The Interpretation of Dreams

Author: Sigmund Freud  | Date: 1900

B. Regression

Now that we have defended ourselves against the objections raised, or have at least indicated our weapons of defence, we must no longer delay entering upon the psychological investigations for which we have so long been preparing. Let us summarize the main results of our recent investigations: The dream is a psychic act full of import; its motive power is invariably a wish craving fulfilment; the fact that it is unrecognizable as a wish, and its many peculiarities and absurdities, are due to the influence of the psychic censorship to which it has been subjected during its formation. Besides the necessity of evading the censorship, the following factors have played a part in its formation: first, a need for condensing the psychic material; second, regard for representability in sensory images; and third (though not constantly), regard for a rational and intelligible exterior of the dream-structure. From each of these propositions a path leads onward to psychological postulates and assumptions. Thus, the reciprocal relation of the wish-motives, and the four conditions. as well as the mutual relations of these conditions, must now be investigated; the dream must be inserted in the context of the psychic life.

At the beginning of this section we cited a certain dream in order that it might remind us of the problems that are still unsolved. The interpretation of this dream (of the burning child) presented no difficulties, although in the analytical sense it was not given in full. We asked ourselves why, after all, it was necessary that the father should dream instead of waking, and we recognized the wish to represent the child as living as a motive of the dream. That there was yet another wish operative in the dream we shall be able to show after further discussion. For the present, however, we may say that for the sake of the wish-fulfilment the thought-process of sleep was transformed into a dream.

If the wish-fulfilment is cancelled out, only one characteristic remains which distinguishes the two kinds of psychic events. The dream-thought would have been: "I see a glimmer coming from the room in which the body is lying. Perhaps a candle has fallen over, and the child is burning!" The dream reproduces the result of this reflection unchanged, but represents it in a situation which exists in the present and is perceptible by the senses like an experience of the waking state. This, however, is the most common and the most striking psychological characteristic of the dream; a thought, usually the one wished for, is objectified in the dream, and represented as a scene, or- as we think- experienced.

But how are we now to explain this characteristic peculiarity of the dream-work, or- to put it more modestly- how are we to bring it into relation with the psychic processes?

On closer examination, it is plainly evident that the manifest form of the dream is marked by two characteristics which are almost independent of each other. One is its representation as a present situation with the omission of perhaps; the other is the translation of the thought into visual images and speech.

The transformation to which the dream-thoughts are subjected because the expectation is put into the present tense is, perhaps, in this particular dream not so very striking. This is probably due to the special and really subsidiary role of the wish-fulfilment in this dream. Let us take another dream, in which the dream-wish does not break away from the continuation of the waking thoughts in sleep; for example, the dream of Irma’s injection. Here the dream-thought achieving representation is in the conditional: "If only Otto could be blamed for Irma’s illness!" The dream suppresses the conditional, and replaces it by a simple present tense: "Yes, Otto is to blame for Irma’s illness." This, then, is the first of the transformations which even the undistorted dream imposes on the dream-thoughts. But we will not linger over this first peculiarity of the dream. We dispose of it by a reference to the conscious phantasy, the day-dream, which behaves in a similar fashion with its conceptual content. When Daudet’s M. Joyeuse wanders unemployed through the streets of Paris while his daughter is led to believe that he has a post and is sitting in his office, he dreams, in the present tense, of circumstances that might help him to obtain a recommendation and employment. The dream, then, employs the present tense in the same manner and with the same right as the day-dream. The present is the tense in which the wish is represented as fulfilled.

The second quality peculiar to the dream alone, as distinguished from the day-dream, is that the conceptual content is not thought, but is transformed into visual images, to which we give credence, and which we believe that we experience. Let us add. however, that not all dreams show this transformation of ideas into visual images. There are dreams which consist solely of thoughts, but we cannot on that account deny that they are substantially dreams. My dream Autodidasker- the day-phantasy about Professor N is of this character; it is almost as free of visual elements as though I had thought its content during the day. Moreover, every long dream contains elements which have not undergone this transformation into the visual, and which are simply thought or known as we are wont to think or know in our waking state. And we must here reflect that this transformation of ideas into visual images does not occur in dreams alone, but also in hallucinations and visions, which may appear spontaneously in health, or as symptoms in the psychoneuroses. In brief, the relation which we are here investigating is by no means an exclusive one; the fact remains, however, that this characteristic of the dream, whenever it occurs, seems to be its most noteworthy characteristic, so that we cannot think of the dream-life without it. To understand it, however, requires a very exhaustive discussion.

