The Interpretation of Dreams | Study Guide

Sigmund Freud

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The Interpretation of Dreams | Chapter 7, Part 2 : The Psychology of the Dream Processes | Summary



D. Arousal by Dreams—The Function of Dreams—Anxiety Dreams

In this section Freud considers whether dreams can sometimes disturb sleep rather than function as sleep's guardians. He proposes a regulatory function of dreams: they discharge psychic energy, acting as a "safety valve." Finally, he considers whether anxiety dreams are an exception to his rule that all dreams are wish fulfillments.

Freud begins by summarizing "what we have learnt so far" about how the events of the dream-day influence the dream. Freud calls the events left over from the dream-day—"the day's residues." These residues can influence dreams for two reasons. First, they might still have psychic energy attached to them—an attachment Freud calls "cathexis." In Freudian terminology if something is cathected, it is possessed with psychic energy. Moreover, the events of the day might have stirred an unconscious wish, which attaches to the day's residues. This unconscious wish tries to "force its way" into consciousness, but the sleeping preconscious halts the wish in its tracks. Now the wish can enter consciousness only as a dream.

Freud declares consciousness can "receive excitations from two directions": from perception and from the preconscious. (One might think of Freud's "excitations" as data or nerve impulses or information.) In sleep, consciousness receives more excitations or impressions from the "Pcpt. systems" (the perception systems) than from the preconscious. So usually we dream at night rather than think or walk.

He then considers Maury's guillotine dream again. Did he dream it all exactly in the moment a piece of wood struck him in the neck and woke him up? Yes and no, is Freud's answer. The dream-processes take considerable time at night. But the dream bursts into consciousness at the moment of waking, fully formed.

Freud asks why some dreams can wake the dreamer up if the main function of dreams is to fulfill the wish to sleep. Moreover, if dreams deal with unconscious wishes, why do we not dream the same dreams every night? After all, the unconscious wishes never go away: "In the unconscious nothing can be brought to an end, nothing is past or forgotten."

When dreams function properly, they "discharge the Ucs. [unconscious] excitation, serving it as a safety valve." Temporarily depleted of energy, the unconscious wish stops trying to push its way into consciousness. However, when dreams malfunction there is so much energy the dreamer wakes up.

Psychotherapy aims to permanently drain the energy from an unconscious wish that has become a source of neuroses: "Its task is to make it possible for the unconscious processes to be dealt with finally and forgotten." Such forgetting is the work of the preconscious, "and psychotherapy can pursue no other course than to bring the Ucs. under the domination of the Pcs."

Freud returns to the topic of anxiety dreams and he has already shown how they can be wish fulfillments; often, at their heart lie repressed sexual wishes. Now Freud considers anxiety in terms of excitations in the memory trace systems (ψ-systems). Dreaming and the preconscious usually suppress affect. If something goes wrong and "the cathexis from the Pcs. [preconscious] ceases," the dreamer could be flooded with anxiety. However, this malfunction only happens under certain conditions, which are "quite outside the psychological framework of dream-formation."

Because Freud has mentioned the sexual wishes involved with anxiety dreams, he gives several examples. He says he has not had an anxiety dream since he was seven or eight. He dreamed of what seemed to be his mother's funeral attended by people with falcon's heads. According to his analysis his anxiety was not about his mother dying but was traceable to "an obscure and evidently sexual craving." He adds many childhood cases of night terrors are probably connected to witnessing such a scene, and concludes the chapter by quoting lengthy supporting evidence about childhood night terrors from a 19th-century French text.

E. The Primary and Secondary Processes—Repression

In this section Freud describes the workings of repression. Repression is the way unconscious or preconscious thoughts are denied access to consciousness. He also introduces new terms for the ideas he has been working on throughout The Interpretation of Dreams. He calls the activity of unconscious thought a "primary process"; this process deals with free psychic excitations. He terms "secondary process" the activity of the preconscious in "binding" those excitations or making them "quiescent" (calm).

