Study Guide

The Interpretation of Dreams Memory and the Past

By Sigmund Freud

Memory and the Past

What's your earliest memory? Have you got a handle on the big events that happened in your life before you were two or three years old?

In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud makes an argument that is probably nothing new to most of us today but that was surprising to people back in his day. According to him, all of us walk around with memories from our early childhoods buried in the unconscious depths of our minds. Those memories are inaccessible to our waking selves, but they bubble below the surface like volcanic magma, just waiting to erupt. Only through our dreams—and, in more extreme cases, through the symptoms of neuroses—do those memories come to light.

For Freud, then, dreams are windows into our earliest memories and our earliest selves.

Questions About Memory and the Past

  1. In Freud's view, what is the relationship between very recent memories and very old memories in dreams? How are they brought together, and why?
  2. What does Freud say is the earliest period of life from which dreams are likely to draw memories and other "dream-elements"?
  3. According to Freud, dreams have access to "memories" that our conscious minds can't touch. Where exactly are those memories kept, and why and how do they get out?
  4. Freud concludes The Interpretation of Dreams by arguing that dreams can tell us something about the past. What exactly can they tell us, and whose past are we talking about here?

Chew on This

Although lots of Freud's theories and assumptions have been disputed, many of his views on memory are like common sense today. By arguing that pleasurable and distressing impressions from our early childhoods shape who we become as adults, Freud showed that early childhood development deserves careful attention and research.

Although Freud draws a connection between the "primitive" (or "developing") mind of a young child and the "primitive" (or "archaic") stages of humanity, his argument doesn't really hold water. Because Freud makes such broad generalizations about "primitive" and "sophisticated" stages of human development, it's hard to see how his argument applies in any specific case.

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