Freud on Why We Dream, the Paradoxical Interplay of Memory and Forgetting, and the Vital Vestiges Our Childhood Experiences Leave in Our Unconscious
“Every dream will reveal itself as a psychological structure, full of significance, and one which may be assigned to a specific place in the psychic activities of the waking state.”
By Maria Popova
“Something nameless hums us into sleep,” the poet Mark Strand wrote in his sublime ode to dreams. “We feel dreamed by someone else, a sleeping counterpart.” But who exactly is this counterpart — this personage both us and wildly, deliriously, fantastically not-us? Where does it come from and what is its relationship to the wakeful self?
In 1895, the pioneering psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (May 6, 1856–September 23, 1939) grew intensely preoccupied with this questions and how it might illuminate the psychological significance of dreams. Over the next four years, he incubated the ideas that would become the seminal treatise The Interpretation of Dreams (public library) — Freud’s quest “to elucidate the processes which underlie the strangeness and obscurity of dreams, and to deduce from these processes the nature of the psychic forces whose conflict or cooperation is responsible for our dreams.”
Although the evolution of science has challenged many of Freud’s theories in the century since his heyday, his treatise on dreams was instrumental in paving the way for our present understanding of dreams. At the heart of his theory was the idea that dreams spring from wish-fulfillment: We dream about what we dream of — a proposition that marries the two meanings of dream, the nocturnal wanderings of the unconscious mind and the motivated marches of the conscious will.
In the introduction to the original edition, Freud asserts:
Every dream will reveal itself as a psychological structure, full of significance, and one which may be assigned to a specific place in the psychic activities of the waking state.
And yet what lends dreams both their abiding allure and their psychological puzzlement is that the link between the two is far from direct, linear, and easily discernible. Freud writes:
That all the material composing the content of a dream is somehow derived from experience, that it is reproduced or remembered in the dream — this at least may be accepted as an incontestable fact. Yet it would be wrong to assume that such a connection between the dream-content and reality will be easily obvious from a comparison between the two. On the contrary, the connection must be carefully sought, and in quite a number of cases it may for a long while elude discovery. The reason for this is to be found in a number of peculiarities evinced by the faculty of memory in dreams.
Of this fascinating faculty, Freud asserts:
The behavior of memory in dreams is surely most significant for any theory of memory whatsoever.
Marveling at the “remarkable and theoretically important fact” that dreams frequently make use of memories inaccessible to the dreamer in the waking state, Freud points out how suggestible the unconscious mind is and how easily impressions are made on it by random images that slip in through the backdoor of our conscious awareness. He illustrates this “superior knowledge of the dreamer” with a case study all the more alarming amid today’s information-overloaded, media-oversaturated cultural landscape:
A patient dreamed amongst other things (in a rather long dream) that he ordered a kontuszowka in a cafe, and after telling me this he asked me what it could be, as he had never heard the name before. I was able to tell him that kontuszowka was a Polish liqueur, which he could not have invented in his dream, as the name had long been familiar to me from the advertisements. At first the patient would not believe me, but some days later, after he had allowed his dream of the cafe to become a reality, he noticed the name on a signboard at a street corner which for some months he had been passing at least twice a day.
One major source of these consciously inaccessible memories, Freud argues, is our childhood, which leaves vestiges of experience and fragments of memory that provide lifelong material for our dreams. But children themselves, he notes, have dreams that follow the wish-fulfillment paradigm most literally — what children dream about at night parallels what they dream of in their wakeful wishes. In the child’s mind, according to this view, the two meanings of “dream” converge most closely, which Freud takes as “proof that the dream, in its inmost essence, is the fulfillment of a wish”
Counterbalancing these deeply buried memories is our accumulation of fresh ones — recollections of recent experiences, which we consolidate in dreams. But the consolidation is only possible after a certain distancing from the immediacy of the experience. Freud writes:
The impressions which have intensely occupied the waking mind appear in dreams only after they have been to some extent removed from the mental activities of the day. Thus, as a rule, we do not dream of a beloved person who is dead while we are still overwhelmed with sorrow.
But the most striking feature of dreams is that rather than focusing primarily on such major events as the loss of loved ones, the vast majority of their material is drawn from the most trivial and unremarkable details of our waking lives. This, Freud argues, relates to another perplexity — the contradiction between the enormous role of memory in the construction of dreams and the fact that we forget most of our dreams upon awaking, all the while being able to remember individual dreams for decades. He observes:
We are often aware that we have been dreaming, but we do not know of what we have dreamed; and we are so well used to this fact — that the dream is liable to be forgotten — that we do not reject as absurd the possibility that we may have been dreaming even when, in the morning, we know nothing either of the content of the dream or of the fact that we have dreamed. On the other hand, it often happens that dreams manifest an extraordinary power of maintaining themselves in the memory. I have had occasion to analyze, with my patients, dreams which occurred to them twenty-five years or more previously, and I can remember a dream of my own which is divided from the present day by at least thirty-seven years, and yet has lost nothing of its freshness in my memory. All this is very remarkable, and for the present incomprehensible.
