What Is Latent Content in Dreams and What It Reveals, According to Freud
Janey Davies, B.A. (Hons).
September 16th, 2020.
Some dreams are so vivid and intense that we think surely, they must mean something. Well, Freud certainly thought so. But in order to analyse our dreams, we need to find the hidden meaning, in other words, the latent content.
Dream analysis and latent content
For us to understand dream analysis and latent content, I want to just have a very quick refresh of psychoanalysis and Sigmund Freud. It’ll be quick, I promise you, and it’s relevant.
Freud and the unconscious mind
Psychoanalysis is a type of talking therapy. Patients talk to therapists about their problems. However, Freud was one of the first psychiatrists to look beyond the conscious recollections of his patients.
He understood the significance of the unconscious mind. In that, it was what the patient wasn’t able to tell him that was really important.
The problem was that patients were repressing these thoughts. Not only that but many couldn’t tell their therapists because they were hidden from the patient’s own conscious mind. For reasons of trauma, guilt, or shame, these thoughts now resided in the subconscious.
So how could Freud prise them out? For the answer to that, we need to briefly recap our knowledge of Freud’s most celebrated theory – his structural model of the mind.
Id, ego, and superego
Freud proposed that our personalities comprised of the id, ego, and superego. The id is childlike and wants to satisfy its own needs. The ego is reasonable and uses logic to satisfy the id. The superego is the moral voice for the id and ego.
Now, where do these three structures sit within our conscious and unconscious minds? Crucially, Freud stipulated that the id is fully situated in our unconscious mind. The ego and superego are partially conscious.
So consider what that means. Our most basic wants, needs, and desires are always situated in our unconscious mind.
This is important because as Freud realised – everyone dreams, meaning dream analysis was a valuable resource. As such, it could provide constructive insight into a person’s subconscious mind.
“The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind.” Freud
This leads us to the two types of dream content.
The difference between manifest and latent content
Freud distinguished between two types of content in dreams:
- Manifest Content
- Latent Content
Manifest content: This is the actual content, what the dreamer remembers, the story of the dream. The manifest content is usually based on that day’s events.
Latent content: This is the hidden meaning of the dream, the underlying wish, and the most important part. This is the symbolic part of the dream.
Let’s go back to the ego for a second. When we are asleep our ego is let loose. It is free of the restrictions of our waking mind. As a result, these repressions want to bubble up and surface in our dreams.
Freud called this ‘wish-fulfilment’ or repressed wishes.
Dreams are unfulfilled wishes
These are the wants or wishes that we dare not acknowledge when we are fully conscious, so we bury them in our subconscious.
We want something we can’t have or we’ve been told we cannot have. That produces a need for the thing we can’t have and a prohibition of that need. The result is a repressed wish for it.
This is where latent content is so important because repressed wishes are always found in this level of the dream. They are also present at the manifest level, but they are camouflaged.
Freud and the dream-work
We now know that dreams have two types of content; manifest and latent. Now, we have to figure out a way to decipher the clues camouflaged in the manifest content to understand the latent content in a dream.
Freud never asked his patients to explain what they thought their dreams meant. Instead, he asked them to say whatever came into their minds with each part of the dream. This is ‘free association’.
It’s a little like being a detective with certain tools at your disposal. Remember, the dream is trying to disguise aspects of itself within the manifest content. However, it can’t help but leave these clues. Freud called this detective work the ‘dream-work‘.
Four stages of the dream-work:
Condensation is condensing several elements into one. For example, people, themes, ideas, words, images, etc. For instance, the appearance of several male figures in your dream, and the word ‘further’ could indicate the dream is about your father.
Freud noticed that some important details in the latent content were replaced by insignificant elements in the manifest content and vice versa.
Considerations of representability
This is where the detective in us is most useful. Dreams are visual, so we view them as a set of moving images. But those images are called something and when we transcribe them into words, we can infer a deeper meaning to our dream.
For instance, you can dream of a race involving rats, but until you say the word ‘rat race’, your dream will appear meaningless.
Secondary revision occurs after all the above levels have been completed. It is basically a second look at all the information now gleaned from the three processes. Secondary revision helps to form a narrative and structure of the dream.
Why latent content is so important
Freud believed that the only way we can move forward from childhood trauma, repressed desires, or unfulfilled wishes was to tap into the subconscious mind. To this end, he devised a way of using the latent content of dreams as a pathway into our subconscious.
We might recognise this as common-sense these days, but in Freud’s time, you have to remember just how ground-breaking it would have been.
Love him or hate him, Freud has developed some of the most interesting theories of the human mind. Not only that, but he has gone on to inspire many others, including Carl Jung, in the field of psychology.
Janey Davies, B.A. (Hons)
Sub-editor & staff writer at Learning Mind
Janey Davies has been published online for over 10 years. She has suffered from a panic disorder for over 30 years, which prompted her to study and receive an Honours degree in Psychology with the Open University. Janey uses the experiences of her own anxiety to offer help and advice to others dealing with mental health issues.
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