15-07-2015 at 22:13

Dreams in Group Analysis; a Review and a Doubtful Reflection

Søren Aagaard
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Dreams in Group Analysis; a Review and a Doubtful Reflection by  Søren Aagaard, Clinical psychologist, Group analyst (iga/cph, gasi), Psychoanalyst /dpas/cph, iga)

To whom does one relate one´s dreams?  (Ferenczi 1912)


Dreaming, dreams, dream telling and dream-work is most valued in Group Analysis (GA). But also dreams, due to their  ”nature”, bring with them both theoretical and therapeutically most intriguing   challenges and perspectives.


Dreaming, dreams, dream telling and dream-work is most valued in Group Analysis (GA). But also dreams, due to their  ”nature”, bring with them both theoretical and therapeutically most intriguing   challenges and perspectives.

From a group-analytic group in private practice I shall bring an example, as a case of illustration, of some of the phenomena and dilemmas group analyst meet in dream-work. Foulkes was the first one to do so.


” The dream,”the via Regina to the unconscious” has changed its values in the move from the one person to the two-person situation” (Foulkes, 1964, p. 126), that is from the psychoanalytic setting to the group-analytic situation,” dreams are influenced by the dreamer´s situation, and quite especially by such deep-going ones as the therapeutic transference (T) situation in psychoanalysis or group analysis respectively, and that these two situations show up for study quite different aspects of dreams, dreamers and dreaming”, (ibid, p. 127).

A strong statement: the two situations show up for study quite different aspects of dreams, dreamers and dreaming!  A dream is not just a dream! Dreaming and dream-telling takes place in a context. Foulkes was obviously in search for ways to study dreams in (his) recently formulated and still developing theory of group analysis.

In 1957 he, together with Anthony, he had stated:”Whereas other psychotherapeutic groups work only or mainly with the manifest content of group discussion, group analytic therapy uses this manifest content to arrive by a process of analysis and interpretation at a latent content, in a way similar to that which psychoanalysis uses the manifest content of a dream to discover the latent dream thoughts”, (1957, 1984, p. 37).   

In the corresponding passage from 1964 concerning dreams Foulkes explained, that an orthodox psychoanalytic approach to dreams in group analysis is quite impossible, because individual free association cannot take place. He went on to tell that in his ongoing psychoanalytic practice dreams might have the property that”the manifest content has meaning in relation to the ongoing current transference situation. We very often use that aspect as a genuine communication for the purpose of analysis. Now this is exactly where positive use of dreams come into the group situation. We can express it thus: that the dream as told to the group is left to the group to analyze”, (1964, p. 165).

Not to the group-analyst, but to the group!

 Foulkes did not go further into what his thinking or meaning, or may be rather different options, of the term”analysis” were? Out of the texts, and the context in which they are written, in my reading, it stands out pretty clear that”analysis and analysis” in an individual and in a group setting were no exactly the same things. Both contents and processes were different.         

Foulkes wrote explicitly from the perspective of a psychoanalyst. The quotations are from texts written 50-55 years ago, at a time where in psychoanalytic circles fierce discussions on the importance of the manifest dream in relation to the latent dream took place. Foulkes mentions these controversies among psychoanalysts, and warns strongly against the mistake, that a group analyst should fall into the trap of analyzing resistances in dreams reported in a group as if the dreams were told and worked with in an individual psychoanalytic relationship. - Foulkes´ use of the concept of resistance refers to the classic Freudian conception of dreams as defensive and disguising. 

So what does the group analyst do about a dream in the group? Foulkes again: ”The group analyst in my approach does not reject dreams, of course, but treats them as any other communication according to their dynamic significance. Above all in our view, every dream in the group is the property of the group”, (1964, p.127).

What does this statement exactly means?  Foulkes described how narratives in the dream might, consciously and unconsciously, shed light on the dreamer’s particular relations in the group, on the group-as-a-whole, on events in the group, on reflections and occurrences in the group. He brings a long example, which clearly illuminates that he, the conductor, is part of the group that analyses a dream. In addition, that he is more active if the group does not participate or contribute too much; (see also Pines 2002, p. 26-27).

