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What is sleep on a symbolic level?

“Sleep is a return…to the womb.”1

  • This is why dreams are the “guardian of sleep.” Contact with the external world is broken and cathexes of internal organs are withdrawn. These act undergird, for Freud, what occurs in the “instinct to sleep” and mirrors a return to the womb, where all instinctual impulses are met through the body of the mother, requiring no awareness of external reality. In the dream, all impulses are met with an internal, psychical response, rather than a movement toward action discharge on the external environment. Thus, dreams safeguard sleep through internal imaginative action, displacing physical action in the environment, to meet internal instinctual demands and continue the womb-like state of psychical separation from the external world.

Dreams are Compromises.

“With the help of the unconscious, every dream that is in process of formation makes a demand upon the ego”2.

A dream is the creation of the ego that must mediate the demands of different structures in the psyche.

  • Id
    • for the satisfaction of an instinct
  • Preconscious Activity in Waking Life [remnants from waking-life ego]
    • for the solution of a conflict
    • the removal of a doubt
    • the forming of an intention

Wish to maintain sleep

  • The ego meets the demands of the id or preconscious activity with a fulfillment of the instinctual need with a wish, which is the dream. Thereby the instinctual demand is replaced by the fulfillment of a wish.


The Hunger Dream

  • A need for food makes itself felt in a dreamer during sleep: he has a dream of a delicious meal and sleeps on. The choice was open to either waking up and eating something or of continuing sleep. The decision is made in favor of the latter and the hunger is satisfied by means of the dream in the form of wish fulfillment: eating in the dream.

Late for Work Dream

  • A person needs to wake up on time for work at a hospital. But, sleeping on, dreams that they are a patient who has no need to get out of bed.

Anxiety in Dreams

  • “It must not be forgotten that dreams are invariably the product of a conflict, that they are a kind of compromise-structure. Something that is a satisfaction for the unconscious id may for that very reason be a cause of anxiety for the ego.”3


Information from Freud, S. (1949). An Outline of psycho-analysis (Ed. & Trans. James Strachey). Norton.; 140; 244; 345.