Freud begins by noting the difficulty of his project in The Interpretation of Dreams. He intends for the work on dreams to illuminate the neuroses, but sometimes he has to use his ideas about neuroses to illuminate dreams. He then summarizes the relationship of his work on dreams to the varied scholarship he quoted in Chapter 1. He finds he has refuted outright only two previous theories about dreams: that dreams are nonsense and that they are caused by physical sensations felt during sleep. Freud says his work on dreams takes the contradictory findings of previous scholars and "combines them ... into a higher unity." For example, some scholars believed the whole mind was responsible for dream activity, and some believed only a special part of the mind was involved in dreams. Freud says "both parties are right but ... neither is wholly right." The mind is engaged in unconscious wishes, memories, and their repression long before the dream begins; these become the material of the dream. The dream-work is a particular function of the mind that puts this material together.

He next repeats his approval of Scherner's writing on dreams, noting, however, he has changed the position of elements of Scherner's ideas. Scherner thought dreams were made by "the dream-imagination," but Freud replies most of the dream is made up of "the activity of the unconscious during the daytime." The dream-work just transforms and distorts those unconscious thoughts.

Considering the relationship of the dream-work to rational thought, he notes his investigation has shown "the most complicated achievements of thought are possible without the assistance of consciousness." He then analyzes these thought processes in terms of the psychical apparatus he described in Part 1 of Chapter 7. Sometimes a train of thought is judged to be wrong or pointless; "we break off; we withdraw cathexis [possession]." Freud means we stop investing our psychic energy in the wrong or pointless train of thought. This withdrawal of energy Freud calls "repression." These rejected ideas can either die off for lack of energy, or they can become attached to an unconscious thought, becoming "drawn into the unconscious."

Once the train of thought is drawn into the unconscious, it "undergoes a series of transformations which we can no longer recognize as normal psychical processes." Freud lists these processes of transformation: condensation, which gives the thought intensity; creation of composite structures and compromises; stripping of logical connections and substitution of loose associations; and the co-existence of contradictory ideas. In short, the rejected, repressed train of thought can become a neurotic symptom or a dream.

Freud returns to an idea he described in section C of Chapter 7: a "fiction of a primitive psychical apparatus" by which he means the mental apparatus of primitive humanity in a long-ago, prehistoric age. It's fictional because Freud can only speculate on it. The purpose of the primitive apparatus is to release nervous excitations in pleasure. In contrast, the buildup of increasing excitation is unpleasure. The primitive apparatus had no way to prevent this buildup of excitation because its wishes went straight to perception, becoming hallucinations: "The first wishing seems to have been a hallucinatory cathecting of the memory of satisfaction." The hallucination could be kept up "to the point of exhaustion" but it could not "bring about the cessation of need." Freud imagines a mind that hallucinates whatever it wishes for. The mind imagines eating the ice cream. The hallucinated eating keeps the desire alive. The buildup of excitation—Ice cream! Ice cream! Ice cream!—is unbearable. The hunger can't be satisfied and the hallucination can't be turned off.

So a second system has to intervene. This second system prevents energy from reaching perception (Pcpt). With perception blocked, there is no more exhausting, nonstop hallucination of satisfaction.

The nonstop wish machine is the unconscious, or Ucs. Freud now gives this system the name "primary process." The system that blocks the unconscious wishes before they can become hallucinations of satisfaction is the preconscious, or Pcs. Freud now gives this the name "secondary process." The primary process is older and is present in infants (and perhaps in primitive, prehistoric humans, as Freud speculates). The secondary process comes later in mental development, "during the course of life" and perhaps do not fully develop until "the prime of life." The primary process aims at the "free discharge" of excitations. The secondary process aims at "inhibiting this discharge and in transforming the cathexis into a quiescent [calming] one."

Freud points out everyone likes to avoid unpleasant memories. He calls this an "ostrich policy" and also gives it the name "unpleasure principle." The mind, too, works on the unpleasure principle and likes to avoid unpleasant memories, but it can't afford a complete ostrich policy; the preconscious needs access to all memories. The preconscious then has to find a way of "cathecting the unpleasurable memories" without "releasing the unpleasure." Freud calls the energy in this cathected state "quiescent" or, as James Strachey, the book's translator and editor notes, "bound."

