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The Interpretation of Dreams Chapter 1 - F. The Ethical Sense in Dreams Psychology

The Interpretation of Dreams


CHAPTER 1, Section G

G. Dream-Theories and the Function of the Dream

A statement concerning the dream which seeks to explain as many as possible of its observed characteristics from a single point of view, and which at the same time defines the relation of the dream to a more comprehensive sphere of phenomena, may be described as a theory of the dream. The individual theories of the dream will be distinguished from one another by their designating as essential this or that characteristic of dreams, and relating thereto their data and their explanations. It is not absolutely necessary that we should deduce from the theory of the dream a function, i.e., a use or any such similar role, but expectation, being as a matter of habit teleologically inclined, will nevertheless welcome those theories which afford us some insight into a function of dreams.

We have already become acquainted with many conceptions of the dream, which in this sense are more or less deserving of the name of dream-theories. The belief of the ancients that dreams were sent by the gods in order to guide the actions of man was a complete theory of the dream, which told them all that was worth knowing about dreams. Since dreams have become an object of biological research we have a greater number of theories, some of which, however, are very incomplete.

Provided we make no claim to completeness, we might venture on the following rough grouping of dream-theories, based on their fundamental conception of the degree and mode of the psychic activity in dreams:

1. Theories, like those of Delboeuf, which allow the full psychic activity of the waking state to continue in our dreams. Here the psyche does not sleep; its apparatus remains intact; but under the conditions of the sleeping state, which differ from those of the waking state, it must in its normal functioning give results which differ from those of the waking state. As regards these theories, it may be questioned whether their authors are in a position to derive the distinction between dreaming and waking thought entirely from the conditions of the sleeping state. Moreover, they lack one possible access to a function of dreams; one does not understand to what purpose one dreams- why the complicated mechanism of the psychic apparatus should continue to operate even when it is placed under conditions to which it does not appear to be adapted. There are only two purposeful reactions in the place of the reaction of dreaming: to sleep dreamlessly, or to wake when affected by disturbing stimuli.

2. Theories which, on the contrary, assume for the dream a diminution of the psychic activity, a loosening of connections, and an impoverishment of the available material. In accordance with these theories, one must assume for sleep a psychological character entirely different from that given by Delboeuf. Sleep encroaches widely upon the psyche; it does not consist in the mere shutting it off from the outer world; on the contrary, it enters into its mechanism, and makes it for the time being unserviceable. If I may draw a comparison from psychiatry, I would say that the first group of theories construes the dream like a paranoia, while the second represents it as a type of mental deficiency or amentia.

The theory that only a fragment of the psychic activity paralysed by sleep finds expression in dreams is that by far the most favoured by medical writers, and by scientists in general. In so far as one may presuppose a general interest in dream-interpretation, one may indeed describe it as the most popular theory of dreams. It is remarkable how nimbly this particular theory avoids the greatest danger that threatens every dream-interpretation; that is, shipwreck on one of the contrasts incorporated in dreams. Since this theory regards dreams as the result of a partial waking (or, as Herbart puts it in his Psychologie uber den Traum, "a gradual, partial, and at the same time very anomalous waking"), it is able to cover the whole series, from the inferior activities of dreams, which betray themselves by their absurdity, to fully concentrated intellectual activity, by a series of states of progressive awakening, ending in complete wakefulness.

Those who find the physiological mode of expression indispensable, or who deem it more scientific, will find this theory of dreams summarized in Binz's description (p. 43):

"This state (of torpor), however, gradually comes to an end in the hours of early morning. The accumulated products of fatigue in the albumen of the brain gradually diminish. They are slowly decomposed, or carried away by the constantly flowing blood-stream. Here and there individual groups of cells can be distinguished as being awake, while around them all is still in a state of torpidity. The isolated work of the individual groups now appears before our clouded consciousness, which is still powerless to control other parts of the brain, which govern the associations. Hence the pictures created, which for the most part correspond to the objective impressions of the immediate past, combine with one another in a wild and uncontrolled fashion. As the number of brain-cells set free constantly increases, the irrationality of the dream becomes constantly less."

