Back to Psych Web Home Page
Back to The Interpretation of Dreams Table of Contents

CHAPTER 1, Section E

E. The Psychological Peculiarities of Dreams

In our scientific investigation of dreams we start with the assumption that dreams are a phenomenon of our own psychic activity; yet the completed dream appears to us as something alien, whose authorship we are so little inclined to recognize that we should be just as willing to say "A dream came to me," as "I dreamed." Whence this "psychic strangeness" of dreams? According to our exposition of the sources of dreams, we must assume that it is not determined by the material which finds its way into the dream-content, since this is for the most part common both to dream-life and waking life. We might ask ourselves whether this impression is not evoked by modifications of the psychic processes in dreams, and we might even attempt to suggest that the existence of such changes is the psychological characteristic of dreams.

No one has more strongly emphasized the essential difference between dream-life and waking life and drawn more far reaching conclusions from this difference than G. Th. Fechner in certain observations contained in his Elemente der Psychophysik (Part II, p. 520). He believes that "neither the simple depression of conscious psychic life under the main threshold," nor the distraction of the attention from the influences of the outer world, suffices to explain the peculiarities of dream-life as compared with waking life. He believes, rather, that the arena of dreams is other than the arena of the waking life of the mind. "If the arena of psychophysical activity were the same during the sleeping and the waking state, the dream, in my opinion, could only be a continuation of the waking ideational life at a lower degree of intensity, so that it would have to partake of the form and material of the latter. But this is by no means the case."

What Fechner really meant by such a transposition of the psychic activity has never been made clear, nor has anybody else, to my knowledge, followed the path which he indicates in this remark. An anatomical interpretation in the sense of physiological localization in the brain, or even a histological stratification of the cerebral cortex, must of course be excluded. The idea might, however, prove ingenious and fruitful if it could refer to a psychical apparatus built up of a number of successive and connected systems.

Other authors have been content to give prominence to this or that palpable psychological peculiarity of the dream-life, and even to take this as a starting-point for more comprehensive attempts at explanation.

It has been justly remarked that one of the chief peculiarities of dream-life makes its appearance even in the state of falling asleep, and may be defined as the sleep-heralding phenomenon. According to Schleiermacher (p. 351), the distinguishing characteristic of the waking state is the fact that its psychic activity occurs in the form of ideas rather than in that of images. But the dream thinks mainly in visual images, and it may be noted that with the approach of sleep the voluntary activities become impeded in proportion as involuntary representations make their appearance, the latter belonging entirely to the category of images. The incapacity for such ideational activities as we feel to be deliberately willed, and the emergence of visual images, which is regularly connected with this distraction- these are two constant characteristics of dreams, and on psychological analysis we are compelled to recognize them as essential characteristics of dream-life. As for the images themselves the hypnogogic hallucinations- we have learned that even in their content they are identical with dream-images. *

* Silberer has shown by excellent examples how in the state of falling asleep even abstract thoughts may be changed into visible plastic images, which, of course, express them. (Jahrbuch, Bleuler-Freud, vol. i, 1900.) I shall return to the discussion of his findings later on.

Dreams, then, think preponderantly, but not exclusively, in visual images. They make use also of auditory images, and, to a lesser extent, of the other sensory impressions. Moreover, in dreams, as in the waking state, many things are simply thought or imagined (probably with the help of remnants of verbal conceptions). Characteristic of dreams, however, are only those elements of their contents which behave like images, that is, which more closely resemble perceptions than mnemonic representations. Without entering upon a discussion of the nature of hallucinations- a discussion familiar to every psychiatrist- we may say, with every well-informed authority, that the dream hallucinates- that is, that it replaces thoughts by hallucinations. In this respect visual and acoustic impressions behave in the same way. It has been observed that the recollection of a succession of notes heard as we are falling asleep becomes transformed, when we have fallen asleep, into a hallucination of the same melody, to give place, each time we wake, to the fainter and qualitatively different representations of the memory, and resuming, each time we doze off again, its hallucinatory character.

