Nonfiction > Sigmund Freud > A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis
Sigmund Freud (1856–1939).  A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis.  1920.
Part Two: The Dream
VIII. Dreams of Childhood
WE think we have advanced too rapidly. Let us go back a little. Before our last attempt to overcome the difficulties of dream distortion through our technique, we had decided that it would be best to avoid them by limiting ourselves only to those dreams in which distortion is either entirely absent or of trifling importance, if there are such. But here again we digress from the history of the evolution of our knowledge, for as a matter of fact we become aware of dreams entirely free of distortion only after the consistent application of our method of interpretation and after complete analysis of the distorted dream.  1
  The dreams we are looking for are found in children. They are short, clear, coherent, easy to understand, unambiguous, and yet unquestionable dreams. But do not think that all children’s dreams are like this. Dream distortion makes its appearance very early in childhood, and dreams of children from five to eight years of age have been recorded that showed all the characteristics of later dreams. But if you will limit yourselves to the age beginning with conscious psychic activity, up to the fourth or fifth year, you will discover a series of dreams that are of a so-called infantile character. In a later period of childhood you will be able to find some dreams of this nature occasionally. Even among adults, dreams that closely resemble the typically infantile ones occur under certain conditions.  2
  From these children’s dreams we gain information concerning the nature of dreams with great ease and certainty, and we hope it will prove decisive and of universal application.  3
  1. For the understanding of these dreams we need no analysis, no technical methods. We need not question the child that is giving an account of his dream. But one must add to this a story taken from the life of the child. An experience of the previous day will always explain the dream to us. The dream is a sleep-reaction of psychic life upon these experiences of the day.  4
  We shall now consider a few examples so that we may base our further deductions upon them.  5
  a). A boy of 22 months is to present a basket of cherries as a birthday gift. He plainly does so very unwillingly, although they promise him that he will get some of them himself. The next morning he relates as his dream, “Hermann eat all cherries.”  6
  b). A little girl of three and a quarter years makes her first trip across a lake. At the landing she does not want to leave the boat and cries bitterly. The time of the trip seems to her to have passed entirely too rapidly. The next morning she says, “Last night I rode on the lake.” We may add the supplementary fact that this trip lasted longer.  7
  c). A boy of five and a quarter years is taken on an excursion into the Escherntal near Hallstatt. He had heard that Hallstatt lay at the foot of the Dachstein, and had shown great interest in this mountain. From his home in Aussee there was a beautiful view of the Dachstein, and with a telescope one could discern the Simonyhütte upon it. The child had tried again and again to see it through the telescope, with what result no one knew. He started on the excursion in a joyously expectant mood. Whenever a new mountain came in sight the boy asked, “Is that the Dachstein?” The oftener this question was answered in the negative, the more moody he became; later he became entirely silent and would not take part in a small climb to a waterfall. They thought he was overtired, but the next morning, he said quite happily, “Last night I dreamed that we were in the Simonyhütte.” It was with this expectation, therefore, that he had taken part in the excursion. The only detail he gave was one he had heard before, “you had to climb steps for six hours.”  8
  These three dreams will suffice for all the information we desire.  9
  2. We see that children’s dreams are not meaningless; they are intelligible, significant, psychic acts. You will recall what I represented to you as the medical opinion concerning the dream, the simile of untrained fingers wandering aimlessly over the keys of the piano. You cannot fail to see how decidedly these dreams of childhood are opposed to this conception. But it would be strange indeed if the child brought forth complete psychic products in sleep, while the adult in the same condition contents himself with spasmodic reactions. Indeed, we have every reason to attribute the more normal and deeper sleep to the child.  10
  3. Dream distortion is lacking in these dreams, therefore they need no interpretation. The manifest and latent dreams are merged. Dream distortion is therefore not inherent in the dream. I may assume that this relieves you of a great burden. But upon closer consideration we shall have to admit of a tiny bit of distortion, a certain differentiation between manifest dream content and latent dream thought, even in these dreams.  11