The conception of the dream as an incomplete, partial waking state, or traces of the influence of this conception, will of course be found in the works of all the modern physiologists and philosophers. It is most completely represented by Maury. It often seems as though this author conceives the state of being awake or asleep as susceptible of shifting from one anatomical region to another; each anatomical region seeming to him to be connected with a definite psychic function. Here I will merely suggest that even if the theory of partial waking were confirmed, its finer superstructure would still call for exhaustive consideration.

No function of dreams, of course, can emerge from this conception of the dream-life. On the contrary, Binz, one of the chief proponents of this theory, consistently enough denies that dreams have any status or importance. He says (p. 357): "All the facts, as we see them, urge us to characterize the dream as a physical process, in all cases useless, and in many cases definitely morbid."

The expression physical in reference to dreams (the word is emphasized by the author) points, of course, in more than one direction. In the first place, it refers to the aetiology of dreams, which was of special interest to Binz, as he was studying the experimental production of dreams by the administration of drugs. It is certainly in keeping with this kind of dream-theory to ascribe the incitement to dreaming, whenever possible, exclusively to somatic origins. Presented in the most extreme form the theory is as follows: After we have put ourselves to sleep by the banishment of stimuli, there would be no need to dream, and no reason for dreaming until the morning, when the gradual awakening through the fresh invasion of stimuli might be reflected in the phenomenon of dreaming. But, as a matter of fact, it is not possible to protect our sleep from stimuli; like the germs of life of which Mephistopheles complained, stimuli come to the sleeper from all directions- from without, from within, and even from all those bodily regions which never trouble us during the waking state. Thus our sleep is disturbed; now this, now that little corner of the psyche is jogged into the waking state, and the psyche functions for a while with the awakened fraction, yet is thankful to fall asleep again. The dream is the reaction to the disturbance of sleep caused by the stimulus, but it is, when all is said, a purely superfluous reaction.

The description of the dream- which, after all, remains an activity of the psychic organ- as a physical process has yet another connotation. So to describe it is to deny that the dream has the dignity of a psychic process. The old simile of "the ten fingers of a person ignorant of music running over the keyboard of an instrument" perhaps best illustrates in what esteem the dream is commonly held by the representatives of exact science. Thus conceived, it becomes something wholly insusceptible of interpretation. How could the ten fingers of a player ignorant of music perform a musical composition?

The theory of partial wakefulness did not escape criticism even by the earlier writers. Thus Burdach wrote in 1830: "If we say that dreaming is a partial waking, then, in the first place, neither the waking nor the sleeping state is explained thereby; secondly, this amounts only to saying that certain powers of the mind are active in dreams while others are at rest. But such irregularities occur throughout life..." (p. 482).

The prevailing dream-theory which conceives the dream as a "physical" process finds a certain support in a very interesting conception of the dream which was first propounded by Robert in 1866, and which is seductive because it assigns to the dream a function or a useful result. As the basis of his theory Robert takes two objectively observable facts which we have already discussed in our consideration of dream-material (chapter I., B). These facts are: (1) that one very often dreams about the most insignificant impressions of the day; and (2) that one rarely carries over into the dream the absorbing interests of the day. Robert asserts as an indisputable fact that those matters which have been fully settled and solved never evoke dreams, but only such as lie incompleted in the mind, or touch it merely in passing (p. 10). "For this reason we cannot usually explain our dreams, since their causes are to be found in sensory impressions of the preceding day which have not attained sufficient recognition on the part of the dreamer." The condition permitting an impression to reach the dream is, therefore, that this impression has been disturbed in its elaboration, or that it was too insignificant to lay claim to such elaboration.