The transformation of an idea into a hallucination is not the only departure of the dream from the more or less corresponding waking thought. From these images the dream creates a situation; it represents something as actually present; it dramatizes an idea, as Spitta (p. 145) puts it. But the peculiar character of this aspect of the dream-life is completely intelligible only if we admit that in dreaming we do not as a rule (the exceptions call for special examination) suppose ourselves to be thinking, but actually experiencing; that is, we accept the hallucination in perfectly good faith. The criticism that one has experienced nothing, but that one has merely been thinking in a peculiar manner- dreaming- occurs to us only on waking. It is this characteristic which distinguishes the genuine dream from the day-dream, which is never confused with reality.

The characteristics of the dream-life thus far considered have been summed up by Burdach (p. 476) as follows: "As characteristic features of the dream we may state (a) that the subjective activity of our psyche appears as objective, inasmuch as our perceptive faculties apprehend the products of phantasy as though they were sensory activities... (b) that sleep abrogates our voluntary action; hence falling asleep involves a certain degree of passivity... The images of sleep are conditioned by the relaxation of our powers of will."

It now remains to account for the credulity of the mind in respect to the dream-hallucinations which are able to make their appearance only after the suspension of certain voluntary powers. Strumpell asserts that in this respect the psyche behaves correctly and in conformity with its mechanism. The dream-elements are by no means mere representations, but true and actual experiences of the psyche, similar to those which come to the waking state by way of the senses (p. 34). Whereas in the waking state the mind thinks and imagines by means of verbal images and language, in dreams it thinks and imagines in actual perceptual images (p. 35). Dreams, moreover, reveal a spatial consciousness, inasmuch as in dreams, just as in the waking state, sensations and images are transposed into outer space (p. 36). It must therefore be admitted that in dreams the mind preserves the same attitude in respect of images and perceptions as in the waking state (p. 43). And if it forms erroneous conclusions in respect of these images and perceptions, this is due to the fact that in sleep it is deprived of that criterion which alone can distinguish between sensory perceptions emanating from within and those coming from without. It is unable to subject its images to those tests which alone can prove their objective reality. Further, it neglects to differentiate between those images which can be exchanged at will and those in respect of which there is no free choice. It errs because it cannot apply the law of causality to the content of its dreams (p. 58). In brief, its alienation from the outer world is the very reason for its belief in its subjective dream-world.

Delboeuf arrives at the same conclusion through a somewhat different line of argument. We believe in the reality of dream-pictures because in sleep we have no other impressions with which to compare them; because we are cut off from the outer world. But it is not because we are unable, when asleep, to test our hallucinations that we believe in their reality. Dreams can make us believe that we are applying such tests- that we are touching, say, the rose that we see in our dream; and yet we are dreaming. According to Delboeuf there is no valid criterion that can show whether something is a dream or a waking reality, except- and that only pragmatically- the fact of waking. "I conclude that all that has been experienced between falling asleep and waking is a delusion, if I find on waking that I am lying undressed in bed" (p. 84). "I considered the images of my dream real while I was asleep on account of the unsleeping mental habit of assuming an outer world with which I can contrast my ego." *

* Haffner, like Delboeuf, has attempted to explain the act of dreaming by the alteration which an abnormally introduced condition must have upon the otherwise correct functioning of the intact psychic apparatus; but he describes this condition in somewhat different terms. He states that the first distinguishing mark of dreams is the abolition of time and space, i.e., the emancipation of the representation from the individual's position in the spatial and temporal order. Associated with this is the second fundamental character of dreams, the mistaking of the hallucinations, imaginations, and phantasy-combinations for objective perceptions. "The sum-total of the higher psychic functions, particularly the formation of concepts, judgments, and conclusions on the one hand, and free self-determination on the other hand, combine with the sensory phantasy-images, and at all times have these as a substratum. These activities too, therefore, participate in the erratic nature of the dream-representations. We say they participate, for our faculties of judgment and will are in themselves unaltered during sleep. As far as their activity is concerned, we are just as shrewd and just as free as in the waking state. A man cannot violate the laws of thought; that is, even in a dream he cannot judge things to be identical which present themselves to him as opposites. He can desire in a dream only that which he regards as a good (sub ratione boni). But in this application of the laws of thought and will the human intellect is led astray in dreams by confusing one notion with another. Thus it happens that in dreams we formulate and commit the greatest of contradictions, while, on the other hand, we display the shrewdest judgment and arrive at the most logical conclusions, and are able to make the most virtuous and sacred resolutions. The lack of orientation is the whole secret of our flights of phantasy in dreams, and the lack of critical reflection and agreement with other minds is the main source of the reckless extravagances of our judgments, hopes and wishes in dreams" (p. 18).