  4. The child’s dream is a reaction to an experience of the day, which has left behind it a regret, a longing or an unfulfilled desire. The dream brings about the direct unconcealed fulfillment of this wish. Now recall our discussions concerning the importance of the role of external or internal bodily stimuli as disturbers of sleep, or as dream producers. We learned definite facts about this, but could only explain a very small number of dreams in this way. In these children’s dreams nothing points to the influence of such somatic stimuli; we cannot be mistaken, for the dreams are entirely intelligible and easy to survey. But we need not give up the theory of physical causation entirely on this account. We can only ask why at the outset we forgot that besides the physical stimuli there are also psychic sleep-disturbing stimuli. For we know that it is these stimuli that commonly cause the disturbed sleep of adults by preventing them from producing the ideal condition of sleep, the withdrawal of interest from the world. The dreamer does not wish to interrupt his life, but would rather continue his work with the things that occupy him, and for this reason he does not sleep. The unfulfilled wish, to which he reacts by means of the dream, is the psychic sleep-disturbing stimulus for the child.  12
  5. From this point we easily arrive at an explanation of the function of the dream. The dream, as a reaction to the psychic stimulus, must have the value of a release of this stimulus which results in its elimination and in the continuation of sleep. We do not know how this release is made possible by the dream, but we note that the dream is not a disturber of sleep, as calumny says, but a guardian of sleep, whose duty it is to quell disturbances. It is true, we think we would have slept better if we had not dreamt, but here we are wrong; as a matter of fact, we would not have slept at all without the help of the dream. That we have slept so soundly is due to the dream alone. It could not help disturbing us slightly, just as the night watchman often cannot avoid making a little noise while he drives away the rioters who would awaken us with their noise.  13
  6. One main characteristic of the dream is that a wish is its source, and that the content of the dream is the gratification of this wish. Another equally constant feature is that the dream does not merely express a thought, but also represents the fulfillment of this wish in the form of a hallucinatory experience. “I should like to travel on the lake,” says the wish that excites the dream; the dream itself has as its content “I travel on the lake.” One distinction between the latent and manifest dream, a distortion of the latent dream thought, therefore remains even in the case of these simple children’s dreams, namely, the translation of the thought into experience. In the interpretation of the dream it is of utmost importance that this change be traced back. If this should prove to be an extremely common characteristic of the dream, then the above mentioned dream fragment, “I see my brother in a closet” could not be translated, “My brother is close-pressed,” but rather, “I wish that my brother were close-pressed, my brother should be close-pressed.” Of the two universal characteristics of the dream we have cited, the second plainly has greater prospects of unconditional acknowledgment than the first. Only extensive investigation can ascertain that the cause of the dream must always be a wish, and cannot also be an anxiety, a plan or a reproach; but this does not alter the other characteristic, that the dream does not simply reproduce the stimulus but by experiencing it anew, as it were, removes, expells and settles it.  14
  7. In connection with these characteristics of the dream we can again resume the comparison between the dream and the error. In the case of the latter we distinguish an interfering tendency and one interfered with, and the error is the compromise between the two. The dream fits into the same scheme. The tendency interfered with, in this case, can be no other than that of sleep. For the interfering tendency we substitute the psychic stimulus, the wish which strives for its fulfillment, let us say, for thus far we are not familiar with any other sleep-disturbing psychic stimulus. In this instance also the dream is the result of compromise. We sleep, and yet we experience the removal of a wish; we gratify the wish, but at the same time continue to sleep. Both are partly carried out and partly given up.  15
  8. You will remember that we once hoped to gain access to the understanding of the dream problem by the fact that certain very transparent phantasy formations are called day dreams. Now these day dreams are actual wish fulfillments, fulfillments of ambitious or erotic wishes with which we are familiar; but they are conscious, and though vividly imagined, they are never hallucinatory experiences. In this instance, therefore, the less firmly established of the two main characteristics of the dream holds, while the other proves itself entirely dependent upon the condition of sleep and impossible to the waking state. In colloquial usage, therefore, there is a presentment of the fact that the fulfillment of a wish is a main characteristic of the dream. Furthermore, if the experience in the dream is a transformed representation only made possible by the condition of sleep—in other words, a sort of nocturnal day dream—then we can readily understand that the occurrence of phantasy formations can release the nocturnal stimulus and bring satisfaction. For day dreaming is an activity closely bound up in gratification and is, indeed, pursued only for this reason.  16