Robert therefore conceives the dream "as a physical process of elimination which in its psychic reaction reaches the consciousness." Dreams are eliminations of thoughts nipped in the bud. "A man deprived of the capacity for dreaming would in time become mentally unbalanced, because an immense number of unfinished and unsolved thoughts and superficial impressions would accumulate in his brain, under the pressure of which all that should be incorporated in the memory as a completed whole would be stifled." The dream acts as a safety-valve for the over-burdened brain. Dreams possess a healing and unburdening power (p. 32).

We should misunderstand Robert if we were to ask him how representation in the dream could bring about an unburdening of the mind. The writer apparently concluded from these two peculiarities of the dream-material that during sleep such an elimination of worthless impressions is effected somehow as a somatic process; and that dreaming is not a special psychic process, but only the information which we receive of such elimination. Moreover, elimination is not the only thing that takes place in the mind during sleep. Robert himself adds that the stimuli of the day are likewise elaborated, and "what cannot be eliminated from the undigested thought-material lying in the mind is bound up into a completed whole by mental clues borrowed from the imagination, and is thus enrolled in the memory as a harmless phantasy-picture" (p. 23).

But it is in his criticism of the sources of dreams that Robert is most flatly opposed to the prevailing theory. Whereas according to this theory there would be no dream if the external and internal sensory stimuli did not repeatedly wake the mind, according to Robert the impulse to dream lies in the mind itself. It lies in the overloading of the mind, which demands discharge, and Robert considers, quite consistently, that those causes conditioning the dream which depend on the physical condition assume a subordinate rank, and could not incite dreams in a mind which contained no material for dream-formation derived from the waking consciousness. It is admitted, however, that the phantasy-images originating in the depths of the mind may be influenced by nervous stimuli (p. 48). Thus, according to Robert, dreams are not, after all, wholly dependent on the somatic element. Dreaming is, of course, not a psychic process, and it has no place among the psychic processes of the waking state; it is a nocturnal somatic process in the apparatus of mental activity, and has a function to perform, viz., to guard this apparatus against excessive strain, or, if we may be allowed to change the comparison, to cleanse the mind.

Another author, Yves Delage, bases his theory on the same characteristics of the dream- characteristics which are perceptible in the selection of the dream-material, and it is instructive to observe how a trifling twist in the conception of the same things gives a final result entirely different in its bearings. Delage, having lost through death a person very dear to him, found that we either do not dream at all of what occupies us intently during the day, or that we begin to dream of it only after it is overshadowed by the other interests of the day. His investigations in respect of other persons corroborated the universality of this state of affairs. Concerning the dreams of newly-married people, he makes a comment which is admirable if it should prove to be generally true: "S'ils ont ete fortement epris, presque jamais ils n'ont reve l'un de l'autre avant le mariage ou pendant la lune de miel; et s'ils ont reve d'amour c'est pour etre infideles avec quelque personne indifferente ou odieuse." * But of what does one dream? Delage recognizes that the material of our dreams consists of fragments and remnants of impressions, both from the last few days and from earlier periods. All that appears in our dreams, all that we may at first be inclined to consider the creation of the dream-life, proves on closer investigation to be unrecognized reproduction, "souvenir inconscient." But this representative material reveals one common characteristic; it originates from impressions which have probably affected our senses more forcibly than our mind, or from which the attention has been deflected soon after their occurrence. The less conscious, and at the same time the stronger an impression, the greater the prospect of its playing a part in our next dream.

* If they are very much in love, they have almost never dreamed of each other before the marriage or during the honeymoon; and if they have dreamed of love, it was to be unfaithful with someone unimportant or distasteful.

These two categories of impressions- the insignificant and the undisposed-of- are essentially the same as those which were emphasized by Robert, but Delage gives them another significance, inasmuch as he believes that these impressions are capable of exciting dreams not because they are indifferent, but because they are not disposed of. The insignificant impressions also are, in a sense, not fully disposed of; they, too, owing to their character of new impressions, are "autant de ressorts tendus," * which will be relaxed during sleep. Still more entitled to a role in the dream than a weak and almost unnoticed impression is a vivid impression which has been accidentally retarded in its elaboration, or intentionally repressed. The psychic energy accumulated during the day by inhibition or suppression becomes the mainspring of the dream at night. In dreams psychically suppressed material achieves expression. *(2)

* So many taut lines.

