The Freud Museum

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Children's Dreams

Freud says that in his dream theory he started off looking at distorted dreams but then got into all the problems about 'interpretation' - no one believed him because it was too far fetched! So are there dreams with no distortion, or only a little?

"The dreams we are looking for occur in children" he says. Except that not all (or even most) children's dreams are like this, and these infantile dreams also can occur in older children and adults, under certain conditions. [ie. there is really no category of 'children's dreams' at all!]

"From these children's dreams we can draw conclusions with great ease and certainty on the essential nature of dreams in general, and we hope that those conclusions will prove decisive and universally valid."

(1) "No analysis.......is necessary in order to understand these dreams. There is no need to question the child who tells us his dream. One has, however, to add a piece of information to it from the events of the child's life. There is invariably some experience of the previous day which explains the dream to us. The dream is the reaction of the child's mental life in his sleep to this experience of the previous day."

Examples (Hermann, Dachstein, Stwawbewwies etc)

(2) "As we can see , these children's dreams are not senseless. They are intelligible, completely valid mental acts.....It would really be too strange if children could perform complete mental functions in their sleep while adults were content under the same conditions with reactions that were no more than 'twitchings'. Moreover we have every reason to think that children's sleep is sounder and deeper."

(3) "These dreams are without any dream-distortion, and therefore call for no interpretative activity. Here the manifest and the latent dream coincide. Thus dream distortion is not part of the essential nature of dreams.........." ...... except that Freud goes on to say that there is some distortion even so.

(4) "A child's dream is a reaction to an experience of the previous day, which has left behind it a regret, a longing, a wish that has not been dealt with. The dream produces a direct, undisguised fulfilment of that wish." This doesn't contradict the previous ideas that a dream is dealing with a somatic stimulus - we don't abandon the stimulus aetiology of dreams; "We can only ask how it has happened that from the first we have forgotten that besides somatic stimuli there are mental stimuli that disturb sleep." eg. worrying etc for adults, which keeps them awake.

" In the case of children, therefore, the stimulus that disturbs sleep is a mental one - the wish that has not been dealt with - and it is to this that they react with the dream."

(5) "This gives us the most direct approach to understanding the function of dreams. In so far as a dream is a reaction to a stimulus, it must be equivalent to dealing with the stimulus in such a way that it is got rid of and that sleep can continue." ie. far from being the disturbers of sleep, dreams are the guardians of sleep.

(6) "What instigates a dream is a wish, and the fulfilment of that wish is the content of the dream - this is one of the chief characteristics of dreams. The other, equally constant one, is that a dream does not simply give expression to a thought, but represents the wish fulfilled as an hallucinatory experience."

eg. 'I should like to go to the lake' is translated as 'I am going to the lake'

Thus even in these simple dreams there is a difference between the latent and manifest content, "there is a distortion of the latent dream thought: the transformation of a thought into an experience. In the process of interpreting a dream this alteration must first be undone."

Hence, the fragment of dream "I saw my brother in a box" is not to be translated [in terms of the experience] as " [I can see] my brother is restricting himself", but in terms of the the thought "I should like my brother to restrict himself; my brother must restrict himself. "

It is only by means of far reaching investigation that we will be able to establish the fact that what instigates a dream must always be a wish and cannot be a worry, an intention, or a reproach; but this will not affect the other characteristic, - that the dream does not simply reproduce this stimulus, but removes it, gets rid of it, deals with it, by means of a kind of experience.

(7) So dreams are similar to parapraxes [slips of the tongue etc] - a compromise between a disturbed purpose (to sleep), and a disturbing one which is 'the psychical stimulus, or let us say the wish which presses to be dealt with, since we have not learnt so far of any other psychical stimulus that disturbs sleep.'

The dream is the compromise; one sleeps , but nevertheless experiences the removing of a wish.

(8) Everyone knows that dreams fulfil wishes, just like daydreams do. 'I wouldn't have dreamt of such a thing!' etc, or proverbs such as 'Pigs dream of acorns and geese dream of millet'. Common usage forgets anxiety dreams entirely - there are no proverbs which might tell us that pigs and geese dream of being slaughtered.

This hasn't gone unnoticed even in books on the subject, but it has not occurred to anyone to recognize this characteristic as a universal one and to make it the corner-stone of the theory. "We can well imagine what it is that held them back from it and we shall go into the matter latter on". [ie. because most of the wishes are sexual ones]

"But consider what a large amount of light has been thrown on things by our examination of children's dreams, and with scarcely any effort... And in discovering all this we were almost able to forget that we were engaged on psychoanalysis."

This last sentence is vital. We do not have to worry about being 'engaged in psychoanalysis' in order to learn a lot about dreams. Just talk about dreams. There are also children's dreams in which forbidden wishes are given expression in a form that makes them 'acceptable' to consciousness. This death-wish dream is an obvious example. Or other dreams that overcome fears by creating a new reality, such as in 'Bed too small'

In fact any psychologist could have been able to tell us all this. Why have they not done so?

Freud then gives some examples of adult's dreams which are formed under the influence of imperative bodily needs. These are also dreams which are undistorted and can easily be recognized as wish-fulfilments (eg. starving prisoners dreaming of food).

Once as a little girl Anna Freud had a dream about 'stwawbewwies' after a day in which she had a stomach upset and could not eat.

There are also other wish fulfilling dreams such as 'dreams of impatience', or 'dreams of convenience' (eg dreaming you're at school when really you are still in bed), that is, short, clear dreams which arise unquestionably out of psychical sources of stimulation.

Freud then draws a general conclusion from this evidence: "The wish to sleep, which we have recognized as regularly playing a part in the construction of dreams, comes into the open in these dreams and reveals itself as the essential dream-constructor. There is good reason for, ranking the need to sleep alongside the other great bodily needs."

General Discussion topics

  • A discussion about dreaming could begin by asking the class "What do pigs dream of?
  • Discuss the 'wish to sleep', and dreams that are created to deal with external stimuli, like the alarm going off.
  • If dreams get rid of an (unwelcome) stimulus, can they also help us solve problems in our sleep? If so, what kind of problems (emotional or intellectual)?
  • Do people feel better after they have had a good dream? If so, why?


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