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CHAPTER 1, Section D

D. Why Dreams Are Forgotten After Waking

That a dream fades away in the morning is proverbial. It is, indeed, possible to recall it. For we know the dream, of course, only by recalling it after waking; but we very often believe that we remember it incompletely, that during the night there was more of it than we remember. We may observe how the memory of a dream which in the morning was still vivid fades in the course of the day, leaving only a few trifling remnants. We are often aware that we have been dreaming, but we do not know of what we have dreamed; and we are so well used to this fact- that the dream is liable to be forgotten- that we do not reject as absurd the possibility that we may have been dreaming even when, in the morning, we know nothing either of the content of the dream or of the fact that we have dreamed. On the other hand, it often happens that dreams manifest an extraordinary power of maintaining themselves in the memory. I have had occasion to analyse, with my patients, dreams which occurred to them twenty-five years or more previously, and I can remember a dream of my own which is divided from the present day by at least thirty-seven years, and yet has lost nothing of its freshness in my memory. All this is very remarkable, and for the present incomprehensible.

The forgetting of dreams is treated in the most detailed manner by Strumpell. This forgetting is evidently a complex phenomenon; for Strumpell attributes it not to a single cause, but to quite a number of causes.

In the first place, all those factors which induce forgetfulness in the waking state determine also the forgetting of dreams. In the waking state we commonly very soon forget a great many sensations and perceptions because they are too slight to remember, and because they are charged with only a slight amount of emotional feeling. This is true also of many dream-images; they are forgotten because they are too weak, while the stronger images in their neighbourhood are remembered. However, the factor of intensity is in itself not the only determinant of the preservation of dream-images; Strumpell, as well as other authors (Calkins), admits that dream-images are often rapidly forgotten although they are known to have been vivid, whereas, among those that are retained in the memory, there are many that are very shadowy and unmeaning. Besides, in the waking state one is wont to forget rather easily things that have happened only once, and to remember more readily things which occur repeatedly. But most dream-images are unique experiences, * and this peculiarity would contribute towards the forgetting of all dreams equally. Of much greater significance is a third cause of forgetting. In order that feelings, representations, ideas and the like should attain a certain degree of memorability, it is important that they should not remain isolated, but that they should enter into connections and associations of an appropriate nature. If the words of a verse of poetry are taken and mixed together, it will be very difficult to remember them. "Properly placed, in a significant sequence, one word helps another, and the whole, making sense, remains and is easily and lastingly fixed in the memory. Contradictions, as a rule, are retained with just as much difficulty and just as rarely as things that are confused and disorderly." Now dreams, in most cases, lack sense and order. Dream-compositions, by their very nature, are insusceptible of being remembered, and they are forgotten because as a rule they fall to pieces the very next moment. To be sure, these conclusions are not entirely consistent with Radestock's observation (p. 168), that we most readily retain just those dreams which are most peculiar.

* Periodically recurrent dreams have been observed repeatedly. Compare the collection made by Chabaneix.

According to Strumpell, other factors, deriving from the relation of the dream to the waking state, are even more effective in causing us to forget our dreams. The forgetfulness of dreams manifested by the waking consciousness is evidently merely the counterpart of the fact already mentioned, namely, that the dream hardly ever takes over an orderly series of memories from the waking state, but only certain details of these memories, which it removes from the habitual psychic connections in which they are remembered in the waking state. The dream-composition, therefore, has no place in the community of the psychic series which fill the mind. It lacks all mnemonic aids. "In this manner the dream-structure rises, as it were, from the soil of our psychic life, and floats in psychic space like a cloud in the sky, quickly dispelled by the first breath of reawakening life" (p. 87). This situation is accentuated by the fact that on waking the attention is immediately besieged by the inrushing world of sensation, so that very few dream-images are capable of withstanding its force. They fade away before the impressions of the new day like the stars before the light of the sun.