Why does the preconscious have to block the unconscious wishes? The fulfillment of wishful impulses that date back to infancy would result in unpleasure for an adult who has a functioning secondary process. Freud says this is repression—the transformation of the pleasure associated with unconscious impulses into unpleasure. The repressed wishes, Freud says, are "left to themselves," and the unconscious becomes a "store of infantile memories."

The wishes left to themselves can either fizzle out or they can gain new energy by being transferred onto other, older, more powerful wishes. These newly energetic wishes can "make an attempt at forcing their way into consciousness." Then repression no longer works by simply withdrawing attention; repression now does battle with the repressed wishes. (Freud calls this fight "anticathexis"). Blocked from gaining entry to consciousness, the repressed wishes undergo transformation. Then they can become a symptom or be expressed in a dream.

Freud says his work on neurosis shows all neurotic symptoms have "sexual wishful impulses from infancy" as their basis. He then declines to say whether dreams are always motivated by sexual desires dating back to infancy because his work on dreams is not complete.

However, Freud is certain these processes of repression and transformation of unconscious wishes happen in everyone, not just neurotics. These transformations "from part of the normal structure of our mental instrument, and dreams show us one of the paths leading to an understanding of its structure." Freud reflects on his findings. He has proven "what is suppressed continues to exist in normal people as well as abnormal." In conclusion Freud returns to the epigraph, which Strachey translates in a footnote as "If I cannot bend the Higher Powers, I will move the Infernal Regions." Freud has investigated the "infernal regions" of the mind—the unconscious—thereby illuminating the mind's "higher powers" as well. As Freud writes, "The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to the unconscious," and the goal of reaching the unconscious is a way to understand the workings of the mind—"that most marvelous and mysterious of all instruments."

F. The Unconscious and Consciousness—Reality

In this section Freud clarifies his ideas about the unconscious and evaluates his work in light of contemporary psychology at the turn of the 20th century. He starts by repeating something he has said before: his ideas about the psychical apparatus are just "conceptual scaffolding" to help him give an approximate idea of "unknown reality." So readers should not think he means there are "two systems near the motor end of the apparatus"—namely, the unconscious and consciousness. Instead of picturing a structure where thoughts move from one place to another, he asks readers to think of these systems as "two kinds of processes of excitation or modes of its discharge." Thoughts don't move from one spot in the unconscious to another in consciousness. Rather, energy is attached to thoughts or withdrawn from them. He explains he is "replacing a topographical way of presenting things with a dynamic one." That is instead of describing the mind as a map he now describes it as a process. He admits the language of thoughts being "repressed" or "driven back" encourages the misunderstanding. He says these are only metaphors but will continue, nonetheless, to use this "figurative image" of the two systems.

Comparing and providing an overview of the two systems, he writes: "The unconscious is the true psychical reality; in its innermost nature it is as much unknown to us as the reality of the external world, and it is as incompletely presented by the data of consciousness as is the external world by the communications of our sense organs." This is the same reasoning by which he called the unconscious the "primary" process.

Freud then compares his formulations about the unconscious to other psychologists who also recognize the existence of the unconscious. Critics say the idea of "unconscious mental processes" is nonsense; if thoughts and images appear in the mind, it must be happening in consciousness. Freud says people have only to look at neurotic symptoms and dreams for proof; something is happening in the mind of the dreamer or the neurotic, something they are not conscious of. Physicians have to be able to infer unconscious activity from these phenomena.

After this comparison, he contrasts his idea of the unconscious with that of other contemporary psychologists. His unconscious includes two systems, "which have not yet been distinguished by psychologists": the unconscious as such, or Ucs., and the preconscious, or Pcs. Strictly speaking, the thoughts cathected with energy by the Pcs. are still unconscious. Or, to use the figurative language of the localities in the structure, thoughts in the Pcs. are not yet in consciousness (Cs.); instead the preconscious is a screen for the unconscious.