Among all the observations relating to the theory of dreams to be found in the literature of the subject, I should like to lay stress upon one as being particularly worthy of mention. The famous G. T. H. Fechner makes the conjecture, * in a discussion as to the nature of the dreams, that the dream is staged elsewhere than in the waking ideation. No other assumption enables us to comprehend the special peculiarities of the dream-life.

* Psychophysik, Part. II, p. 520.

The idea which is thus put before us is one of psychic locality. We shall wholly ignore the fact that the psychic apparatus concerned is known to us also as an anatomical preparation, and we shall carefully avoid the temptation to determine the psychic locality in any anatomical sense. We shall remain on psychological ground, and we shall do no more than accept the invitation to think of the instrument which serves the psychic activities much as we think of a compound microscope, a photographic camera, or other apparatus. The psychic locality, then, corresponds to a place within such an apparatus in which one of the preliminary phases of the image comes into existence. As is well known, there are in the microscope and the telescope such ideal localities or planes, in which no tangible portion of the apparatus is located. I think it superfluous to apologize for the imperfections of this and all similar figures. These comparisons are designed only to assist us in our attempt to make intelligible the complication of the psychic performance by dissecting it and referring the individual performances to the individual components of the apparatus. So far as I am aware, no attempt has yet been made to divine the construction of the psychic instrument by means of such dissection. I see no harm in such an attempt; I think that we should give free rein to our conjectures, provided we keep our heads and do not mistake the scaffolding for the building. Since for the first approach to any unknown subject we need the help only of auxiliary ideas, we shall prefer the crudest and most tangible hypothesis to all others.

Accordingly, we conceive the psychic apparatus as a compound instrument, the component parts of which we shall call instances, or, for the sake of clearness, systems. We shall then anticipate that these systems may perhaps maintain a constant spatial orientation to one another, very much as do the different and successive systems of lenses of a telescope. Strictly speaking, there is no need to assume an actual spatial arrangement of the psychic system. It will be enough for our purpose if a definite sequence is established, so that in certain psychic events the system will be traversed by the excitation in a definite temporal order. This order may be different in the case of other processes; such a possibility is left open. For the sake of brevity, we shall henceforth speak of the component parts of the apparatus as Psi-systems.

The first thing that strikes us is the fact that the apparatus composed of Psi-systems has a direction. All our psychic activities proceed from (inner or outer) stimuli and terminate in innervations. We thus ascribe to the apparatus a sensory and a motor end; at the sensory end we find a system which receives the perceptions, ind at the motor end another which opens the sluices of motility. The psychic process generally runs from the perceptive end to the motor end. The most general scheme of the psychic apparatus has therefore the following appearance as shown in Fig. 1. (See illustration.) But this is only in compliance with the requirement, long familiar to us, that the psychic apparatus must be constructed like a reflex apparatus. The reflex act remains the type of every psychic activity as well.

We now have reason to admit a first differentiation at the sensory end. The percepts that come to us leave in our psychic apparatus a trace, which we may call a memory-trace. The function related to this memory-trace we call the memory. If we hold seriously to our resolution to connect the psychic processes into systems, the memory-trace can consist only of lasting changes in the elements of the systems. But, as has already been shown elsewhere, obvious difficulties arise when one and the same system is faithfully to preserve changes in its elements and still to remain fresh and receptive in respect of new occasions of change. In accordance with the principle which is directing our attempt, we shall therefore ascribe these two functions to two different systems. We assume that an initial system of this apparatus receives the stimuli of perception but retains nothing of them- that is, it has no memory; and that behind this there lies a second system, which transforms the momentary excitation of the first into lasting traces. The following would then be the diagram of our psychic apparatus: (See illustration.)

