Study Guide

The Interpretation of Dreams Chapter 7, Section B

By Sigmund Freud

Chapter 7, Section B

Regression

  • Having established his defence, Freud now braces himself and his readers for the hard task ahead—that is, "the psychological investigations for which we have so long been arming ourselves" (7.3.1).
  • Returning to the dream with which he opened the chapter—the one of the burning child—Freud now argues that an additional wish provoked the dream. He defers this discussion for the time being, though, and goes on to consider the ways in which the dream turned "a thought of something that is wished" into a "scene" or "experience" (7.3.2-3).
  • Freud examines the theories of other writers who have commented on this topic, and he attempts to chart the psychological territory that gives rise to dreams.
  • In order to help his readers understand his view of psychological processes, Freud proposes that "we should picture the instrument which carries out our mental functions as resembling a compound microscope or a photographic apparatus, or something of that kind" (7.3.9).
  • Why this analogy? Because these devices create images through the interaction of multiple lenses that, together, reflect a unified image.
  • In Freud's model, "agencies" or "systems" in the mind are like the various lenses of a microscope or "photographic apparatus" (7.3.10). Although they may not stand in a spatial relation to one another in the same way that lenses in a microscope, telescope, or camera do, Freud argues that "in a given psychological process the excitation passes through the systems in a particular temporal sequence" (7.3.10).
  • From this point on, Freud uses the Greek letter "ψ" ("psi") as a short-form for "psychical," and so refers to these psychical systems as "ψ-systems" (7.3.10).
  • Freud argues that our mental apparatus, which is "compounded of ψ-systems," "has a sense of direction"—which is to say that "our psychical activity starts from stimuli (whether internal or external) and ends in innervations" (7.3.11).
  • As editor James Strachey notes, what Freud means by "innervations" is "the transmission of energy into a system of nerves"—or, more simply, a discharge of energy (source).
  • Over the next few pages (7.2.13-19), Freud elaborates on this "directional" model of psychical systems. Ultimately, his goal is to build a model of human cognition that explains the existence of the unconscious—that is, a model that demonstrates how certain wishes, experiences, thoughts, memories, and desires can exist at one "level" of our minds while remaining virtually unknown to other "levels."
  • As Freud assigns names to the various psychical systems he discusses, we learn of the "perceptual" system, the "unconscious," the "preconscious," and the "conscious."
  • Freud's view is that impressions begin by being registered in the perceptual system. According to him, the perceptual system doesn't make memories; it simply registers experiences.
  • In Freud's view, memories are made elsewhere, by passing through the unconscious to the conscious.
  • Freud's discussion of "regression"—the main topic of this section—concerns hallucinatory dreams like the dream of the burning child. Having now established a basic model of psychical systems, he argues that dreams are made when thoughts pass from the unconscious or preconscious into consciousness while we sleep.
  • In hallucinatory dreams, on the other hand, something very different happens. Rather than passing from the unconscious or preconscious into consciousness, thoughts move back into the perceptual system instead (7.3.20).
  • Since the perceptual system is point zero for Freud—the point of entrance for all impressions—when a thought moves from the unconscious or preconscious toward the perceptual system, it can be seen as moving in a backwards or "regressive" direction (7.3.21).
  • Freud isn't saying that this is unusual: for him, it's simply the basic process through which dreams transform thoughts and wishes into sensory images. In fact, he says that it not only happens in dreams, but in much of our "normal thinking," as well (7.3.22).
  • As he illustrates these points, Freud offers some "extreme" examples of hallucinatory dreams (and waking experiences) that he has observed in "hysterical" patients (7.3.26-28).
  • In Freud's view, one of the reasons why unconscious thoughts get redirected toward the perceptual system rather than the conscious is because of the resistance they encounter (7.3.31).
  • Another reason is "the attraction which memories couched in visual form and eager for revival bring to bear upon thoughts cut off from consciousness and struggling to find expression" (7.3.29).
  • One of the most crucial conclusions that Freud reaches in this section is that "dreaming is on the whole an example of regression to the dreamer's earliest condition, a revival of his childhood, of the instinctual impulses which dominated it and of the methods of expression which were then available to him" (7.2.33).
  • Not only that, but Freud argues that this aspect of dreaming gives us a window into "the development of the human race" (7.2.33).
  • In Freud's view, the individual development of every human being from childhood to adulthood is like an "abbreviated," microcosmic narrative of humanity's development from "primitivism" to "civilization" (7.2.33).
  • Freud says that "we may expect that the analysis of dreams will lead us to a knowledge of man's archaic heritage, of what is physically innate in him" (7.2.33).

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