The most important cause of forgetting, Freud notes, is the discrepancy between the structural demands of our memory and the unstructured nature of dreams:
In order that feelings, representations, ideas and the like should attain a certain degree of memorability, it is important that they should not remain isolated, but that they should enter into connections and associations of an appropriate nature… Dreams, in most cases, lack sense and order. Dream-compositions, by their very nature, are insusceptible of being remembered, and they are forgotten because as a rule they fall to pieces the very next moment.
The forgetfulness of dreams manifested by the waking consciousness is evidently merely the counterpart of the fact … that the dream hardly ever takes over an orderly series of memories from the waking state, but only certain details of these memories, which it removes from the habitual psychic connections in which they are remembered in the waking state. The dream-composition, therefore, has no place in the community of the psychic series which fill the mind. It lacks all mnemonic aids.
The different arrangement of the material in the dream makes the dream untranslatable, so to speak, for the waking consciousness.
Sometimes, Freud points out, we remember only fragments of a dream and fill in the rest of the story, succumbing to the same tendency that scientists now know make our conscious memory so malleable and unreliable. He cautions:
Partial forgetting is treacherous: for, if one then starts to recount what has not been forgotten, one is likely to supplement from the imagination the incoherent and disjointed fragments provided by the memory… Unconsciously one becomes an artist, and the story, repeated from time to time, imposes itself on the belief of its author, who, in good faith, tells it as authentic fact, regularly established according to proper methods.
Revisiting the heart of his theory — that dreams are predicated on wish-fulfillment — Freud writes:
When, after passing through a narrow defile, one suddenly reaches a height beyond which the ways part and a rich prospect lies outspread in different directions, it is well to stop for a moment and consider whither one shall turn next. We are in somewhat the same position after we have mastered this first interpretation of a dream. We find ourselves standing in the light of a sudden discovery. The dream is not comparable to the irregular sounds of a musical instrument, which, instead of being played by the hand of a musician, is struck by some external force; the dream is not meaningless, not absurd, does not presuppose that one part of our store of ideas is dormant while another part begins to awake… But at the very moment when we are about to rejoice in this discovery a host of problems besets us. If the dream … represents a fulfilled wish, what is the cause of the striking and unfamiliar manner in which this fulfillment is expressed?
With an eye to the many types of dreams in which the fulfillment of a wish isn’t easily evident — a fear borne out, a philosophical reflection (like Neil Gaiman’s dream), a mere rehashing of events past, an anxiety dream (anxiety being, for Freud, the “most terrible of all the painful emotions”) — he adds:
Is the dream capable of teaching us something new concerning our internal psychic processes and can its content correct opinions which we have held during the day?
Are there, then dreams other than wish-dreams; or are there none but wish-dreams? It is easy to show that the wish-fulfillment in dreams is often undisguised and easy to recognize, so that one may wonder why the language of dreams has not long since been understood.
Freud notes that the wish-fulfillment aspect of dreams is often so distorted as to be unrecognizable — what, after all, is the wish in a nightmare? But these distortions, he argues, are a reflection of our tendency to defend ourselves against a dream we find morally unacceptable or practically unattainable — a kind of protective self-censorship. He considers the interplay of these contradictory forces:
In every human being there exist, as the primary cause of dream-formation, two psychic forces (tendencies or systems), one of which forms the wish expressed by the dream, while the other exercises a censorship over this dream-wish, thereby enforcing on it a distortion. The question is: What is the nature of the authority of this second agency by virtue of which it is able to exercise its censorship? If we remember that the latent dream-thoughts are not conscious before analysis, but that the manifest dream-content emerging from them is consciously remembered, it is not a far-fetched assumption that admittance to the consciousness is the prerogative of the second agency. Nothing can reach the consciousness from the first system which has not previously passed the second instance; and the second instance lets nothing pass without exercising its rights, and forcing such modifications as are pleasing to itself upon the candidates for admission to consciousness. Here we arrive at a very definite conception of the essence of consciousness; for us the state of becoming conscious is a special psychic act, different from and independent of the process of becoming fixed or represented, and consciousness appears to us as a sensory organ which perceives a content proceeding from another source.
Indeed, one of the underappreciated cultural contributions of Freud’s seminal treatise is precisely this question of consciousness, a notion that continues to evade definition even a century later. In discussing the recognizable wish-fulfillment structure of young children’s dreams, Freud makes an illuminating aside:
What animals dream of I do not know. A proverb, for which I am indebted to one of my pupils, professes to tell us, for it asks the question: “What does the goose dream of?”
It’s a question that immediately calls to mind Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? — a seminal inquiry into how the dilemmas of artificial intelligence challenge our core understanding of ourselves. At the center of the question is the notion that the capacity to dream is intimately entwined with the faculty of consciousness, woven into the very fabric of what it means to be human.
Complement The Interpretation of Dreams, which remains a cornerstone of cultural history, with what science has learned about dreams in the century since, the fascinating relationship between dreaming and depression, and the science of lucid dreaming, then revisit this vintage philosophical children’s book about dreams, illustrated by Freud’s brilliant and eccentric niece named Tom.
Published February 9, 2016