*(2) A novelist, Anatole France, expresses himself to a similar effect (Le Lys Rouge): "Ce que nous voyons la nuit ce sont les restes malheureux que nous avons neglige dans la veille. Le reve est souvent la revanche des choses qu'on meprise ou le reproche des etres abandonnes." [What we see at night are the unhappy relics that we neglected while awake. The dream is often the revenge of things scorned or the reproach of beings deserted.]

Unfortunately Delage does not pursue this line of thought any farther; he is able to ascribe only the most insignificant role in our dreams to an independent psychic activity, and thus, in his theory of dreams, he reverts to the prevailing doctrine of a partial slumber of the brain: "En somme le reve est le produit de la pensee errante, sans but et sans direction, se fixant successivement sur les souvenirs, qui ont garde assez d'intensite pour se placer sur sa route et l'arreter au passage, etablissant entre eux un lien tantot faible et indecis, tantot plus fort et plus serre, selon que l'activite actuelle du cerveau est plus ou moins abolie par le sommeil." *

* In short, the dream is the product of wandering thought, without end or direction, successively fixing on memories which have retained sufficient intensity to put themselves in the way and block the passage, establishing between themselves a connection sometimes weak and loose, sometimes stronger and closer, according to whether the actual work of the brain is more or less suppressed by sleep.

3. In a third group we may include those dream-theories which ascribe to the dreaming mind the capacity for and propensity to special psychic activities, which in the waking state it is able to exert either not at all or imperfectly. In most cases the manifestation of these activities is held to result in a useful function of dreams. The evaluations of dreams by the earlier psychologists fall chiefly within this category. I shall content myself, however, with quoting in their stead the assertion of Burdach, to the effect that dreaming "is the natural activity of the mind, which is not limited by the power of the individuality, nor disturbed by self-consciousness, nor directed by self-determination, but is the vitality of the sensible focus indulging in free play" (p. 486).

Burdach and others evidently consider this revelling in the free use of its own powers as a state in which the mind refreshes itself and gathers fresh strength for the day's work; something, indeed, after the fashion of a vacation. Burdach therefore cites with approval the admirable words in which the poet Novalis lauds the power of the dream: "The dream is a bulwark against the regularity and commonplace character of life, a free recreation of the fettered phantasy, in which it intermingles all the images of life and interrupts the constant seriousness of the adult by the joyful play of the child. Without the dream we should surely grow old earlier, so that the dream may be considered, if not precisely as a gift from above, yet as a delightful exercise, a friendly companion on our pilgrimage to the grave."

The refreshing and healing activity of dreams is even more impressively described by Purkinje (p. 456). "The productive dreams in particular would perform these functions. These are the unconstrained play of the imagination, and have no connection with the events of the day. The mind is loth to continue the tension of the waking life, but wishes to relax it and recuperate from it. It creates, in the first place conditions opposed to those of the waking state. It cures sadness by joy, worry by hope and cheerfully distracting images, hatred by love and friendliness, and fear by courage and confidence; it appeases doubt by conviction and firm belief, and vain expectation by realization. Sleep heals many sore spots in the mind, which the day keeps continually open, by covering them and guarding them against fresh irritation. On this depends in some degree the consoling action of time." We all feel that sleep is beneficial to the psychic life, and the vague surmise of the popular consciousness is apparently loth to surrender the notion that dreaming is one of the ways in which sleep bestows its benefits.

