“On this day in 1899, Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud published his seminal work on psychoanalysis, The Interpretation of Dreams. Though it was received very quietly with an initial press run of only 600 copies, Freud’s revolutionary work would herald a cultural revolution.
Born Sigismund Schlomo Freud to Jewish Galician parents in what is now the Czech Republic, Freud was the favoured first of eight children. He excelled in school, joined the medical faculty at the University of Vienna, and read the works of Friedrich Nietzsche. In 1885, Freud traveled to Paris to study with renowned neurologist and hypnosis researcher Jean-Martin Charcot. There, Freud made the critical decision to forgo neurology to pursue the less-explored and less lucrative field of medical psychopathology, and eventually pioneer the new field of psychoanalysis.
Some four years later that decision led to the publication of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, published from a small academic printing press in Vienna. In it, Freud postulated that dreams are forms of wish fulfillment, or the satisfaction of a desire through an involuntary thought process. As such, Freud theorised that dreams are the brain’s attempt to resolve a conflict, whether superficial or deep in our psyche’s past. Freud also used Interpretation to introduce the early foundations of the “”Oedipus complex,”” the theory that young boys have a deep, natural desire to sexually possess their mothers and exclude their fathers (a theory that later included young girls).
In fact, Freud wasn’t the first to indulge in dream interpretation. One of the earliest historical examples of the field is found in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, in which the mother of Gilgamesh interprets her son’s dream about an axe falling from the sky. In ancient Egypt, priests practiced dream interpretation, evident in ancient hieroglyphics. The ancient Greeks considered dreams as prophetic or as omens, while medieval Islamic psychology recognised that dreams consist of three parts and may be false, pathogenetic, or true. Chinese scholars, too, studied dreams and asked probing questions such as how we know we are dreaming and how we know we are awake, a topic of great interest in modern cognitive neuroscience.
It was from this rich history that Freud added his own seminal work and historical contribution to the field of dream interpretation. Though he would write in a letter soon after his book’s publication “”not a leaf has stirred to reveal that The Interpretation of Dreams has had any impact on anyone,”” Freud’s revolutionary book soon unleashed a storm and is today considered the foundation stone of psychoanalysis.”
Credit: Alamy ANJH5E
Caption: Sigmund Freud poses with a cigar.