Freud, Jung, and AI-generated Dream Interpretation

This is a post I recently wrote about the use of artificial intelligence (AI) systems in the practice of dream interpretation.  In coordination with the team at the dream journaling app–Dan Kennedy, Gez Quinn, and Sheldon Juncker–we have been experimenting with “Freudian” and “Jungian” modes of interpretation, and the results are very encouraging. Maybe more than encouraging… I don’t highlight this in the post, but the AI interpretation in “Jungian” mode used the phrase “confrontation with the unconscious,” which was not part of the prompting text for the AI. In other words, the AI seems to have identified this phrase as a vital one in Jungian psychology (it’s the title of the pivotal chapter 6 of his memoir Memories, Dreams, Reflections) and, without any direct guidance, used it accurately and appropriately in an interpretation . I might even suspect a sly irony in using this phrase in reference to a dream of Freud’s, but that might be too much…


Freud and Jung Sharing Their Dreams: An AI Revival

New technologies are transforming the practice of dream interpretation.

In 1909, on their way by steam ship to give lectures at Clark University in the United States, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung passed the time by sharing and interpreting each other’s dreams. This was a truly a peak moment in the history of dreaming—yet a fleeting moment, too. Soon afterward, their disagreements about psychoanalytic theory worsened, and they finally broke off all relations with each other.

Ever since, we have been left to wonder… What if these two giants of twentieth-century psychology had continued sharing their dreams? What if, instead of becoming estranged rivals, they had collaborated in developing a meta-method that deployed each of their interpretation systems in a flexible yet integrated practice?

An answer to these questions is suddenly coming into focus, thanks to emerging uses of artificial intelligence (AI) in the study of dreams. It is now possible for a carefully trained AI system to generate distinctly Freudian and Jungian interpretations of a dream. We can thus revive the spirit of their epic 1909 dream-sharing journey by offering one of their (already-published) dreams for interpretation by the other and reflecting on the interplay of their dual perspectives.

Freud would likely be curious about the dream Jung reports in chapter 5 of Memories, Dreams, Reflections, which occurred just before their falling out. Set in a bustling Italian city, the dream centers on the anomalous presence of a medieval knight. Jung is shocked at the sight–“suddenly to see in a modern city, during the noonday rush hour, a crusader coming toward me”—especially because Jung realizes only he can see the knight, who is invisible to everyone else. Jung said the dream anticipated his turn away from Freud and towards a more meaningful search for higher truths, comparable to the Grail Quest.

How might Freud interpret this dream? Using an AI system crafted with the developers at the Elsewhere dream journaling app, where I am an unpaid research advisor, we can apply a “Freudian mode” of interpretation to Jung’s dream. I will quote the first and last few sentences of the AI response:

“The dreamer’s description of a knight in full armor walking through an Italian city suggests a possible egocentric wish. The knight, a figure associated with power, honor, and bravery, might symbolize the dreamer’s desire for recognition and admiration. The fact that the knight is visible only to the dreamer could indicate a feeling of uniqueness or a wish to stand out from the crowd… This dream seems to primarily reflect the dreamer’s egocentric wishes and possibly repressed sexual and aggressive desires. The dreamer might be yearning for recognition and admiration, while also grappling with fears of being overlooked or ignored. The knight in armor could symbolize these conflicting desires and fears.”

This may not be the most profound reading of the dream, but it is easily recognizable as a Freudian approach, with clear connections to psychoanalytic theory. It also happens to be consistent with biographical information about Freud’s view of Jung after the split—as a grandiose savior bent on turning psychology into religion.

Jung, in turn, might want to explore a vivid childhood nightmare that Freud mentions off-handedly near the end of The Interpretation of Dreams. It’s a short dream of his mother, “with a peculiarly peaceful, sleeping expression on her features, being carried into the room by two (or three) people with birds’ beaks and laid upon the bed. I awoke in tears and screaming.”  The bird figures referred to strange illustrations from an old family Bible. Freud offers the dream as a self-evident example of an anxiety dream rooted in a sexual wish (i.e., an Oedipal desire for the mother).

How might Jung have interpreted this dream? Using the same AI system in its “Jungian mode,” the interpretation begins like this:

“The dream presents a potent mix of archetypal and personal symbols that indicate a deep process of transformation and individuation occurring within the dreamer’s psyche. The image of the mother, a universal symbol of nurturing, care, and life itself, is presented in a peaceful, sleeping state. This suggests that some aspect of the dreamer’s relationship with the nurturing, caring part of their psyche is in a dormant or inactive state.”

The interpretation goes on to highlight the religious symbolism of birds:

“Birds are often symbols of spiritual messengers or intermediaries between the earthly and the divine. In the Bible, they can represent both divine providence and impending doom.”

And it offers surprisingly sensitive words of encouragement to endure the inevitable struggles of psychological growth:

“The dreamer’s intense emotional reaction upon awakening – tears and screaming – indicates that this transformation is not easy or painless. It’s a significant upheaval, a profound shift in the dreamer’s self-concept and understanding of their place in the world. But this upheaval, this confrontation with the unconscious, is a necessary part of the individuation process. It’s through such confrontations that we come to know ourselves more fully, to integrate the disparate aspects of our psyche into a more cohesive, more authentic whole.”