If the turning-away from the outer world is accepted as the decisive cause of the most conspicuous characteristics of our dreams, it will be worth our while to consider certain subtle observations of Burdach's, which will throw some light on the relation of the sleeping psyche to the outer world, and at the same time serve to prevent our over-estimating the importance of the above deductions. "Sleep," says Burdach, "results only under the condition that the mind is not excited by sensory stimuli... yet it is not so much a lack of sensory stimuli that conditions sleep as a lack of interest in them; * some sensory impressions are even necessary in so far as they serve to calm the mind; thus the miller can fall asleep only when he hears the clatter of his mill, and he who finds it necessary, as a matter of precaution, to burn a light at night, cannot fall asleep in the dark" (p. 457).

* Compare with this the element of "Desinteret," in which Claparede (1905) finds the mechanism of falling asleep.

"During sleep the psyche isolates itself from the outer world, and withdraws from the periphery.... Nevertheless, the connection is not entirely broken; if one did not hear and feel during sleep, but only after waking, one would assuredly never be awakened at all. The continuance of sensation is even more plainly shown by the fact that we are not always awakened by the mere force of the sensory impression, but by its relation to the psyche. An indifferent word does not arouse the sleeper, but if called by name he wakes... so that even in sleep the psyche discriminates between sensations.... Hence one may even be awakened by the obliteration of a sensory stimulus, if this is related to anything of imagined importance. Thus one man wakes when the nightlight is extinguished, and the miller when his mill comes to a standstill; that is, waking is due to the cessation of a sensory activity, and this presupposes that the activity has been perceived, but has not disturbed the mind, its effect being indifferent, or actually reassuring" (p. 46, etc.).

Even if we are willing to disregard these by no means trifling objections, we must yet admit that the qualities of dream-life hitherto considered, which are attributed to withdrawal from the outer world, cannot fully account for the strangeness of dreams. For otherwise it would be possible to reconvert the hallucinations of the dream into mental images, and the situations of the dream into thoughts, and thus to achieve the task of dream-interpretation. Now this is precisely what we do when we reproduce a dream from memory after waking, and no matter whether we are fully or only partially successful in this retranslation, the dream still remains as mysterious as before.

Furthermore, all writers unhesitatingly assume that still other and profounder changes take place in the plastic material of waking life. Strumpell seeks to isolate one of these changes as follows: (p. 17) "With the cessation of active sensory perception and of normal consciousness, the psyche is deprived of the soil in which its feelings, desires, interests, and activities are rooted. Those psychic states, feelings, interests, and valuations, which in the waking state adhere to memory-images, succumb to an obscuring pressure, in consequence of which their connection with these images is severed; the perceptual images of things, persons, localities, events and actions of the waking state are, individually, abundantly reproduced, but none of these brings with it its psychic value. Deprived of this, they hover in the mind dependent on their own resources..."

This annihilation of psychic values, which is in turn referred to a turning away from the outer world, is, according to Strumpell, very largely responsible for the impression of strangeness with which the dream is coloured in our memory.

We have seen that the very fact of falling asleep involves a renunciation of one of the psychic activities- namely, the voluntary guidance of the flow of ideas. Thus the supposition obtrudes itself (though it is in any case a natural one) that the state of sleep may extend even to the psychic functions. One or another of these functions is perhaps entirely suspended; we have now to consider whether the rest continue to operate undisturbed, whether they are able to perform their normal work under the circumstances. The idea occurs to us that the peculiarities of the dream may be explained by the restricted activity of the psyche during sleep, and the impression made by the dream upon our waking judgment tends to confirm this view. The dream is incoherent; it reconciles, without hesitation, the worst contradictions; it admits impossibilities; it disregards the authoritative knowledge of the waking state, and it shows us as ethically and morally obtuse. He who should behave in the waking state as his dreams represent him as behaving would be considered insane. He who in the waking state should speak as he does in his dreams, or relate such things as occur in his dreams, would impress us as a feeble-minded or muddle-headed person. It seems to us, then, that we are merely speaking in accordance with the facts of the case when we rate psychic activity in dreams very low, and especially when we assert that in dreams the higher intellectual activities are suspended or at least greatly impaired.

