DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-V010-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 18, 2024, from

4. Content and role of dreams

What are dreams good for? Ancient philosophers often assimilated dreaming to perceiving: its function was to foresee future events, and, accordingly, its aetiology envisaged the intervention of the gods. Aristotle, conscious of the delusory content of dreams, held that they are purposeless and simply the concomitant of things purposive: they are symptomata or by-products. Modern psychology has struggled up to now inconclusively with the function of dreams. It has been conjectured that dreams are the safety-valve of an overloaded mind; that dreams are used to clear the neural network of superfluous information acquired during the time we are awake; that dreams keep the organism in a state of constant alertness; that dreams stabilize memory traces after learning; that they have the role of preserving mental identity.

Neurophysiologists often study dreams independently of all questions of content, though an ideally complete science of dreams should be able to account for this aspect, too. For whatever their nature (whether they are experiences, or pre-composed plots), it is indisputable that dreams have content and, taken at face value, a reference. They are about objects and persons, and they represent these objects and persons as having certain properties. We express the content of our dreams by using ‘that’-clauses (as in ‘I dreamt that she was ill’) in the same way in which we express the content of beliefs, of intentions that rationalize actions, of perceptual states. But the very fact that dreams have content is puzzling. The content of beliefs, intentions and perceptual states has the power to provide an explanation of other psychological states and of actions; it also expresses the satisfaction-condition for wishes. Freud suggested that the content of dreams indicates a (suppressed or repressed) wish, which the occurrence of the dream fulfils in hallucinatory fashion, and in a disguised form (see Freud, S. §4). Of course this form of wish-fulfilment is not standard, for it not only does not eliminate the ground for the wish, but it may also hinder the latter’s being satisfied (if your wish is to drink, your dream that you drink may prevent you from waking up and actually drinking). A function should be found, then, for these vicarious and incomplete wish-fulfillings exemplified by dreams. Freud’s account of the role of the dream, an account which accommodates its having the content it has, is to protect our sleep from being disturbed by a troublesome wish. A persisting wish, repressed beneath the threshold of consciousness, associates with some occasional thoughts or impressions, and surfaces during sleep. Because this wish would be intolerable to the dreamer, and would disturb their sleep, its ‘latent content’ receives an elaboration and becomes ‘manifest’ in an acceptable, non-disturbing form.

It should finally be noted that a less ambitious theory constructed along Aristotelian lines could ascribe a primary, physiological function to dreams, and a secondary, concomitant function associated with their content. The empirical discovery that dreams have a certain purely neurophysiological function by no means excludes the proposition that they also fulfil, in subordination thereto, a commonsense psychological function which necessarily involves their content.

Citing this article:
Casati, Roberto. Content and role of dreams. Dreaming, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-V010-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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