4 Dream Mechanisms -Why are our dreams so strange?

I never cease to marvel at my dreams and the dreams that I’ve heard from clients through the years.

As I recounted in another post, a recurring dreams, and a therapy process, led me to make the link between the topic I discussed in therapy and the sudden disappearance of these recurring dreams.

Through my studies I had already become curious about the dream world, and how it represents our deepest, darkest memories, thoughts, feelings. Those that we wouldn’t want anyone to know.

Sometimes we don’t even want to know. Enter the unconscious.

This diagram (courtesy of verywellmind.com) explains, in very simple terms, what the unconscious, preconscious and conscious mind entail

As you can see, the conscious mind is just the proverbial “tip of the iceberg”.

There are many reasons for this. And this links well to explaining why our dreams are so strange sometimes.

In this post, I’ll get into the mechanisms that make dreams so strange.

Before going into them, I’d like to write a few more sentences about the unconscious and what we might send there.

When we experience something traumatic – no matter the size – we send it to the unconscious. But we don’t send the memory there.

We always remember what happened.

What we send to the unconscious is the fear, the anger, the extreme sadness, and any other feelings and thoughts that we might have had when going through a particular event.

We send it there because consciously knowing about it might be too overwhelming for us.

There is something that makes it easier for our unconscious mind to bring these repressed things up in our dreams.

You see, when we are awake, we have two censors. These prevent the unconscious material from arising to our consciousness.

When the pull of the unconscious to bring something to our awareness, our ego has a conversation with our unconscious, and they come to a sort-of deal.

It is what Freud called a “transaction”.

For example, you have repressed the fact that when you were 3 you were separated from your parents in the amusement park, and you were terrified.

It’s easy to tell this story as your emotional reactions are separated from the memory.

But our unconscious might want us to remember it all, but the ego knows this would be too much to handle.

A transaction, a deal is struck at this point and instead of the emotional memory of the event coming up, you get a “symptom”.

This symptom could be a headache, stomach pain, tiredness, or a strong reaction to something totally unrelated (on the conscious level), that is safer to process and be aware of.

When we dream, something happens.

The second censor weakens, and “falls asleep” with you.

This means that we only have one censor left, and this lets slip out some of the unconscious content.

Similarly to the “symptom” transaction I explained above, your unconscious content doesn’t come out as it originally was.

The four mechanisms I’m about to outline take part in making our dreams so strange, so vivid, so realistic, and sometimes terrifying.

Through analysis we can get to the root of the dream. As Freud said in his Interpretation of Dreams, Dreams are the royal road to the unconscious.

I always get excited when a client brings a dream, as it will help us get further in the search for the origin of their current predicament, and to the relief of these “symptoms” (which you now understand a bit more why they might be there). Of course there’s a lot more to therapy than this type of analysis, but it is very powerful indeed!

Now, what are these 4 mechanisms? Let’s get right to it.


Condensation is an unconscious mechanism that makes up most of the dream, and it is what makes it effective.

This mechanism takes place when two or more – unconscious – unfulfilled wishes or ideas are melded into one – the manifest content of the dream, which is the thing that joins all the elements together.

The content of the dream might seem innocuous and unimportant, but upon further investigation, we get to the linked content that the dream was hinting at.

For example, In Jenna’s second dream – she loses her bag. The bag is representing something.

Of course, Jenna doesn’t want to lose her posessions – she’d have to go get a replacement for her cards, licence, change the locks on her doors, and so on. That is bad enough.

But what the losing of the bag is representing, after further analysis, is the fact that there is underlying anxiety about losing control.

We’d have to sit with Jenna and ask her when in her life she felt out of control. You’ll find out more in The Beckoning Rooms (shameless plug).

This leads us to the second mechanism.


Displacement means, in short, placing importance on a less important aspect of the dream, because placing importance on the thing it’s pointing at would be too much for our conscious mind to handle.

In the safety of therapy, this can be worked through and we can then get to answers to questions like “what is the bag representing?”, or “what is it about losing your bag that made you so anxious in your dream?”


This third mechanism relates to making the abstract into something more concrete.

In Jenna’s dream, the abstract emotion of anxiety and the feeling of losing control are turned into something we can see and feel.

Secondary Elaboration

This mechanism is an attempt of the ego to make the dream “make sense”.

It makes it into something more “normal.

Jenna used to go to this shop with her friend, so in the dream, the traumatic loss of the bag (the anxiety provoking visual object), is set in a usual place, familiar to Jenna.

Secondary elaboration makes the dream very cryptic to analysis as it makes sense: if it is about you losing your bag, then that’s what it is about. But as we’ve dug deeper, we’ve found that it’s not as simple as that.

Secondary elaboration has hidden the real meaning of the dream, making it easier for us to digest consciously.

I’ve written a few posts on dreams so far, and I hope you’re getting a feel for what I’ve fictionalised in my novel – The Beckoning Rooms, and in the Prequel – Dreaming up the Repressed.

The novel and the prequel both have elements of these four mechanisms, as you will find out as you read the prequel – available now, more to come – and the novel this summer.

Catch up on past posts:

Jeremiah – Everything I Do… (The Beckoning Rooms Prequel Post)

Dreams hold fascinating meaning, but how do we interpret them?

What’s in a dream? (The power of therapy)

Jenna dreams about the end of her world (The Beckoning Rooms Prequel Post)

Losing it all – Jenna’s 2nd Dream (The Beckoning Rooms Prequel Post)

Dreaming up unicorns – Jenna (The Beckoning Rooms Prequel Post)

Dreaming up the repressed – fiction mini-series (The Beckoning Rooms Prequel Post)

4 thoughts on “4 Dream Mechanisms -Why are our dreams so strange?

  1. Fascinating, I am tempted to bring my dreams to you after reading this, I can understand more clearly how to analyse them though and this is exciting. There is one in particular which never ceases to amaze me at its prophetic insight and the power of the unconscious. You work must be fascinating. I must say I would be concerned abot applying interpretations to others’ dreams . How do you ensure this does not happen?

    1. Hi Gill, thanks for this, sure I can run you through how I work with dreams by analysing one of yours.
      Regarding your question about applying interpretations to other dreams – we must remember that dream analysis is particular to that individual, and hence generalisations might not be helpful. If a client’s dream brings something up about other dreams of mine or that I’ve encountered, I might offer the insights I’m getting (as countertransference) in a way that might trigger the real meaning in the client’s mind, without assuming that what I think is happening is right.
      It’s all about digging deep into what’s in the client’s unconscious, which might be coming out as dream work.

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