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The notion that dreams provide an avenue for the expression of normally repressed desires while simultaneously disguising and censoring our real urges was systematically formulated by Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. In Freud’s view, the purpose of dreams is to allow us to satisfy in fantasies the instinctual urges that society judges to be unacceptable, such as the urge to seduce or kill someone. If, however, we were to dream about an actual seduction or an actual assault, the emotions evoked by the dream would awaken us. So that our sleep is not continually disturbed by such dreams, the mind modifies and disguises their content so that strong emotions are not evoked. Freud referred to the process of censoring and transforming dream contents into less disturbing images as the dreamwork and explicitly identified five processes through which dreams are censored: displacement, condensation, symbolization, projection, and secondary revision.
In symbolization, as the name suggests, the repressed urge is acted out in a symbolic manner. During the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in which Freud lived, overt expressions of sexuality were generally frowned upon in polite society. Hence many of Freud’s patients suffered from repressed sexual desires, and he was able to study many dreams in which these forbidden urges were covertly expressed. Freud found that almost anything long and protruding could represent a male organ, and anything concave and receptive could represent the female. Thus, a dream in which a male was pouring champagne out of a bottle into a glass held by a female might symbolize sexual intercourse. Even something more subdued, such as inserting a key into a keyhole, might have the same meaning, depending on the dreamer and on the other elements of the dream. Other kinds of repressed desires, particularly aggressive urges, can be expressed indirectly in dreams through the mechanism of symbolization.