With unusual unanimity (the exceptions will be dealt with elsewhere) the writers on the subject have pronounced such judgments as lead immediately to a definite theory or explanation of dream-life. It is now time to supplement the resume which I have just given by a series of quotations from a number of authors- philosophers and physicians- bearing upon the psychological characteristics of the dream.

According to Lemoine, the incoherence of the dream-images is the sole essential characteristic of the dream.

Maury agrees with him (Le Sommeil, p. 163): "Il n'y a pas des reves absolument raisonnables et qui ne contiennent quelque incoherence, quelque absurdite." *

* There are no dreams which are absolutely reasonable which do not contain some incoherence, some absurdity.

According to Hegel, quoted by Spitta, the dream lacks any intelligible objective coherence.

Dugas says: "Les reve, c'est l'anarchie psychique, affective et mentale, c'est le jeu des fonctions livrees a elles-memes et s'exercant sans controle et sans but; dans le reve l'esprit est un automate spirituel." *

* The dream is psychic anarchy, emotional and intellectual, the playing of functions, freed of themselves and performing without control and without end; in the dream, the mind is a spiritual automaton.

"The relaxation, dissolution, and promiscuous confusion of the world of ideas and images held together in waking life by the logical power of the central ego" is conceded even by Volkelt (p. 14), according to whose theory the psychic activity during sleep appears to be by no means aimless.

The absurdity of the associations of ideas which occur in dreams can hardly be more strongly stigmatized than it was by Cicero (De Divinatione, II. lxxi): "Nihil tam praepostere, tam incondite, tam monstruose cogitari potest, quod non possimus somniare." *

* There is no imaginable thing too absurd, too involved, or too abnormal for us to dream about.

Fechner says (p. 522): "It is as though the psychological activity of the brain of a reasonable person were to migrate into that of a fool."

Radestock (p. 145): "It seems indeed impossible to recognize any stable laws in this preposterous behaviour. Withdrawing itself from the strict policing of the rational will that guides our waking ideas, and from the processes of attention, the dream, in crazy sport, whirls all things about in kaleidoscopic confusion."

Hildebrandt (p. 45): "What wonderful jumps the dreamer permits himself, for instance, in his chain of reasoning! With what unconcern he sees the most familiar laws of experience turned upside down! What ridiculous contradictions he is able to tolerate in the order of nature and of society, before things go too far, and the very excess of nonsense leads to an awakening! Sometimes we quite innocently calculate that three times three make twenty; and we are not in the least surprised if a dog recites poetry to us, if a dead person walks to his grave, or if a rock floats on the water. We solemnly go to visit the duchy of Bernburg or the principality of Liechtenstein in order to inspect its navy; or we allow ourselves to be recruited as a volunteer by Charles XII just before the battle of Poltava."

Binz (p. 33), referring to the theory of dreams resulting from these impressions, says: "Of ten dreams nine at least have an absurd content. We unite in them persons or things which do not bear the slightest relation to one another. In the next moment, as in a kaleidoscope, the grouping changes to one, if possible, even more nonsensical and irrational than before; and so the shifting play of the drowsy brain continues, until we wake, put a hand to our forehead, and ask ourselves whether we still really possess the faculty of rational imagination and thought."

Maury, Le Sommeil (p. 50) makes, in respect of the relation of the dream-image to the waking thoughts, a comparison which a physician will find especially impressive: "La production de ces images que chez l'homme eveille fait le plus souvent naitre la volonte, correspond, pour l'intelligence, a ce que sont pour la motilite certains mouvements que nous offrent la choree et les affections paralytiques...." * For the rest, he considers the dream "toute une serie de degradations de la faculte pensante et raisonnante" *(2) (p. 27).

