Where do banished thoughts go? Into your dreams, of course…

When we have thoughts that make us feel uncomfortable, a natural response is to try hard not to think about them. What happens to those banished thoughts – can they really just disappear? According to psychoanalytic theory, these thoughts come back and haunt us in our dreams, sometimes in symbolic ways. But in recent years, oneirologists have viewed Freud’s theory of dreams as having been completely debunked. What does research have to say about this?

In my recent study, I asked participants to record the most recent dream they could remember having, say how much it related to their positive and negative experiences from their waking lives, and fill in a questionnaire about how much they try to suppress their thoughts in general. I found that the more people tried to suppress unpleasant thoughts, the more likely they were to dream of their unpleasant experiences from life: things that made them feel angry, sad, scared, or anxious.

My study was correlational, which means it can’t show cause and effect: it’s not possible to state with any certainty that this means suppressed thoughts reappear in dreams. However, this result is very much in agreement with previous research evidencing what’s called the “dream rebound” effect. Laboratory experiments (such as this one) find that when you ask someone to suppress a thought, that thought does bounce back in dreams. The rebound effect is so strong that suppressing a thought has more effect on a dream that actively concentrating on the thought.

Together, the research is beginning to build up a picture illustrating that trying to ignore unpleasant thoughts leads to dreaming about those thoughts.

Does this mean Freud was right? Not exactly. Freud thought that dreams were picturing suppressed desires like as sexual fantasies or violent urges. Modern research suggests it’s not all about sex and violence – rather, any kind of unpleasant thought that we suppress will rebound in a dream, and it’s not necessarily something we secretly desire but simply something that causes us discomfort to think about. You can read my article in The Independent about this here.

This idea that dreams picture ignored thoughts has echoes in Jung as well. Jung believed that when we were inadequately focusing on something from waking life, our dreams step in and try to do this for us. He called this “compensation“.

These findings make me wonder whether one of the reasons dreamwork is so useful is that it helps us uncover these thoughts we’re hiding from ourselves, and actually deal with them. Again, this is what Freud was saying over 100 years ago, but while his theory was about secret desires, today we think it’s more about any thoughts that causes us discomfort.

I find it fascinating that current dream science is backing up some of the theories of Freud and Jung, albeit it with modifications!