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Robbins, M. (2004). Another Look at Dreaming: Disentangling Freud's Primary and Secondary Process Theories. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 52(2):355-384.

(2004). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 52(2):355-384

Another Look at Dreaming: Disentangling Freud's Primary and Secondary Process Theories

Michael Robbins

The Interpretation of Dreams contains Freud's first and most complete articulation of the primary and secondary mental processes that serve as a framework for the workings of mind, conscious and unconscious. While it is generally believed that Freud proposed a single theory of dreaming, based on the primary process, a number of ambiguities, inconsistencies, and contradictions reflect an incomplete differentiation of the parts played by the two mental processes in dreaming. It is proposed that two radically different hypotheses about dreaming are embedded in Freud's work. The one implicit in classical dream interpretation is based on the assumption that dreams, like waking language, are representational, and are made up of symbols connected to latent unconscious thoughts. Whereas the symbols that constitute waking language are largely verbal and only partly unconscious, those that constitute dreams are presumably more thoroughly disguised and represented as arcane hallucinated hieroglyphs. From this perspective, both the language of the dream and that of waking life are secondary process manifestations. Interpretation of the dream using the secondary process model involves the assumption of a linear two-way “road” connecting manifest and latent aspects, which in one direction involves the work of dream construction and in the other permits the associative process of decoding and interpretation. Freud's more revolutionary hypothesis, whose implications he did not fully elaborate, is that dreams are the expression of a primary mental process that differs qualitatively from waking thought and hence are incomprehensible through a secondary process model. This seems more adequately to account for what is now known about dreaming, and is more consistent with the way dream interpretation is ordinarily conducted in clinical practice. Recognition that dreams are qualitatively distinctive expressions of mind may help to restore dreaming to its privileged position as a unique source of mental status information.

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