The term “dreamwork” was coined by Sigmund Freud in his seminal publication from 1900, The Interpretation of Dreams Freud (1900). In this book, Freud systematized the body of knowledge about dreams and developed a theory about dreaming as an unconscious mental process. He described how it is possible to find meaning in dream contents and introduced a method of analyzing individual patients’ dreams, conceptualizing dream activity as a process which includes both unconscious and conscious parts.
This process of finding meaning in dreams is summarized as “dreamwork” and consists of analyzing several stages of the dream process, ranging from collecting the original material of a dream from different sources via transformational stages in which the dream contents are processed and changed to the final depiction of a dream dreamt.
Thus, dreaming can be seen as a dynamic, meaningful, and creative process rather than a movie-like repetition of already experienced perceptions from waking life. Dream analysis tries to extract the meaning of a dream for an individual by reconstructing the different steps of dreamwork which had led to the actual dream experience in reverse order. While dream-work processes certain dream content to a final version of an experienced dream, dream analysis tries to clarify which change processes during dreamwork took place in order to identify the underlying (original) dream material. In sum, dreamwork has to do with the production process of the dream, while dream analysis tries to reconstruct this process. Let us have a closer look at what the dream-work process involves.
The process of dreamwork starts with a transformation of different information sources, such as the day’s residues, bodily stimuli, and latent dream thoughts (e.g., infantile wishes or repressed conflicts), into specific contents which form the “raw material” of a dream. These contents may have visual or acoustic quality or refer to bodily sensations. They are adapted and compiled into what is called the “manifest dream content,” which constitutes the dream that is experienced by the dreamer during the night. However, Freud postulated that some of these original contents, which may be unacceptable for the dreamer in the waking state, are not depicted directly but are transformed into more unoffending versions and thus are depicted in distorted ways. Freud introduced specific dream-work mechanisms which alter and depict dream contents: (1) condensation, (2) displacement, (3) considerations of representability, and (4) secondary revision.
Condensation is brought about (1) by the total omission of certain latent elements, (2) by only a fragment of some complexes in the latent dream passing over into the manifest one, and (3) by latent elements which have something in common being combined and fused into a single unity in the manifest dream. (S.E. XV, 170)
The aim of the condensation process is to generate a harmless manifest dream, while at the same time the different elements of the manifest dream represent the more comprehensive contents that have been omitted or summarized. The tendency to condensate is not only specific to dream processes but also can be observed when an individual is in a waking state. A certain location or place may trigger memories of experiences or feelings, which then precipitates a condensation process in which these memories converge into one mental image. Thus, a single mentation can represent associative chains.
Freud pointed out displacement as the activity that contributes most to the disfigurement of dreams. The affective cathexis connected to a significant dream content is moved to another one which previously has been less relevant. The process may also lead to the complete replacement of specific dream thoughts – the elements of the dream content may be exchanged and altered according to conceptual, tonal, or emotional associations into elements less connected to the original content. The new content may contain only allusions to the original thoughts.
Not only are contents displaced through the dream process, but affects in a dream may also be changed. As a consequence of the disconnection and separation of affects from the original contents, they may reappear as displaced in connection with other contents. The affect itself can also be transformed, for example, into an opposite emotion.
The latent dream content, processed and altered by the dreamwork, as described above, may experience further changes when transformed into visual pictures with respect to its visual representability. The dream experience, according to Freud, is above all visual. Thus, considerations of representability play a prominent role in the dream-work process when creating and depicting a dream experience. This means that of most importance when processing a dream content is to create a visual representation of it in the manifest dream. By visualizing a dream content, displacement and condensation processes are facilitated. Complex and abstract thoughts may be transformed into visual pictures. In a regressive process, “word presentation” is transformed into “thing presentation,” which is easier to depict during the dream experience. The tendency in this regressive process is to exchange complex thoughts with visual expressions.
The dream-work is not simply more careless, more irrational, more forgetful and more incomplete than waking thought; it is completely different from it qualitatively and for that reason not immediately comparable with it. It does not think, calculate or judge in any way at all; it restricts itself to giving things a new form. (…) That product, the dream, has above all to evade the censorship, and with that end in view the dream-work makes use of a displacement of psychical intensities to the point of a transvaluation of all psychical values. The thoughts have to be reproduced exclusively or predominantly in the material of visual and acoustic memory-traces, and this necessity imposes upon the dream-work considerations of representability which it meets by carrying out fresh displacements. (…) Little attention is paid to the logical relations between the thoughts; those relations are ultimately given a disguised representation in certain formal characteristics of dreams. Any affect attached to the dream-thoughts undergoes less modification than their ideational content. (S.E. IV, 506)
Today, experimental laboratory research has revolutionized our view on and knowledge about dreams. Nevertheless, the idea of an ongoing mental process in an altered state of consciousness during the night is still valid. Within the frame of controlled laboratory studies, thousands of dreams have been collected and evaluated. One of the most striking findings is a waking state – dream-state continuity with respect to the mental contents. The problems and conflicts we are dealing with in waking life are continuously processed during the night through dreams (cp. Ellman and Antrobus 1991).
Laboratory studies with respect to dreamwork have added another mechanism to the ones described by Freud: a disassociation/reassociation process. Contents that are used in dreaming are first disassociated by breaking them down into their different components, e.g., objects, forms, colors, and word clangs. These different elements are then reassociated to other relevant contents and memories of a certain individual. Leuschner et al. demonstrated this type of disassociative/reassociative dreamwork by following the traces of subliminally induced stimulus material. They also demonstrated that acoustic material presented during sleep was included in ongoing dream processes (Leuschner et al. 1994, 2000).
Today, dreaming is conceptualized as a cognitive simulation process of “microworlds” in order to test new possibilities and solutions or cope with existing conflicts (Moser and von Zeppelin 1996). The dreamwork can be described in a more complex way. For creating, depicting, experiencing, and remembering a dream, different regulation processes are assumed: a preparatory process which positions the different elements of a dream; a monitoring process of the ongoing dream activity, which gives feedback on the dream process; a working memory for scanning the affective feedback information for a dream situation, scrutinizing possible consequences; and a regulation process which tries to keep the dream process in a certain frame, tries to control the anxiety level in a dream, and stops a dream if the experiences cannot be tolerated any longer (cp. Moser and von Zeppelin 1996; Wittmann et al. 2016).
The major conceptual idea introduced by Freud, that a dream is not a static object but a work in progress, a process, which can be described and defined by the different aspects of the dreamwork, is still valid. Today, the process of dreamwork is conceptualized in a much more complex way compared to Freud’s model. Dreaming as a process is investigated by controlled laboratory research and compatible with findings of other psychological disciplines, e.g., cognitive psychology.
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