We know that of the percepts which act upon the P-system, we retain permanently something else as well as the content itself. Our percepts prove also to be connected with one another in the memory, and this is especially so if they originally occurred simultaneously. We call this the fact of association. It is now clear that, if the P-system is entirely lacking in memory, it certainly cannot preserve traces for the associations; the individual P-elements would be intolerably hindered in their functioning if a residue of a former connection should make its influence felt against a new perception. Hence we must rather assume that the memory-system is the basis of association. The fact of association, then, consists in this- that in consequence of a lessening of resistance and a smoothing of the ways from one of the mem-elements, the excitation transmits itself to a second rather than to a third mem-element.

On further investigation we find it necessary to assume not one but many such mem-systems, in which the same excitation transmitted by the P-elements undergoes a diversified fixation. The first of these mem-systems will in any case contain the fixation of the association through simultaneity, while in those lying farther away the same material of excitation will be arranged according to other forms of combination; so that relationships of similarity, etc., might perhaps be represented by these later systems. It would, of course, be idle to attempt to express in words the psychic significance of such a system. Its characteristic would lie in the intimacy of its relations to elements of raw material of memory- that is (if we wish to hint at a more comprehensive theory) in the gradations of the conductive resistance on the way to these elements.

An observation of a general nature, which may possibly point to something of importance, may here be interpolated. The P-system, which possesses no capacity for preserving changes, and hence no memory, furnishes to consciousness the complexity and variety of the sensory qualities. Our memories, on the other hand, are unconscious in themselves; those that are most deeply impressed form no exception. They can be made conscious, but there is no doubt that they unfold all their activities in the unconscious state. What we term our character is based, indeed, on the memory-traces of our impressions, and it is precisely those impressions that have affected us most strongly, those of our early youth, which hardly ever become conscious. But when memories become conscious again they show no sensory quality, or a very negligible one in comparison with the perceptions. If, now, it can be confirmed that for consciousness memory and quality are mutually exclusive in the Psi-systems, we have gained a most promising insight into the determinations of the neuron excitations. *

* Since writing this, I have thought that consciousness occurs actually in the locality of the memory-trace.

What we have so far assumed concerning the composition of the psychic apparatus at the sensible end has been assumed regardless of dreams and of the psychological explanations which we have hitherto derived from them. Dreams, however, will serve as a source of evidence for our knowledge of another part of the apparatus. We have seen that it was impossible to explain dream-formation unless we ventured to assume two psychic instances, one of which subjected the activities of the other to criticism, the result of which was exclusion from consciousness.

We have concluded that the criticizing instance maintains closer relations with the consciousness than the instance criticized. It stands between the latter and the consciousness like a screen. Further, we have found that there is reason to identify the criticizing instance with that which directs our waking life and determines our voluntary conscious activities. If, in accordance with our assumptions, we now replace these instances by systems, the criticizing system will therefore be moved to the motor end. We now enter both systems in our diagram, expressing, by the names given them, their relation to consciousness. (See illustration.)

The last of the systems at the motor end we call the preconscious (Pcs.) to denote that the exciting processes in this system can reach consciousness without any further detention, provided certain other conditions are fulfilled, e.g., the attainment of a definite degree of intensity, a certain apportionment of that function which we must call attention, etc. This is at the same time the system which holds the keys of voluntary motility. The system behind it we call the unconscious (Ucs), because it has no access to consciousness except through the preconscious, in the passage through which the excitation-process must submit to certain changes. *

* The further elaboration of this linear diagram will have to reckon with the assumption that the system following the Pcs represents the one to which we must attribute consciousness (Cs), so that P = Cs.

In which of these systems, then, do we localize the impetus to dream-formation? For the sake of simplicity, let us say in the system Ucs. We shall find, it is true, in subsequent discussions, that this is not altogether correct; that dream-formation is obliged to make connection with dream-thoughts which belong to the system of the preconscious. But we shall learn elsewhere, when we come to deal with the dream-wish, that the motive-power of the dream is furnished by the Ucs, and on account of this factor we shall assume the unconscious system as the starting-point for dream-formation. This dream-excitation, like all the other thought-structures, will now strive to continue itself in the Pcs, and thence to gain admission to the consciousness.

Experience teaches us that the path leading through the preconscious to consciousness is closed to the dream-thoughts during the day by the resisting censorship. At night they gain admission to consciousness; the question arises: In what way and because of what changes? If this admission were rendered possible to the dream-thoughts by the weakening, during the night, of the resistance watching on the boundary between the unconscious and the preconscious, we should then have dreams in the material of our ideas, which would not display the hallucinatory character that interests us at present.