This AI-generated interpretation can be readily identified as a Jungian approach and a plausible application of his theory to Freud’s dream. Moreover, it accords with what we know of Jung’s post-split view of Freud—that he never found a way to integrate the aggressive authority of the father with the intuitive wisdom of the mother.

The significance here is not just revealing alternate perspectives on these two dreams and their famous dreamers. This little experiment with Freud and Jung is like a horseless carriage, using a new technology to solve old problems. What will happen when these tools are applied to new problems, when they are used by a wide range of people to explore currently unknown opportunities? What new models of the mind and practices of healing will emerge? What new theories of art, culture, religion, and social change will appear on the horizon?

Maybe it’s time to start developing a “Prophetic mode”…


Note: Originally posted in Psychology Today, February 8, 2024.


New (Audio) Book: The Spirituality of Dreaming

Among the many reasons I’m happy at the recent publication of The Spirituality of Dreaming: Unlocking the Wisdom of Our Sleeping Selves (Broadleaf Books, 2023) is its availability as an audio book. The book itself is beautifully bound and a delight to hold in the hand, but I know how many friends and family these days enjoy listening to their books. At last, I have something to offer as a literary companion for their walks, commutes, and household chores!

New Dream Posts from Psychology Today

Here are the recent posts I have written for Psychology Today, going back to the middle of last summer. Although each one is written as a stand-alone discussion of a special topic in dreaming, I now realize they also form a series of interrelated texts, like the chapters of a book I didn’t consciously know I was writing….

Sports, Dreaming, and the Cultural Dynamics of Play

A new article about dreaming and sports, co-authored by me and Michael Schredl, has just been accepted for publication by the journal Dreaming. We do not yet know in which issue of the journal it will appear, but we are very excited to share our findings at last! We analyzed the survey responses of @4500 American adults who answered questions in 2021 about their sleep, dreams, and interest/participation in sports. The results of our analysis suggest a number of practical implications for athletic training, cultural analysis, and dream research.  Michael has done several previous studies on this topic, and I was glad for his collaboration. My curiosity about sports and dreams derives from ideas I have been developing about dreaming as form of play. This study offered an opportunity to see how those theoretical ideas relate to the empirical data of the survey.

Immoral Behaviors in Dreaming and What They Mean

Recently wrote a post for Psychology Today about “Taboo Dreams,” meaning dreams that involve activities or behavior that violate the moral standards of the dreamer’s community in waking life. Over the years, several people have asked me questions about these kinds of dreams, and I get the sense that many more people would like to ask but are embarrassed to do so.

A key takeaway from the post: Just because you behave a certain way in a dream does not mean that is who you “really are.” Likewise, just because you dream of doing something, it does not automatically mean you should enact it in waking life. If you take even a few moments to reflect on your dream, you will almost surely find the meanings are more complex than that. In many of these dreams the “taboo” behavior is a metaphor that relates to something else in the dreamer’s waking life. If you can get past the literal images of shocking immorality and explore the metaphors with an open mind, new insights into the depths of your own psyche will become possible.


Keeping a Dream Journal: Fly Like an Eagle

What’s it like to keep a long-term dream journal? These days I’m doing everything I can to help in developing and promoting the new app Elsewhere, an excellent resource for dream journaling. Also, my new book The Scribes of Sleep is about the history of dream journals. Thus, I’m thinking a lot about how to describe the value of keeping a dream journal to people who might be unfamiliar with the practice. How can you begin to understand the wild wonder and serendipitous magic of dream journaling if you have never tried it?

As I learned primarily from George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their 1980 book Metaphors We Live By, the power of metaphors is their capacity to use what we know to help us understand what we do not know. Here, I’m thinking that keeping a dream journal is metaphorically like being a Bald Eagle. (It could be any high-flying bird, but this is the one I saw earlier this afternoon.) We know several things about eagles that can also be accurately said of dream journaling.

When you track your dreams over time in a journal, you are able to rise above the occurrence of single dreams to see the flow of your dreaming in its entirety. From this altitude the whole of your oneiric terrain becomes visible. You can recognize large-scale patterns, shapes, and features that are simply impossible to perceive from the ground level.

As a dream-journaling eagle, you can easily move back and forth across the verdant territory of your dreaming self, soaring in whatever direction you please, circling over some places, swooping down for a closer look in others. Your perception in incredibly sharp: you notice subtle movements, hidden connections, and curious forms of life. Your consciousness expands to encompass everything you can see–the sky, the land, and the farthest horizons.

Beyond the specific insights that are possible from the eagle’s view, the summum bonum of dreaming journaling is the emergence of a more dynamic spiritual awareness and presence in the world. Perched on the top branch of the tallest tree in the forest, you can gaze over the bounteous vitality of your own personal realm of dreaming and reflect on the contours of your life from a uniquely wide-ranging perspective.

And who knows, maybe you’ll meet someone else who’s perched up there…