The Freud Museum


Theory: Freud & Dreams 2

Let's take the first proposition:

(1) Dreams are the fulfilment of a wish

(a) This idea of Freud's has been much criticized as being reductionist. However it is also the part of the theory which accords mostly with common-sense and popular ideas about dreams. We say 'I can only dream of such a thing' to describe something we really yearn for but are unable to have, and we all recognize that in our dreams we often make the world a better place for ourselves where our wishes are fulfilled. In this sense dreams, in Freud's view, have much in common with daydreams, or stories in which the hero or heroine win out in the end and achieve their heart's desire.

But what is a wish? Well it is not too hard to understand really. If a child says 'I wish I had an ice cream', then that's a wish. The only thing is that if she says 'I wish I had an ice-cream' it means that she has asked for an ice-cream and been told that she can't have one. So to create a wish implies a structure something like this:

I want an
ice-cream ---> No! ----> I wish I had an ice-cream

There is a 'want' and a probibition. A wish is the result. As we get older the prohibition becomes 'internalised' and the forbidden wishes become unconscious. The child's unruly and peremptory impulses are controlled and his overwhening egoism is curtailed. Freud calls this function the 'censorship'.

Children's dreams display the wish-fulfilling character of dreams most clearly, in Freud's view.

The contentious issue is that Freud insists that all dreams are fulfilments of wishes. He argues against the idea that dreams may primarily be concerned with the solution to an intellectual problem, for instance, or with representing a 'worry', or an 'intention', or some other mental product. Even when Freud allows the possibility of anxiety dreams or 'punishment dreams', he still incorporates these within the category of 'wish'. There is something fundamental for Freud about the 'wish'.

(b) Freud sometimes says that dreams are the fulfilment of wishes, and sometimes that dreams represent the fulfilment of wishes. There is an ambiguity here which reflects our own experience - on the one hand we say that dreams are like a 'real experience', and on the other hand we say dreams are like a private 'movie', where we know that 'it is only a dream'. So do dreams represent the fulfilment of a wish, ie. show us a picture of a wish as fulfilled; or is the dream itself the fulfilment of the wish?

This ambiguity is partly resolved by (i) Freud's theory in Chapter VII of the book, where he maintains in effect that in early infancy a 'hallucination' (eg. of the breast) is the same thing as an experience - or rather that it is difficult for a small baby to distinguish between the two; and (ii) Freud's idea that one of the essential wishes for the instigation of a dream is the 'wish to sleep' - that is to say dreams are the fulfilment of this wish, since they protect sleep.

In his essay 'The Censorship of Dreams', (Lecture IX of Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis), Freud gives the following definition:

"Dreams are things which get rid of (psychical) stimuli disturbing to sleep, by the method of hallucinatory satisfaction"

The 'psychical stimulus', according to the theory, is a wish or desire which has arisen during the day which has remained unsatisfied.

Freud says that children's dreams or dreams which occur under conditions of privation (especially hunger) display their simple wish fulfilling character most clearly.

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