The most original and most comprehensive attempt to explain dreaming as a special activity of the mind, which can freely unfold itself only in the sleeping state, is that made by Scherner in 1861. Scherner's book is written in a heavy and bombastic style and is inspired by an almost intoxicated enthusiasm for the subject, which is bound to repel us unless it can carry us away with it. It places so many difficulties in the way of an analysis that we gladly resort to the clearer and conciser presentation of Scherner's theories made by the philosopher Volkelt: "From these mystical conglomerations, from all these outbursts of splendour and radiance, there indeed flashes and shines an ominous semblance of meaning; but the path of the philosopher is not illumined thereby." Such is the criticism of Scherner's exposition by one of his own followers.

Scherner is not one of those writers for whom the mind carries its undiminished faculties into the dream-life. He even explains how, in our dreams, the centrality and spontaneous energy of the ego become enervated; how cognition, feeling, will, and imagination are transformed by this decentralization; how the remnant of these psychic forces has not a truly intellectual character, but is rather of the nature of a mechanism. But, on the other hand, that activity of the psyche which may be described as phantasy, freed from all rational governance, and hence no longer strictly controlled, rises to absolute supremacy in our dreams. To be sure, it borrows all its building-material from the memory of the waking state, but with this material it builds up structures which differ from those of the waking state as day differs from night. In our dreams it reveals itself as not only reproductive but also productive. Its peculiarities give the dream-life its singular character. It shows a preference for the unlimited, the exaggerated, the prodigious; but by its liberation from the inhibiting categories of thought, it gains a greater flexibility and agility, and indulges in pleasurable turns. It is excessively sensitive to the delicate emotional stimuli of the mind, to its stirring and disturbing affects, and it rapidly recasts the inner life into an external, plastic visibility. The dream-phantasy lacks the language of concepts. What it wishes to say it must express in visible form; and since in this case the concept does not exert an inhibitory control, it depicts it in all the fulness, power, and breadth of visible form. But hereby its language, plain though it is, becomes cumbersome, awkward, and prolix. Plain speaking is rendered especially difficult by the fact that it dislikes expressing an object by its actual image, but prefers to select an alien image, if only the latter is able to express that particular aspect of the object which it is anxious to represent. Such is the symbolizing activity of the phantasy.... It is, moreover, very significant that the dream-phantasy reproduces objects not in detail, but only in outline, and in the freest possible manner. Its paintings, therefore, are like light and brilliant sketches. The dream-phantasy, however, does not stop at the mere representation of the object, but feels an internal urge to implicate the dream-ego to some extent with the object, and thus to give rise to action. The visual dream, for example, depicts gold coins lying in the street; the dreamer picks them up, rejoices, and carries them away.

According to Scherner, the material upon which the dream-phantasy exerts its artistic activity consists preponderantly of the organic sensory stimuli which are so obscure during the day (cf. p. 151 above); hence it is that the over-fantastic theory of Scherner, and perhaps too matter-of-fact theories of Wundt and other physiologists, though otherwise diametrically opposed to each other, are in perfect agreement in their assumptions with regard to dream-sources and dream-stimuli. But whereas, according to the physiological theory, the psychic reaction to the inner physical stimuli becomes exhausted with the arousing of any of the ideas appropriate to these stimuli (as these ideas then, by way of association, call to their aid other ideas, so that on reaching this stage the chain of psychic processes appears to terminate), according to Scherner, on the other hand, the physical stimuli merely supply the psyche with material which it may utilize in fulfilling its phantastic intentions. For Scherner dream-formation begins where, according to the views of other writers, it comes to an end.

What the dream-phantasy does with the physical stimuli cannot, of course, be regarded as purposeful. The phantasy plays a tantalizing game with them, and represents the organic source of the stimuli of the dream in question by any sort of plastic symbolism. Indeed, Scherner holds- though here Volkelt and others differ from him- that the dream-phantasy has a certain favourite symbol for the organism as a whole: namely, the house. Fortunately, however, for its representations, it does not seem to limit itself to this material; it may also employ a whole series of houses to designate a single organ; for example, very long streets of houses for the intestinal stimulus. In other dreams particular parts of the house may actually represent particular regions of the body, as in the headache-dream, when the ceiling of the room (which the dream sees covered with disgusting toad-like spiders) represents the head.