  Not only this but other colloquial usages also express the same feeling. Well-known proverbs say, “The pig dreams of acorns, the goose of maize,” or ask, “Of what does the hen dream? Of millet.” So the proverb descends even lower than we do, from the child to the animal, and maintains that the content of a dream is the satisfaction of a need. Many turns of speech seem to point to the same thing—“dreamlike beauty,” “I should never have dreamed of that,” “in my wildest dreams I hadn’t imagined that.” This is open partisanship on the part of colloquial usage. For there are also dreams of fear and dreams of embarrassing or indifferent content, but they have not been drawn into common usage. It is true that common usage recognizes “bad” dreams, but still the dream plainly connotates to it only the beautiful wish fulfillment. There is indeed no proverb that tells us that the pig or the goose dreams of being slaughtered.  17
  Of course it is unbelievable that the wish-fulfillment characteristic has not been noted by writers on the dream. Indeed, this was very often the case, but none of them thought of acknowledging this characteristic as universal and of making it the basis of an explanation of the dream. We can easily imagine what may have deterred them and shall discuss it subsequently.  18
  See what an abundance of information we have gained, with almost no effort, from the consideration of children’s dreams—the function of the dream as a guardian of sleep; its origin from two rival tendencies, of which the one, the longing for sleep, remains constant, while the other tries to satisfy a psychic stimulus; the proof that the dream is a significant psychic act; its two main characteristics: wish fulfillment and hallucinatory experience. And we were almost able to forget that we are engaged in psychoanalysis. Aside from its connection with errors our work has no specific connotation. Any psychologist, who is entirely ignorant of the claims of psychoanalysis, could have given this explanation of children’s dreams. Why has no one done so?  19
  If there were only infantile dreams, our problem would be solved, our task accomplished, and that without questioning the dreamer, or approaching the unconscious, and without taking free association into consideration. The continuation of our task plainly lies in this direction. We have already repeatedly had the experience that characteristics that at first seemed universally true, have subsequently held good only for a certain kind and for a certain number of dreams. It is therefore for us to decide whether the common characteristics which we have gathered from children’s dreams can be applied universally, whether they also hold for those dreams that are not transparent, whose manifest content shows no connection with wishes left ever from the previous day. We think that these dreams have undergone considerable distortion and for this reason are not to be judged superficially. We also suspect that for the explanation of this distortion we shall need the psychoanalytic method which we could dispense with in the understanding of children’s dreams.  20
  There is at any rate a class of dreams that are undistorted, and, just like children’s dreams, are easily recognizable as wish fulfillments. It is those that are called up throughout life by the imperative needs of the body—hunger, thirst, sexual desire—hence wish fulfillments in reaction to internal physical stimuli. For this reason, I have noted the dream of a young girl, that consisted of a menu following her name (Anna F……, strawberry, huckleberry, egg-dish, pap), as a reaction to an enforced day of fasting on account of a spoiled stomach, which was directly traceable to the eating of the fruits twice mentioned in the dream. At the same time, the grandmother, whose age added to that of her grandchild would make a full seventy, had to go without food for a day on account of kidney-trouble, and dreamed the same night that she had been invited out and that the finest tid-bits had been set before her. Observations with prisoners who are allowed to go hungry, or with people who suffer privations on travels or expeditions, show that under these conditions the dreams regularly deal with the satisfaction of these needs. Otto Nordenskjold, in his book Antarctic (1904), testifies to the same thing concerning his crew, who were icebound with him during the winter (Vol. 1, page 336). “Very significant in determining the trend of our inmost thoughts were our dreams, which were never more vivid and numerous than just at this time. Even those of our comrades who ordinarily dreamed but seldom, now had long stories to tell, when in the morning we exchanged our latest experiences in that realm of phantasy. All of them dealt with that outside world that now was so far away from us, but often they fitted into our present condition. Food and drink were most often the pivots about which our dreams revolved. One of us, who excelled in going to great dinners in his sleep, was most happy whenever he could tell us in the morning that he attended a dinner of three courses; another one dreamed of tobacco, whole mountains of tobacco; still another dreamed of a ship that came