This was in 1964. In his last book from 1975, Foulkes only brings the same example as in 1964 and does not go further into dreams. In Selected Papers from 1990, there are no specific entries to dreams; they only appear in connection with the theme of resonance.

As I read these central passages on dreams in group analysis, it seems as if Foulkes gradually changed his mind-set about work with dreams in group analysis. He left (or possibly partly left) his original psychoanalytic stance concerning the value of manifest and latent contents of dreams, and thus the opinion that dreams are by definition disguising and defensive. Implicitly Foulkes, in his group analytic practice, stepped down from the interpreting prerogative of the psychoanalyst; now he left it open to the group-as-a-whole”to analyze” the dreams told in the group.

Dream and interpretation

What about the”via Regina”? Dreams are”the royal road to the unconscious”, Foulkes wrote.  However, are dreams in themselves enough? Is it not the interpretation of dreams that is the”royal road” - work with and interpretations of dreams that may pave the way to a deeper and fuller understanding of a dream?

Freud (1900) did not invent dream interpretation (Deutung) that is as old as humankind is. Freud invented a specific theory and approach to the understanding of dreams, called psychoanalysis. Within that conceptual framework interpretations of dreams was essential:”Dream interpretation is the royal road to the knowledge of the unconscious psychic life”, (1900, 1965, p. 481 (Danish edition)). In classic psychoanalysis, the necessary premise to”the royal road” was the dream but it only became sufficient as by way of psychoanalytic interpretation (Deutung).

However, in Foulksian GA, dreams are analyzed in the group processes! By participation of all members and the group analyst. Certainly, a radical change of context in comparison to the psychoanalytic situation, both in respect to working with and understanding of dreams. And”the via Regina”? I think Foulkes left it open. As an innovator, he opened many areas for further exploration and study. That is also the case with dreams. He wrote:”Group analysis must study dreams, dreamers and dreaming on its own terms”, (    ?  ) . His own indications and guidelines were few, not too systematic and a most often optimistic on part of the group.

Dreaming and relation   

”To whom does one relate one´s dreams”, Fereczi, the first intersubjectivist in psychoanalysis, asked in 1912, and he gave the answer: ”We analyst know that one feels impelled to relate one´s dreams to the very person to whom the content relates”, (p. 349). - Ferenczi refers both to a context:”we analysts”; and to a relationship:”to the very person  ...”

Transferred to the context of the analytic group:”we group-participants, including the conductor, know  ...” And to the relationship:”we group-participants know that one feels impelled to relate a dream to the very group and its participants to whom the content relates  ...” - But do group members feel that way? Alternatively, do they rather experience their dream as too personal and a private property? Foulkes saw the dream as”particularly an individual creation, not meant for publication, for communication with others”, (1964, p. 126). 

A dream is a nocturnal experience, very often difficult to hold on to and remember in waking life. A dreamer may have all sorts of feelings and sentiments about her/his dream. The dreamer may have nobody to tell to (like a motherless child), or the dreamer may have a partner, a family-member, a friend, a psychotherapist, an analytic group, a social dreaming matrix, etc.

We know that it means a lot, both for the formation of dreaming-processes and for affects and narratives in the dreams in which context the individual, the dreamer, finds her/himself, and how the context, the situation and relation is experienced.

The dream not told in the analytic group belongs to the dreamer. The dream told in the analytic group is the property of the group! Again an either/or. I think it is closer to the truth that a dream told to somebody else does not any longer belong  to the dreamer only, I stress ”only”. It belongs to

The dyad, triad, the group, the society in which it is both generated and told. But”belong”, of course, does not mean the same thing for dreamer and listener. All group analytic literature I know of accepts and respects this fundamental point of departure. I think Foulkes´ expression”property of the group” is questionable. 


Ferenczi 1912,

Freud 1900,

Foulkes & Anthony 1957,

Foulkes 1964, 1975, 1990,

Pines 2002

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