The Dream Wish and Unconscious Intentionality

As in waking life, past, present, and future time are represented in a dream, but the dreamer is only conscious of the present time of the dream narrative. The past in the dream remains unconscious, and the memories enlisted by the dream may refer to the immediate past, as represented by images from the previous day, or the distant past of childhood. If the dream is an expression of intentionality, there is an implicit reference to the future, which may take the form of reference to actions to be taken on the following day or in the more distant future.

Thomas Aquinas defined an intent as action toward some future goal that is defined and chosen by the actor. An unconscious dream wish, as a potential action, would satisfy this definition and could be taken as an expression of inten-tionality. Sleep researchers Greenberg, Katz, et al. (1992) have demonstrated that dreams are problem solving and represent an attempt to adapt to the demands of life experiences. We should not forget that Freud dreamt his Botanical Monograph dream in 1898, when he was working to complete his book on dreams. It can be safely assumed that the dream of the Botanical Monograph was dreamt for The Interpretation of Dreams. That is to say, the dream of the Botanical Monograph reflects an unconscious intent to dream a dream that would serve as a confirmatory illustration for The Interpretation of Dreams. This does not negate the validity of Freud's associations to the dream; it merely indicates that he needed this dream for his career and to allay his fears of nonrecognition. The dream wish represented an intended action in the world.

Something similar occurs when patients in psychoanalysis dream dreams for the analysis itself, in anticipation of the events of the following day, when the dream will be recounted to the analyst. For a patient in analysis, dreams are seldom, if ever, impersonal "noise"; they are invariably self-referential and intentional. When there is a positive relationship with the analyst and when resistance to the work tends to be diminishing, dreams may be rich in meaning and relatively accessible to interpretation. Conversely, analysts are well acquainted with the so-called "resistance dream," which tends to be long winded and difficult, if not impossible, to interpret.

To summarize, the unconscious intentionality of dreams may include a "snapshot" that reflects the dreamer's internal psychic state of the preceding day. This repeats an observation that W. R. D. Fairbairn made 50 years ago. He said, "Dreams are essentially not wish fulfillments, but dramatizations or 'shorts' [in the cinematographic sense] of situations existing in inner reality" (Fairbairn 1952). The dream may be a warning message from a split-off part of the dreamer's self. Dreams may anticipate a problem or task that the following day will present. Or the intentionality of the dream may be, as Freud believed, to preserve sleep. A familiar example of the wish to preserve sleep is the urination dream, in which the dreamer, in response to a full bladder, dreams that he is urinating.

Dreaming cannot be explained by reference to a single psychological function. There is an enormous variability in the use that an individual will make of the dream process. Some dreams may reflect unconscious intentionality, while others, as some have claimed, may be merely the neuro-physiological "noise" that accompanies the retranscription of the previous day's memories. These dreams may represent the by-products of a reintegration of memory. Each one of us may dream in our own particular way, and the use we make of dreaming will differ during different nights, depending on what remains to be processed from the previous day's experiences. This makes it impossible to assign a single, uniform function to dreaming.

We should also be aware of the danger of confusing the meaning of a dream with the function of dreaming. Searching for the neural correlates of dream censorship and assuming that there are neural correlates that would differentiate the manifest and latent content of a dream seem to me to be misplaced. For example, some neuroscientists (Braun 1999) claim that dreams have no latent content but only manifest content. Differentiating between latent and manifest content can be demonstrated in Freud's dream of the Botanical Monograph, but it requires psychological free association (either that of Freud himself or that of the reader). It is an explanation that is possible only at the level of psychology and does not translate into neurophysiology. We should not expect to find neural correlates of manifest and latent dream thoughts or of dream censorship. It is only for the process of dreaming that we may expect to find an explanation in neurophysiology.

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