along on the open sea, under full sail. One other dream deserves mention: The postman comes with the mail and gives a long explanation of why it is so late; he had delivered it to the wrong address and only after great trouble on his part had succeeded in getting it back. Of course one occupies himself with even more impossible things in sleep, but in nearly all the dreams that I myself dreamed or heard tell of, the lack of phantasy was quite striking. It would surely be of great psychological interest if all these dreams were recorded. It is easy to understand how we longed for sleep, since it could offer us everything for which each one of us felt the most burning desire.” I quote further from Du Prel. “Mungo Park, who during a trip in Africa was almost exhausted, dreamed without interruption of the fertile valleys and fields of his home. Trenck, tortured by hunger in the redoubt at Magdeburg, likewise saw himself surrounded by wonderful meals, and George Back, who took part in Franklin’s first expedition, dreamed regularly and consistently of luxurious meals when, as a result of terrible privations, he was nearly dead of hunger.”  21
  A man who feels great thirst at night after enjoying highly seasoned food for supper, often dreams that he is drinking. It is of course impossible to satisfy a rather strong desire for food or drink by means of the dream; from such a dream one awakes thirsty and must now drink real water. The effect of the dream is in this case practically trifling, but it is none the less clear that it was called up for the purpose of maintaining the sleep in spite of the urgent impulse to awake and to act. Dreams of satisfaction often overcome needs of a lesser intensity.  22
  In a like manner, under the influence of sexual stimuli, the dream brings about satisfaction that shows noteworthy peculiarities. As a result of the characteristic of the sexual urge which makes it somewhat less dependent upon its object than hunger and thirst, satisfaction in a dream of pollution may be an actual one, and as a result of difficulties to be mentioned later in connection with the object, it happens especially often that the actual satisfaction is connected with confused or distorted dream content. This peculiarity of the dream of pollution, as O. Rank has observed, makes it a fruitful subject to pursue in the study of dream distortion. Moreover, all dreams of desire of adults usually contain something besides satisfaction, something that has its origin in the sources of the purely psychic stimuli, and which requires interpretation to render it intelligible.  23
  Moreover we shall not maintain that the wish-fulfillment dreams of the infantile kind occur in adults only as reactions to the known imperative desires. We also know of short clear dreams of this sort under the influence of dominating situations that arise from unquestionably psychic sources. As, for example, in dreams of impatience, whenever a person has made preparations for a journey, for a theatrical performance, for a lecture or for a visit, and now dreams of the anticipated fulfillment of his expectations, and so arrives at his goal the night before the actual experience, in the theatre or in conversation with his host. Or the well-named dreams of comfort, when a person who likes to prolong his sleep, dreams that he is already up, is washing himself, or is already in school, while as a matter of fact he continues sleeping, hence would rather get up in a dream than in reality. The desire for sleep which we have recognized as a regular part of the dream structure becomes intense in these dreams and appears in them as the actual shaping force of the dream. The wish for sleep properly takes its place beside other great physical desires.  24
  At this point I refer you to a picture by Schwind, from the Schack Gallery in Munich, so that you may see how rightly the artist has conceived the origin of a dream from a dominating situation. It is the Dream of a Prisoner, which can have no other subject than his release. It is a very neat stroke that the release should be effected through the window, for the ray of light that awakens the prisoner comes through the same window. The gnomes standing one above the other probably represent the successive positions which he himself had to take in climbing to the height of the window, and I do not think I am mistaken or that I attribute too much preconcerted design to the artist, by noting that the uppermost of the gnomes, who is filing the grating (and so does what the prisoner would like to do) has the features of the prisoner.  25
  In all other dreams except those of children and those of the infantile type, distortion, as we have said, blocks our way. At the outset we cannot ascertain whether they are also wish fulfillments, as we suspect; from their manifest content we cannot determine from what psychic stimulus they derive their origin, and we cannot prove that they also are occupied in doing away with the stimulus and in satisfying it. They must probably be interpreted, that is, translated; their distortion must be annulled; their manifest content replaced by their latent thought before we can judge whether what we have found in children’s dreams may claim a universal application for all dreams.  26

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