* The production of those images which, in the waking man, most often excite the will, correspond, for the mind, to those which are, for the motility, certain movements that offer St. Vitus' dance and paralytic affections...

*(2) A whole series of degradations of the faculty of thinking and reasoning.

It is hardly necessary to cite the utterances of those authors who repeat Maury's assertion in respect of the higher individual psychic activities.

According to Strumpell, in dreams- and even, of course, where the nonsensical nature of the dream is not obvious- all the logical operations of the mind, based on relations and associations, recede into the background (p. 26). According to Spitta (p. 148) ideas in dreams are entirely withdrawn from the laws of causality; while Radestock and others emphasize the feebleness of judgment and logical inference peculiar to dreams. According to Jodl (p. 123), there is no criticism in dreams, no correcting of a series of perceptions by the content of consciousness as a whole. The same author states that "All the activities of consciousness occur in dreams, but they are imperfect, inhibited, and mutually isolated." The contradictions of our conscious knowledge which occur in dreams are explained by Stricker and many others on the ground that facts are forgotten in dreams, or that the logical relations between ideas are lost (p. 98), etc., etc.

Those authors who, in general, judge so unfavourably of the psychic activities of the dreamer nevertheless agree that dreams do retain a certain remnant of psychic activity. Wundt, whose teaching has influenced so many other investigators of dream-problems, expressly admits this. We may ask, what are the nature and composition of the remnants of normal psychic life which manifest themselves in dreams? It is pretty generally acknowledged that the reproductive faculty, the memory, seems to be the least affected in dreams; it may, indeed, show a certain superiority over the same function in waking life (see chapter I, B), even though some of the absurdities of dreams are to be explained by the forgetfulness of dream-life. According to Spitta, it is the sentimental life of the psyche which is not affected by sleep, and which thus directs our dreams. By sentiment (Gemut) he means "the constant sum of the emotions as the inmost subjective essence of the man" (p. 84).

Scholz (p. 37) sees in dreams a psychic activity which manifests itself in the "allegorizing interpretation" to which the dream-material is subjected. Siebeck (p. 11) likewise perceives in dreams a "supplementary interpretative activity" of the psyche, which applies itself to all that is observed and perceived. Any judgment of the part played in dreams by what is presumed to be the highest psychical function, i.e., consciousness, presents a peculiar difficulty. Since it is only through consciousness that we can know anything of dreams, there can be no doubt as to its being retained. Spitta, however, believes that only consciousness is retained in the dream, but not self-consciousness. Delboeuf confesses that he is unable to comprehend this distinction.

The laws of association which connect our mental images hold good also for what is represented in dreams; indeed, in dreams the dominance of these laws is more obvious and complete than in the waking state. Strumpell (p. 70) says: "Dreams would appear to proceed either exclusively in accordance with the laws of pure representation, or in accordance with the laws of organic stimuli accompanied by such representations; that is, without being influenced by reflection, reason, aesthetic taste, or moral judgment." The authors whose opinions I here reproduce conceive the formation of the dream somewhat as follows: The sum of sensory stimuli of varying origin (discussed elsewhere) that are operative in sleep at first awaken in the psyche a number of images which present themselves as hallucinations (according to Wundt, it is more correct to say "as illusions," because of their origin in external and internal stimuli). These combine with one another in accordance with the known laws of association, and, in accordance with the same laws, they in turn evoke a new series of representations (images). The whole of this material is then elaborated as far as possible by the still active remnant of the thinking and organizing faculties of the psyche (cf. Wundt and Weygandt). Thus far, however, no one has been successful in discerning the motive which would decide what particular law of association is to be obeyed by those images which do not originate in external stimuli.

