behaviour (Pyszczynski, Greenberg, & Solomon, 2000). Contemporary dream research continues to grow out of his theory (Schredl & Reinhard, 2012). Let’s now take a look at some alternative perspectives on dreaming and see whether dreams are important to everyday life.

How to get the most out of your dreams: Tips from a psychoanalyst (based on Mahrer, 1971)

If dream interpretation is something which interests you, try using these quick guidelines to help you understand how your dreams might be applicable to your everyday waking life.

1.) Select an appropriate dream

  • Immediately recalled dreams are best because there is less time for waking events and rational thought to interfere
  • Try to use dreams that contain intense emotional experiences
  • Dreams with vivid imagery are more useful than vague ones

2.) Record the dream

  • As soon as possible after waking; use a tape recorder, type it on your laptop, or write it in a notebook
  • Describe everything in detail, including emotions, the scenery, any actions, people, objects, ideas, thoughts, etc...

3.) Link the dream to recent events

  • Do any of the events in the dream correspond to your recent waking life?
  • Do any parts of the dream correspond to any past life events?
  • Identify any parts that stand out as strange or unfamiliar
  • Take note of any dream thoughts and ideas; have similar thoughts appeared in your waking life recently?

4.) Identify the motivation

  • Try to identify the goal or drive behind anyone's actions in the dream (including your own)
  • Especially focus on peak moments of emotions – why were you experiencing that emotion? Do this by clarifying the motivational act occurring at that time

5.) Identify a critical recent life event

  • Write or think of a clearer description about how what you have learned from your dream relates to a specific event in your waking life
  • By identifying the motivation, think about how you would like things to play out in real life

6.) Experience the motivation

  • In the context of that dream-revised real-life event, relive the motivation
  • Picture yourself in the waking life event and fully surrender to the emotion. Use it to carry out the motivational act

7.) Use what you have learned from your dreams to facilitate new ways of behaving

  • If your feelings in the dream are negative, you are still avoiding the deeper motivation and cannot experience this behavioural actualisation
  • If you have managed to identify the underlying motivation and have used it to positively fuel your visualised actions, you are ready to transfer the motivation into behavioural actualisation

Using these steps, you might be able to learn from your dreams and be motivated to apply the new behaviours to your waking life.

Dreams and waking life[edit]

Figure 3. Searching for meaning within the dream

Dream work used to be considered a vital component of psychotherapy (Hill Liu, Sim, & Schottenbauer, 2008). However, the popularity of dream interpretation in a Freudian sense has declined in the last half-century (Lipmann, 2000). Despite this, other areas in psychology have focused their attention on the processes involved in dreaming (Schredl & Reinhard, 2012). Some of the findings may persuade you that interpreting your dreams may still hold a valid purpose.

The content of dreams has been found to be related to waking life in ways that differ from Freud’s psychoanalytic proposals (Schredl & Reinhard, 2012). The continuity hypothesis of dreaming refers to the idea that dreams reflect conscious waking states and concerns, and has been generally supported by empirical research (Domhoff, 1996, as cited in Schredl & Reinhard, 2012). The content of dreams has also been linked to measures of waking psychological well-being, such that people who score low on measures of psychological well-being report more aggressive and negative content in their dreams and those with higher measures report friendly interactions and themes in their dreams (Pesant & Zadra, 2006). The themes most commonly depicted in dream studies have been emotional and interpersonal in nature (Roussy et al., 1996, as cited in Pesant & Zadra, 2006). Therefore, it may be potentially worthwhile to monitor your dream content to facilitate deeper reflection about the state of your social relationships (Pesant & Zadra, 2006). This finding may be due to beliefs that are endorsed in Western culture, that dreams do reflect aspects of waking life, such that people who are interested in dreams actively search for meaning within them (King & DeCicco, 2009). But does that mean the understandings people gain from dream interpretation should be undermined? Not necessarily.

