The Freud Museum


Theory: Freud & Dreams 4

The second of Freud's transformational processes is:

(ii) Displacement

Freud noticed that important things in the latent dream-thoughts were often represented by seemingly insignificant things in the manifest content of the dream, and vice versa. The dream itself seemed to be about one thing whereas the dream-thoughts showed it was really about something else.

Because of this phenomenon Freud said that the relative importance of the dream elements (the 'psychical value' or 'cathexis') could undergo 'displacement'. The emotion associated with one idea or experience is detached from it and attached to another one.

In essence it is a simple idea. If we have a bad day at work and we come home and kick the cat. We know it is not because we are really angry with the cat, but that our anger has been displaced from somewhere else (where it was not perhaps allowed to be expressed). Similarly if my child develops an unreasonable fear of cats (a phobia), one could reasonably expect that this emotion is displaced from a fear of the person he or she sees kicking the cat.

This kind of displacement happens all the time in dreams, and Freud says it is only by using the dreamer's associations that the true 'emotional map' of the dream (as we might call it) can be drawn, with all the significant bits in their proper place. For instance the analysis of the Butcher's wife's dream showed that the dream-thoughts were not about the relations between smoked salmon and caviare (or a nice juicy steak?) but about her rivalries with other women and uncertainties about her husband.

Other kinds of processes which Freud says occur in dreams are also similar to displacement and concerned with the emotions experienced in the dream. These 'affects' as they are called may either be eliminated, or diminished, or even turned into their opposite. (That is to say 'defence mechanisms' which were later to play such a large part in psychoanalytic theorising.) In this scenario I might come back from a hard day's work and playfully stroke the cat. The dreams of self dissection ('Old Brucke') or the 'museum of excrement' show displacements of affect.

One kind of displacement is particularly important for the formation of dreams. That is what Freud refers to as considerations of representability. Dreams work in pictures - so the abstract thoughts which might underlie the dream must be turned into a pictorial and concrete language before they can be used in a dream. Freud illustrated this point with one of the most moving dreams in his book - the dream of the burning child.

Freud says it is a bit like writing a poem - you are trying to put all your thoughts down in the most succinct possible way, and so you translate your thoughts into concrete imagistic language. (In this analogy we see that displacement and condensation are closely connected). At other times Freud says a dream is a bit like a hieroglyphic script or a rebus, and they present the same difficulties of translation as did the Rosseta stone. For instance in the 'Night at the Opera' dream, a tower appeared in the middle of the auditorium. It transpired that the tower referred to a musician whom the dreamer thought 'towered above' all others in his profession. In this case the abstract thought that this man was better than his contemporaries was transformed into the concrete expression 'he towered above them', which was thus susceptible to pictorial representation.

From these examples it can be seen that the idea of displacement is wide ranging in Freud's theory of dreams. It refers to both the 'pychical intensity' of different dream elements, the 'affect' in dreams, and the 'language' of the dream-thoughts.

Between them, condensation and displacement are the essence of the dream-work. Dreams are, in fact, masses of composite structures joined together like pack ice.

Freud says:

"Dream-displacement and dream-condensation are the two governing factors to whose activity we may in essence ascribe the form assumed by dreams".

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