But it has been repeatedly observed that the associations which connect the dream-images with one another are of a particular kind, differing from those found in the activities of the waking mind. Thus Volkelt (p. 15): "In dreams the ideas chase and seize upon one another on the strength of accidental similarities and barely perceptible connections. All dreams are pervaded by casual and unconstrained associations of this kind." Maury attaches great value to this characteristic of the connection of ideas, for it allows him to draw a closer analogy between the dream-life and certain mental derangements. He recognizes two main characteristics of "deliria": "(1) une action spontanee et comme automatique de l'esprit; (2) une association vicieuse et irreguliere des idees" * (p. 126). Maury gives us two excellent examples from his own dreams, in which the mere similarity of sound decides the connection between the dream-representations. Once he dreamed that he was on a pilgrimage (pelerinage) to Jerusalem, or to Mecca. After many adventures he found himself in the company of the chemist Pelletier; the latter, after some conversation, gave him a galvanized shovel (pelle) which became his great broadsword in the next portion of the dream (p. 137). In another dream he was walking along a highway where he read the distances on the kilometre-stones; presently he found himself at a grocer's who had a large pair of scales; a man put kilogramme weights into the scales, in order to weigh Maury; the grocer then said to him: "You are not in Paris, but on the island Gilolo." This was followed by a number of pictures, in which he saw the flower lobelia, and then General Lopez, of whose death he had read a little while previously. Finally he awoke as he was playing a game of lotto. *(2)

* (1) An action of the mind spontaneous and as though automatic; (2) a defective and irregular association of ideas.

*(2) Later on we shall be able to understand the meaning of dreams like these which are full of words with similar sounds or the same initial letters.

We are, indeed, quite well aware that this low estimate of the psychic activities of the dream has not been allowed to pass without contradiction from various quarters. Yet here contradiction would seem rather difficult. It is not a matter of much significance that one of the depreciators of dream-life, Spitta (p. 118), should assure us that the same psychological laws which govern the waking state rule the dream also, or that another (Dugas) should state: "Le reve n'est pas deraison ni meme irraison pure," * so long as neither of them has attempted to bring this opinion into harmony with the psychic anarchy and dissolution of all mental functions in the dream which they themselves have described. However, the possibility seems to have dawned upon others that the madness of the dream is perhaps not without its method- that it is perhaps only a disguise, a dramatic pretence, like that of Hamlet, to whose madness this perspicacious judgment refers. These authors must either have refrained from judging by appearances, or the appearances were, in their case, altogether different.

* The dream is neither pure derangement nor pure irrationality.

Without lingering over its superficial absurdity, Havelock Ellis considers the dream as "an archaic world of vast emotions and imperfect thoughts," the study of which may acquaint us with the primitive stages of the development of mental life. J. Sully (p. 362) presents the same conception of the dream in a still more comprehensive and penetrating fashion. His statements deserve all the more consideration when it is added that he, perhaps more than any other psychologist, was convinced of the veiled significance of the dream. "Now our dreams are a means of conserving these successive personalities. When asleep we go back to the old ways of looking at things and of feeling about them, to impulses and activities which long ago dominated us." A thinker like Delboeuf asserts- without, indeed, adducing proof in the face of contradictory data, and hence without real justification- "Dans le sommeil, hormis la perception, toutes les facultes de l'esprit, intelligence, imagination, memoire, volonte, moralite, restent intactes dans leur essence; seulement, elles s'appliquent a des objets imaginaires et mobiles. Le songeur est un acteur qui joue a volonte les fous et les sages, les bourreaux et les victimes, les nains et les geants, les demons et les anges" * (p. 222). The Marquis Hervey, *(2) who is flatly contradicted by Maury, and whose essay I have been unable to obtain despite all my efforts, appears emphatically to protest against the under-estimation of the psychic capacity in the dream. Maury speaks of him as follows (p. 19): "M. le Marquis Hervey prete a l'intelligence durant le sommeil toute sa liberte d'action et d'attention, et il ne semble faire consister le sommeil que dans l'occlusion des sens, dans leur fermeture au monde exterieur; en sorte que l'homme qui dort ne se distingue guere, selon sa maniere de voir, de l'homme qui laisse vaguer sa pensee en se bouchant les sens; toute la difference qui separe alors la pensee ordinaire du celle du dormeur c'est que, chez celui-ci, l'idee prend une forme visible, objective, et ressemble, a s'y meprendre, a la sensation determinee par les objets exterieurs; le souvenir revet l'apparence du fait present." *(3)

* In sleep, excepting perception, all the faculties of the mind intellect, imagination, memory, will, morality- remain intact in their essence; only, they are applied to imaginary and variable objects. The dreamer is an actor who plays at will the mad and the wise, executioner and victim, dwarf and giant, devil and angel.

