One aspect of psychoanalytical dream theory that has stood the test of time (and the test of testing) is the idea that dreams represent thoughts that we’re trying to avoid. It was only just over a decade ago that it was first demonstrated experimentally, by cognitive psychologist Daniel Wegner (1994).
Wegner’s work focused on trying to understand what happens when we try to avoid thinking about a particular thought. He had come upon a note written by the great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky:
Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.
Wegner was struck by this, and set out to test this idea. He had some participants try to not think of a white bear, but they found it extremely difficult. It turned out, trying not to think of something made them think of it more!
He later wondered whether dreams might be particularly susceptible to this (Wegner et al., 2004). To find out, he asked some participants to think about a person they knew: a partner, a friend etc. Then he split them into three groups: Group A were asked told to spend five minutes before bed that night actively trying not to think about their person; Group B had to spend those five minutes actively focusing their attention on that person; and Group C spent the five minutes thinking about whatever they wanted. After they had all been to sleep that night, they wrote down their dreams.
It transpired that Group A, who had tried their best not to think about their person, dreamt of their person much more often than the other two groups did. So even though Group B was actively focusing their attention on their person, they dreamt of them less than the group who were trying not to think of them. Wegner called this phenomenon the “dream rebound effect”.
Since Wegner’s first experiment, several other laboratories have confirmed the dream rebound effect, including my own. For example, it has been found that people with high levels of trait thought suppression (i.e. they tend to suppress their thoughts often) are particularly susceptible to dream rebound (Taylor & Bryant, 2007), and to dreaming of their waking-life emotions (Malinowski, 2015), especially negative ones (Malinowski, 2017). We also found that there may be an emotion-processing function of suppressed thoughts rebounding (Malinowski et al., 2019).
Although the dream rebound findings are not identical to the psychoanalytical theories about repression and dreams, it does offer one piece of support for them: if you try not to think about something, there’s a good chance it’ll show up in your dream – and there may be a good reason for this.
See here for my piece on this in The Conversation (Malinowski, 2016).
Malinowski, J. E. (2015). Dreaming and personality: Wake-dream continuity, thought suppression, and the Big Five Inventory. Consciousness & Cognition, 38: 9-15, doi:10.1016/j.concog.2015.10.004.
Malinowski, J. E. (July, 2016). Was Freud right about dreams after all? Here’s the research that helps explain it. The Conversation.
Malinowski, J. E. (2017). High thought suppressors dream more of their negative waking-life experiences than low thought suppressors. Dreaming, 27, 269-277.
Malinowski, J. E., Carr, M., Edwards, C. L., Ingarfill, A., & Pinto, A. (2019). The effects of dream rebound: Evidence for emotion-processing theories of dreaming. Journal of Sleep Research, e12827
Taylor, F., & Bryant, R. A. (2007). The tendency to suppress, inhibiting thoughts, and dream rebound. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 45, 163–168.
Wegner, D. M. (1994). Ironic processes of mental control. Psychological Review, 101, 34-52. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.101.1.34
Wegner, D. M., Wenzlaff, R. M., & Kozak, M. (2004). Dream rebound: The return of suppressed thoughts in dreams. Psychological Science, 15, 232–236.
 Freud and Jung used the term ‘repression’, whereas I’m using ‘suppression’. The main difference between these is that repression happens unconsciously (without deliberate intent) whereas suppression is deliberate. The experiments I describe here refer to suppression rather than repression, but they are so interrelated many people use them interchangeably.