What use is a dream?[edit]

Even within the psychoanalytic tradition there are diverse attitudes held toward dreams (Hill, Liu, Spangler, Sim, & Schottenbauer, 2008). Adler (1931/1958, as cited in Lombardi & Elcock, 1997) also emphasised the meaning of symbols in dreams, but thought dreams were a means of solving waking-life problems. Still, there is some agreement about effective ways of working with dreams in psychotherapy such as looking in detail at the imagery and exploring their connections to everyday life as a way to enhance personal growth (Hill et al., 2008). Furthermore, dreams can have an impact on emotional states and might help people to cope in times of distress (Schredl & Reinhard, 2012). For example, dreams about a deceased or ex-partner might help the dreamer to cope with the loss or separation, and this is an area which has been suggested for further research (Schredl & Reinhard, 2012). So whether or not dreams actually contain hints about our hidden unconscious motivations as proposed by Freud, they are still laden with meaning – if you believe them to be (King & De Cicco, 2009). Neuropsychological research has also found that when particular fibres in the frontal lobes are severed, the occurrence of dreaming ceases (Solms, 1977, as cited in Turnbull & Solms, 2007). The severing of these same fibres also results in a reduction in motivated behaviour, a result which has convinced neuroscientists that dreams are not motivationally neutral as once thought (Turnbull & Solms, 2007).

Research on rapid eye movement (REM) in sleep has added to understandings about dreams from a functional perspective (Lipmann, 2012). It is proposed that REM dreaming in infancy facilitates neuronal pathway connections and prepares the brain for future interconnecting throughout its lifespan. Cognitive scientists have demonstrated that dreams play a part in problem solving and in dealing with waking life’s excess information. Dreaming helps to sort, consolidate and organise memory through the interaction between short- and long-term memory functions (Lipmann, 2012). Even if you do not believe your dreams harbour the potential to enhance psychological growth, they still have a biological purpose and have helped your brain to grow in a literal sense (Lipmann, 2000).

Unconscious motivation[edit]

Figure 4. Unconscious motivation - are you really in control?

Freud's psychoanalytic theory has been controversial because of its empirically untestable nature (Turnbull & Solms, 2007). Despite this, his theory has prompted further research into the unconscious mind. Research on non-declarative learning in amnesic patients and on implicit awareness indicate that much of human mental activity occurs outside of conscious awareness (Turnbull & Solomon, 2007). But do unconscious mental processes have any link to motivation in particular?

A study by Pyszczynksi, Greenberg and Solomon (2000) investigated the impact of conscious and non-conscious death-related thoughts on behaviour. In the conscious condition, people were actively motivated to get rid of such thoughts, whereas in the non-conscious condition participants responded by acting in ways to defend their cultural worldview (Pyszczynski et al., 2000). Radel, Sarrazin and Pelletier (2009) examined the effect of subliminal stimuli on subsequent motor performance. They found that these unconscious factors could activate motivational processes and enhance performance (Radel et al., 2009). Lévesque and Pelletier (2003) also found that implicit measures were more indicative of actual behaviour whereas explicit self-reported measures were more related to intention.

These results, though not directly related to dreams, do highlight a very important point. That is, our behaviour can be influenced by factors that we are not always aware of (Radel, Sarrazin, & Pelletier, 2009).

Summary and conclusion[edit]

This chapter started with some questions about dreams and motivation. They have now been addressed in some detail. Let's reflect on the content of the chapter and see what conclusions can be drawn.

Is the search for meaning in dreams justified? The psychoanalytic tradition would certainly suggest so. If you do not subscribe to such views, however, the search may be in vain. Dreams might just be the result of biological processes.

Do dreams reveal something about unconscious motivations? Perhaps. Neurological research has found a link between motivationally-relevant brain areas and dreaming. Whether the actual content of dreams reflects this connection is still debatable though.

What is a dream? Again, it depends on which perspective you subscribe to. Psychoanalysts believe they are the key to unlocking the door to our deepest unconscious desires. They carry elements of our waking lives, and might even reflect important things about the state of our interpersonal affairs. They facilitate neural growth in infancy. They certainly have a biologically relevant purpose, and dream research by Freud has led to subsequent research on unconscious mental processes.