Quite apart from the symbol of the house, any other suitable object may be employed to represent those parts of the body which excite the dream. "Thus the breathing lungs find their symbol in the flaming stove with its windy roaring, the heart in hollow chests and baskets, the bladder in round, ball-shaped, or simply hollow objects. The man's dreams, when due to the sexual stimulus, make the dreamer find in the street the upper portion of a clarinet, or the mouthpiece of a tobacco-pipe, or, again, a piece of fur. The clarinet and tobacco-pipe represent the approximate form of the male sexual organ, while the fur represents the pubic hair. In the sexual dreams of the female, the tightness of the closed thighs may be symbolized by a narrow courtyard surrounded by houses, and the vagina by a very narrow, slippery and soft footpath, leading through the courtyard, upon which the dreamer is obliged to walk, in order perhaps to carry a letter to a man" (Volkelt, p. 39). It is particularly noteworthy that at the end of such a physically stimulated dream the phantasy, as it were, unmasks itself by representing the exciting organ or its function unconcealed. Thus the "tooth-excited dream" usually ends with the dreamer taking a tooth out of his mouth.

The dream-phantasy may, however, direct its attention not merely to the form of the exciting organ, but may even make the substance contained therein the object of symbolization. Thus, for example, the dream excited by the intestinal stimuli may lead us through muddy streets, the dream due to stimuli from the bladder to foaming water. Or the stimulus as such, the nature of its excitation, and the object which it covets, are represented symbolically. Or, again, the dream-ego enters into a concrete association with the symbolization of its own state; as, for example, when in the case of painful stimuli we struggle desperately with vicious dogs or raging bulls, or when in a sexual dream the dreamer sees herself pursued by a naked man. Disregarding all the possible prolixity of elaboration, a phantastic symbolizing activity remains as the central force of every dream. Volkelt, in his fine and enthusiastic essay, attempted to penetrate still further into the character of this phantasy, and to assign to the psychic activity thus recognized its position in a system of philosophical ideas, which, however, remains altogether too difficult of comprehension for anyone who is not prepared by previous training for the intuitive comprehension of philosophical modes of thought.

Scherner attributes no useful function to the activity of the symbolizing phantasy in dreams. In dreams the psyche plays with the stimuli which are offered to it. One might conjecture that it plays in a mischievous fashion. And we might be asked whether our detailed consideration of Scherner's dream-theory, the arbitrariness of which, and its deviation from the rules of all forms of research are only too obvious, can lead to any useful results. We might fitly reply that to reject Scherner's theory without previous examination would be imposing too arrogant a veto. This theory is based on the impressions produced by his dreams on a man who paid close attention to them, and who would appear to be personally very well equipped for tracing obscure psychic phenomena. Furthermore, it treats of a subject which (though rich in its contents and relations) has for thousands of years appeared mysterious to humanity, and to the elucidation of which science, strictly so called, has, as it confesses, contributed nothing beyond attempting- in uncompromising opposition to popular sentiment- to deny its content and significance. Finally, let us frankly admit that it seems as though we cannot very well avoid the phantastical in our attempts to explain dreams. We must remember also that there is such a thing as a phantasy of ganglion cells; the passage cited (p. 87) from a sober and exact investigator like Binz, which describes how the dawn of awakening floods the dormant cell-masses of the cerebral cortex, is not a whit less fanciful and improbable than Scherner's attempts at interpretation. I hope to be able to demonstrate that there is something real underlying these attempts, though the phenomena which he describes have been only vaguely recognized, and do not possess the character of universality that should entitle them to be the basis of a theory of dreams. For the present, Scherner's theory of dreams, in contrast to the medical theory, may perhaps lead us to realize between what extremes the explanation of dream-life is still unsteadily vacillating.

The Interpretation of Dreams Chapter 1 - H. The Relation between Dreams and Mental Diseases