*(2) Hervey de St. Denys.

*(3) The Marquis Hervey attributes to the intelligence during sleep all its freedom of action and attention, and he seems to make sleep consist only of the shutting of the senses, of their closing to the outside world; except for his manner of seeing, the man asleep is hardly distinguishable from the man who allows his mind to wander while he obstructs his senses; the whole difference, then, between ordinary thought and that of the sleeper, is that with the latter the idea takes an objective and visible shape, which resembles, to all appearances, sensation determined by exterior objects; memory takes on the appearance of present fact.

Maury adds, however, "qu'il y a une difference de plus et capitale a savoir que les facultes intellectuelles de l'homme endormi n'offrent pas l'equilibre qu'elles gardent chez l'homme eveille." *

* That there is a further and important difference in that the mental faculties of the sleeping man do not offer the equilibrium which they keep in the waking state.

In Vaschide, who gives us fully information as to Hervey's book, we find that this author expresses himself as follows, in respect to the apparent incoherence of dreams: "L'image du reve est la copie de l'idee. Le principal est l'idee; la vision n'est pas qu'accessoire. Ceci etabli, il faut savoir suivre la marche des idees, il faut savoir analyser le tissu des reves; l'incoherence devient alors comprehensible, les conceptions les plus fantasques deviennent des faits simples et parfaitement logiques" * (p. 146). And (p. 147): "Les reves les plus bizarres trouvent meme une explication des plus logiques quand on sait les analyser." *(2)

* The image in a dream is a copy of an idea. The main thing is the idea; the vision is only accessory. This established, it is necessary to know how to follow the progression of ideas, how to analyse the texture of the dreams; incoherence then is understandable, the most fantastic concepts become simple and perfectly logical facts.

*(2) Even the most bizarre dreams find a most logical explanation when one knows how to analyse them.

J. Starke has drawn attention to the fact that a similar solution of the incoherence of dreams was put forward in 1799 by an old writer, Wolf Davidson, who was unknown to me (p. 136): "The peculiar leaps of our imaginings in the dream-state all have their cause in the laws of association, but this connection often occurs very obscurely in the soul, so that we frequently seem to observe a leap of the imagination where none really exists."

The evaluation of the dream as a psychic product in the literature of the subject varies over a very wide scale; it extends from the extreme of under-estimation, as we have already seen, through premonitions that it may have a value as yet unrevealed, to an exaggerated over-estimation, which sets the dream-life far above the capacities of waking life. In his psychological characterization of dream-life, Hildebrandt, as we know, groups it into three antinomies, and he combines in the third of these antinomies the two extreme points of this scale of values (p. 19): "It is the contrast between, on the one hand, an enhancement, an increase of potentiality, which often amounts to virtuosity, and on the other hand a decided diminution and enfeeblement of the psychic life, often to a sub-human level."

"As regards the first, who is there that cannot confirm from his own experience the fact that in the workings and weavings of the genius of dreams, there are sometimes exhibited a profundity and sincerity of emotion, a tenderness of feeling, a clearness of view, a subtlety of observation and a readiness of wit, such as we should have modestly to deny that we always possessed in our waking life? Dreams have a wonderful poetry, an apposite allegory, an incomparable sense of humour, a delightful irony. They see the world in the light of a peculiar idealization, and often intensify the effect of their phenomena by the most ingenious understanding of the reality underlying them. They show us earthly beauty in a truly heavenly radiance, the sublime in its supremest majesty, and that which we know to be terrible in its most frightful form, while the ridiculous becomes indescribably and drastically comical. And on waking we are sometimes still so full of one of these impressions that it will occur to us that such things have never yet been offered to us by the real world."