The final question. Should you continue keeping that dream journal to aid in your psychological growth? The research would suggest that if you search for meaning in your dreams, you will find it. So if you find pleasure in dream-decoding and think it is a meaningful quest, keep at it! If you prefer to validate your approach to life and motivation with scientifically sound evidence, you might want to check out some of the other chapters linked in the "see also" section below. Just remember though, you cannot control everything. Unconscious forces can be powerfully motivating things.

Dear Dreamer,

Your dream could mean that you have recently visited a wide-open field, or seen pictures of such scenery. The fact that you regress into a childlike state, facing an exaggerated authority figure could indicate that your Superego is trying to regain control and pull you into line. Have you been misbehaving in real life? Is there a situation you are hiding from because you feel guilty? Alternatively, your dream could reflect nothing more than random neural firing and you're over-thinking it, trying to make sense where there is none. In other words, I don't have the answers. What do you think it means?

Yours Sincerely,

Dream Guru.

See also[edit]


Allport, G. W. (1943). The ego in contemporary psychology. Psychological Review, 50, 451-478.

Bell, A. J., & Cook, H. (1998). Empirical evidence for a compensatory relationship between dream content and repression. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 15, 154-163.

Doige, N. (2002). Classics revisited: Freud’s the Ego and the Id and “inhibitions, symptoms and anxiety.” Journal of the American Psychoanalytical Association, 50, 281-294.

Fayeck, A. (2005). The centrality of the system Ucs in the theory of psychoanalysis. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 22, 524-543.

Hill, C. E., Liu, J., Spangler, P., Sim, W., & Schottenbauer, M. (2008). Working with dreams in psychotherapy: What do psychoanalytic therapists report that they do? Psychoanalytic Psychology, 25, 565-573.

Jones, E. (1910). Freud’s psychology. The Psychological Bulletin, 7, 109-128.

King, D. B., & De Cicco, T. L. (2009). Dream relevance and the continuity hypothesis: Believe it or not? Dreaming, 19, 207-217.

Lévesque, C., & Pelletier, L. G. (2003). On the investigation of primed and chronic autonomous and heteronomous motivational orientation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 1570-1584.

Lipmann, P. (2000). Dreams and psychoanalysis: A love-hate story. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 17, 627-650.

Lombardi, D. N., & Elcock, L. E. (1997). Freud versus Adler on dreams. American Psychologist, 52, 572-573.

Mahrer, A. R. (1971). Personal life change through systematic use of dreams. Psychotherapy: Theory, research and practice, 8, 328-332.

Mills, J. (2004). Clarifications on trieb: Freud’s theory of motivation reinstated. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 21, 673-677.

Norman, E. (2010). “The unconscious” in current psychology. European Psychologist, 15, 193-201.

Pesant, N., & Zadra, A. (2006). Dream content and psychological well-being: A longitudinal study of the continuity hypothesis. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 62, 111-121.

Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., & Solomon, S. (2000). Proximal and distal defense: A new perspective on unconscious motivation. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9, 156-160.

Radel, R., Sarrazin, P., & Pelletier, L. (2009). Evidence of subliminally primed motivational orientations: The effects of unconscious motivational processes on the performance of a new motor task. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 31, 657-674.

Schredl, M., & Reinhard, I. (2012). Frequency of a romantic partner in a dream series. Dreaming, 22, 223-229.

Segrist, D. J. (2009). What’s going on in your professor’s head? Demonstrating the id, ego, and superego. Teaching of Psychology, 36, 51-54.

Thwaites, T. (2007). Reading Freud: Psychoanalysis as cultural theory. London, SAGE Publications Ltd.

Turnbull, O. H., & Solms, M. (2007). Awareness, desire, and false beliefs: Freud in the light of modern neuropsychology. Cortex, 43, 1083-1090.

Westen, D. (1999). The scientific status of unconscious processes: Is Freud really dead? Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 47, 1061-1106.