Finally, we should remember that the fact that most people take but little interest in their dreams is conducive to the forgetting of dreams. Anyone who for some time applies himself to the investigation of dreams, and takes a special interest in them, usually dreams more during that period than at any other; he remembers his dreams more easily and more frequently.

Two other reasons for the forgetting of dreams, which Bonatelli (cited by Benini) adds to those adduced by Strumpell, have already been included in those enumerated above; namely, (1) that the difference of the general sensation in the sleeping and the waking state is unfavourable to mutual reproduction, and (2) that the different arrangement of the material in the dream makes the dream untranslatable, so to speak, for the waking consciousness.

It is therefore all the more remarkable, as Strumpell himself observes, that, in spite of all these reasons for forgetting the dream, so many dreams are retained in the memory. The continual efforts of those who have written on the subject to formulate laws for the remembering of dreams amount to an admission that here, too, there is something puzzling and unexplained. Certain peculiarities relating to the remembering of dreams have attracted particular attention of late; for example, the fact that the dream which is believed to be forgotten in the morning may be recalled in the course of the day on the occasion of some perception which accidentally touches the forgotten content of the dream (Radestock, Tissie). But the whole recollection of dreams is open to an objection which is calculated greatly to depreciate its value in critical eyes. One may doubt whether our memory, which omits so much from the dream, does not falsify what it retains.

This doubt as to the exactness of the reproduction of dreams is expressed by Strumpell when he says: "It may therefore easily happen that the waking consciousness involuntarily interpolates a great many things in the recollection of the dream; one imagines that one has dreamt all sorts of things which the actual dream did not contain."

Jessen (p. 547) expresses himself in very decided terms:

"Moreover, we must not lose sight of the fact, hitherto little heeded, that in the investigation and interpretation of coherent and logical dreams we almost always take liberties with the truth when we recall a dream to memory. Unconsciously and unintentionally we fill up the gaps and supplement the dream-images. Rarely, and perhaps never, has a connected dream been as connected as it appears to us in memory. Even the most truth-loving person can hardly relate a dream without exaggerating and embellishing it in some degree. The human mind so greatly tends to perceive everything in a connected form that it intentionally supplies the missing links in any dream which is in some degree incoherent."

The observations of V. Eggers, though of course independently conceived, read almost like a translation of Jessen's words:

"...L'observation des reves a ses difficultes speciales et le seul moyen d'eviter toute erreur en pareille matiere est de confier au papier sans le moindre retard ce que l'on vient d'eprouver et de remarquer; sinon, l'oubli vient vite ou total ou partiel; l'oubli total est sans gravite; mais l'oubli partiel est perfide: car si l'on se met ensuite a raconter ce que l'on n'a pas oublie, on est expose a completer par imagination les fragments incoherents et disjoints fourni par la memoire... on devient artiste a son insu, et le recit, periodiquement repete s'impose a la creance de son auteur, qui, de bonne foi, le presente comme un fait authentique, dument etabli selon les bonnes methodes...." *

* ...The observation of dreams has its special difficulties, and the only way to avoid all error in such matter is to put on paper without the least delay what has just been experienced and noticed; otherwise, totally or partially the dream is quickly forgotten; total forgetting is without seriousness; but partial forgetting is treacherous: for, if one then starts to recount what has not been forgotten, one is likely to supplement from the imagination the incoherent and disjointed fragments provided by the memory.... unconsciously one becomes an artist, and the story, repeated from time to time, imposes itself on the belief of its author, who, in good faith, tells it as authentic fact, regularly established according to proper methods....

Similarly Spitta, who seems to think that it is only in the attempt to reproduce the dream that we bring order and arrangement into loosely associated dream-elements- "turning juxtaposition into concatenation; that is, adding the process of logical connection which is absent in the dream."

Since we can test the reliability of our memory only by objective means, and since such a test is impossible in the case of dreams, which are our own personal experience, and for which we know no other source than our memory, what value do our recollections of our dreams possess?

On to Chapter 1, Section E



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