One might here ask oneself: do these depreciatory remarks and these enthusiastic praises really refer to the self-same phenomenon? Have some writers overlooked the foolish and others the profound and sensitive dreams? And if both kinds of dreams do occur- that is, dreams that merit both these judgments- does it not seem idle to seek a psychological characterization of the dream? Would it not suffice to state that everything is possible in the dream, from the lowest degradation of the psychic life to its flight to heights unknown in the waking state? Convenient as such a solution might be, it has this against it: that behind the efforts of all the investigators of dreams there seems to lurk the assumption that there is in dreams some characteristic which is universally valid in its essential features, and which must eliminate all these contradictions.

It is unquestionably true that the mental capacities of dreams found readier and warmer recognition in the intellectual period now lying behind us, when philosophy rather than exact natural science ruled the more intelligent minds. Statements like that of Schubert, to the effect that the dream frees the mind from the power of external nature, that it liberates the soul from the chains of sensory life, together with similar opinions expressed by the younger Fichte * and others, who represent dreams as a soaring of the mind to a higher plane- all these seem hardly conceivable to us today; they are repeated at present only by mystics and devotees. *(2) With the advance of a scientific mode of thought a reaction took place in the estimation of dreams. It is the medical writers who are most inclined to underrate the psychic activity in dreams, as being insignificant and valueless; while philosophers and unprofessional observers- amateur psychologists- whose contributions to the subject in especial must not be overlooked, have for the most part, in agreement with popular belief, laid emphasis on the psychological value of dreams. Those who are inclined to underrate the psychic activity of dreams naturally show a preference for the somatic sources of excitation in the aetiology of the dream; those who admit that the dreaming mind may retain the greater part of its waking faculties naturally have no motive for denying the existence of autonomous stimulations

* Cf. Haffner and Spitta.

*(2) That brilliant mystic, Du Prel, one of the few writers for the omission of whose name in earlier editions of this book I should like to apologize, has said that, so far as the human mind is concerned, it is not the waking state but dreams which are the gateway to metaphysics (Philosophie der Mystik, p. 59).

Among the superior accomplishments which one may be tempted, even on a sober comparison, to ascribe to the dream-life, that of memory is the most impressive. We have fully discussed the by no means rare experiences which prove this superiority. Another privilege of the dream-life, often extolled by the older writers- namely, the fact that it can overstep the limitations of time and space- is easily recognized as an illusion. This privilege, as Hildebrandt remarks, is merely illusory; dreams disregard time and space only as does waking thought, and only because dreaming is itself a form of thinking. Dreams are supposed to enjoy a further advantage in respect of time- to be independent of the passage of time in yet another sense. Dreams like Maury's dream of his execution (p. 147 above) seem to show that the perceptual content which the dream can compress into a very short space of time far exceeds that which can be mastered by our psychic activity in its waking thoughts. These conclusions have, however, been disputed. The essays of Le Lorrain and Egger on The Apparent Duration of Dreams gave rise to a long and interesting discussion, which in all probability has not yet found the final explanation of this profound and delicate problem. *

* For the further literature of the subject, and a critical discussion of these problems, the reader is referred to Tobowolska's dissertation (Paris, 1900).

That dreams are able to continue the intellectual activities of the day and to carry them to a point which could not be arrived at during the day, that they may resolve doubts and problems, and that they may be the source of fresh inspiration in poets and composers, seems, in the light of numerous records, and of the collection of instances compiled by Chabaneix, to be proved beyond question. But even though the facts may be beyond dispute, their interpretation is subject to many doubts on wider grounds. *

* Compare Havelock Ellis's criticism in The World of Dreams, p. 268.

Finally, the alleged divinatory power of the dream has become a subject of contention in which almost insuperable objections are confronted by obstinate and reiterated assertions. It is, of course, right that we should refrain from denying that this view has any basis whatever in fact, since it is quite possible that a number of such cases may before long be explained on purely natural psychological grounds.

On to Chapter 1, Section F

Back to Psych Web Home Page ...or.... Top of this file.

Don't see what you need? Psych Web has over 1,000 pages, so it may be elsewhere on the site. Do a site-specific Google search using the box below.

Custom Search