Freud points out the unconscious is bigger (to use a spatial metaphor) than consciousness. Consciousness, like the preconscious, mainly directs and distributes attention, "directing mobile quantities of cathexis and distributing them" in accordance with "its perception of pleasure and unpleasure." In short, consciousness steers. The preconscious also directs attention or energy by admitting thoughts into consciousness.

Freud then supplements his argument about the primacy of the unconscious with two examples of neurotic patients. A young woman came to him with a physical complaint. Although she was innocent of conscious knowledge about sex, her physical complaint involved sexual imagery. Thus unconscious sexual wishes sought expression in her neurotic symptom. A young man saw some hallucinatory images during a game of checkers ("draughts"). These images Freud traced back to the young man's stern father and a prohibition on masturbation.

Next, he asks the question: are people responsible for their dreams? Readers might wonder if unconscious wishes can lead to "other things" besides dreams. He then says a certain Roman emperor was wrong to convict a man who had dreamed of killing the emperor. Freud gives two different reasons why the emperor was wrong. A dream is not an act, as many before Freud have said. The second reason is more important for Freud: a dream about an emperor is seldom about the emperor. Freud concludes his look at the ethics of dreams by saying dreams at least give us a view of the underside of ourselves—"the much trampled soil from which our virtue springs."

Freud concludes the book by commenting once more on the possibility of dreams foretelling the future. They can't prophesy, says Freud; dreams instead "give us knowledge of the past," but in so doing, they do tell us about the future. Like a neurotic, the dreamers (which is to say, everyone) remake their future "into a perfect likeness of their past." The dreamers are under the sway of the larger part of the mind, the unconscious, with its "indestructible" wishes that shape the future.


In section E, Freud delves into the details of the psychic apparatus, and in section F he reminds readers this apparatus is a spatial metaphor. The metaphorical nature of the apparatus does not negate everything Freud said about it, but it does mean we can use other metaphors to talk about it. For example, the somewhat technical discussion of pleasure, unpleasure, primary process, and secondary process might be better understood in terms of its consequences. If unconscious wishes came true, the result would be unpleasure, not satisfaction. Freud calls this repression.

People have these two systems, the primary and the secondary process, or unconscious desire and conscious decision making. This double system leads to an estrangement from one's desires. One's deepest wishes are unrecognizable, their satisfaction unthinkable. The person endowed with a secondary process has a preconscious censor rejecting what the unconscious wants. The result is sometimes a neurotic symptom in which the conflict is expressed in a compromise. Sometimes the result is a dream in which the objectionable wish is given disguised expression. In no way is Freud urging people to live out their unconscious wishes. As Freud wrote earlier in this chapter, the goal of psychotherapy for those whose wishes have become distressing symptoms is "to make it possible for the unconscious processes to be dealt with and finally forgotten." However, as Freud reminds readers on the last page of the book, the forgotten wishes don't vanish. On the contrary, these unconscious wishes are "indestructible."

Freud insists "the unconscious is the true psychical reality." This insistence might seem surprising, but it shouldn't be. All along Freud has been pointing out the many things dreams don't do and showing the unconscious does them. Despite all the words and numbers and images in dreams, dreams don't write speeches or do calculations; they don't even create the startling imagery. The unconscious stores and remembers significant words and auspicious dates. Similarly, the unconscious produces the remarkable content of dreams. For dreams to serve as a "royal road" to the unconscious, Freud has to take care dreams do not become a kind of black box, cut off from the rest of the mind and spinning out nonsense that cannot be fitted into the chain of other mental acts.

If dreams were composed by a dream-mind and stuffed with dream-words, dream-numbers, and the products of a dream-imagination, other psychologists could say of Freud's dream interpretations, "That's fine, but it's not psychology." Dreams are not separate from the mental processes that create them. They are a product issuing from our unconscious. All throughout this rambling, enormous book of dreams, Freud has limited the account of what dreams do and maximized the account of what the unconscious does. This is why Freud can claim in the final chapter "the unconscious is the true psychical reality."

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