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Wisdom, J.O. (1949). A Hypothesis to Explain Trauma-Re-Enactment Dreams. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 30:13-20.

(1949). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 30:13-20

A Hypothesis to Explain Trauma-Re-Enactment Dreams

J. O. Wisdom


The general problem is whether we can understand all dreams, from those that are (i) wholly pleasurable, (ii) more or less so, and (iii) of an anxiety kind, to those that (iv) re-enact a trauma, as fulfilments of pleasure-needs. Some dreams do not fulfil such needs. If we claim that fulfilment is attempted, the attempt must be made by the dream-work.

What interferes with the attempt is a 'punishment-need'—and punishment-needs, like pleasure-needs, have childhood sources. The use of this concept, instead of 'attempted pleasure-need-fulfilment', enables us to describe all dreams in terms of need-fulfilments.

This clearly covers the fourth class, consisting of trauma-re-enactment dreams; the question is, however, whether these dreams also spring from pleasure-needs. Such dreams express no discernible pleasure-need and apparently contain no distortion. If we form the hypothesis that they do spring from an attempt at pleasure-need-fulfilment, a coherent account of them can be given. The absence of manifest distortion means that the supposed pleasure-need and the evident punishment-need are expressed in the same content, so that there is a common aim of both needs (destruction) and a nearly common object (the enemy object identified with the self, or part of it). Thus the hypothesis consists of three parts, concerning the existence of pleasure-need, common aim of pleasure- and punishment-needs, and (nearly) common object. Such dreams contain distortion, however, in the full analytic sense, for the object and self are distorted in expression by Condensation and by Displacement or Symbolization. Of this hypothesis there is a clinical application equivalent to an interpretation in terms of an 'internal battle'. The repetition of trauma-re-enactment dreams is a subsidiary problem.

This hypothesis therefore allows us after all to say, "All dreams are attempted pleasure-need fulfilments."

It is necessary to enquire how the functions of the dream-work fit into this framework. A dream arises not from the mechanisms of distortion but only from Perceptualization. To account for the greater degree of pleasurable affect found in the manifest content than in the latent content, we form the hypothesis that Perceptualization begins with pleasurable material, but that unpleasurable material, being associated with it, becomes expressed somewhat later.

The aim of this is sleep-preservation. The pleasurable content is perceptualized in order to provide an 'environment' for the sleeper in opposition to a physical stimulus, external or in the body, and in opposition to the unpleasure of punishment-needs. This description holds also for trauma-re-enactment dreams, though the duration of pleasurable Perceptualization would probably be very short. The main weight of the task of sleep-preservation is placed on the mechanism of Perceptualization.

The fundamental hypothesis that dreams are need-fulfilments or attempted pleasure-need-fulfilments may be formulated as follows: A dream or Perceptualization during sleep is either an undistorted Perceptualization of the fulfilment of pleasure-needs alone, or a Perceptualization of them distorted by Condensation, Displacement, and Symbolization and modified by Secondary Elaboration, in both cases to preserve sleep against disturbance by a physical stimulus whether external or in the body, OR a Perceptualization of both pleasure- and punishment-needs, distorted by the same distortion mechanisms, to reduce pressure from the punishment-needs by distortion of all needs and by initial Perceptualization of the pleasure-needs alone, with the aim of preserving sleep against disturbance by punishment-needs aroused by the unperceptualized pleasure-needs.

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