The weakening of the censorship between the two systems, Ucs and Pcs, can explain to us only such dreams as the Autodidasker dream but not dreams like that of the burning child, which- as will be remembered- we stated as a problem at the outset in our present investigations.

What takes place in the hallucinatory dream we can describe in no other way than by saying that the excitation follows a retrogressive course. It communicates itself not to the motor end of the apparatus, but to the sensory end, and finally reaches the system of perception. If we call the direction which the psychic process follows from the unconscious into the waking state progressive, we may then speak of the dream as having a regressive character. *

* The first indication of the element of regression is already encountered in the writings of Albertus Magnus. According to him the imaginatio constructs the dream out of the tangible objects which it has retained. The process is the converse of that operating in the waking state. Hobbes states (Leviathan, ch. 2): "In sum our dreams are the reverse of our imagination, the motion, when we are awake, beginning at one end, and when we dream at another" (quoted by Havelock Ellis, loc. cit., p. 112).

This regression is therefore assuredly one of the most important psychological peculiarities of the dream-process; but we must not forget that it is not characteristic of the dream alone. Intentional recollection and other component processes of our normal thinking likewise necessitate a retrogression in the psychic apparatus from some complex act of ideation to the raw material of the memory-traces which underlie it. But during the waking state this turning backwards does not reach beyond the memory-images; it is incapable of producing the hallucinatory revival of the perceptual images. Why is it otherwise in dreams? When we spoke of the condensation-work of the dream we could not avoid the assumption that by the dream-work the intensities adhering to the ideas are completely transferred from one to another. It is probably this modification of the usual psychic process which makes possible the cathexis * of the system of P to its full sensory vividness in the reverse direction to thinking.

* From the Greek Kathexo, to occupy, used here in place of the author’s term Besetzung, to signify a charge or investment of energy.- TR.

I hope that we are not deluding ourselves as regards the importance of this present discussion. We have done nothing more than give a name to an inexplicable phenomenon. We call it regression if the idea in the dream is changed back into the visual image from which it once originated. But even this step requires justification. Why this definition if it does not teach us anything new? Well, I believe that the word regression is of service to us, inasmuch as it connects a fact familiar to us with the scheme of the psychic apparatus endowed with direction. At this point, and for the first time, we shall profit by the fact that we have constructed such a scheme. For with the help of this scheme we shall perceive, without further reflection, another peculiarity of dream-formation. If we look upon the dream as a process of regression within the hypothetical psychic apparatus, we have at once an explanation of the empirically proven fact that all thought-relations of the dream-thoughts are either lost in the dream-work or have difficulty in achieving expression. According to our scheme, these thought-relations are contained not in the first mem-systems, but in those lying farther to the front, and in the regression to the perceptual images they must forfeit expression. In regression, the structure of the dream-thoughts breaks up into its raw material.

But what change renders possible this regression which is impossible during the day? Let us here be content with an assumption. There must evidently be changes in the cathexis of the individual systems, causing the latter to become more accessible or inaccessible to the discharge of the excitation; but in any such apparatus the same effect upon the course of the excitation might be produced by more than one kind of change. We naturally think of the. sleeping state, and of the many cathectic changes which this evokes at the sensory end of the apparatus. During the day there is a continuous stream flowing from the Psi-system of the P toward the motility end; this current ceases at night, and can no longer block the flow of the current of excitation in the opposite direction. This would appear to be that seclusion from the outer world which, according to the theory of some writers, is supposed to explain the psychological character of the dream. In the explanation of the regression of the dream we shall, however, have to take into account those other regressions which occur during morbid waking states. In these other forms of regression the explanation just given plainly leaves us in the lurch. Regression occurs in spite of the uninterrupted sensory current in a progressive direction.

The hallucinations of hysteria and paranoia, as well as the visions of mentally normal persons, I would explain as corresponding, in fact, to regressions, i.e., to thoughts transformed into images; and would assert that only such thoughts undergo this transformation as are in intimate connection with suppressed memories, or with memories which have remained unconscious. As an example, I will cite the case of one of my youngest hysterical patients- a boy of twelve, who was prevented from falling asleep by "green faces with red eyes," which terrified him. The source of this manifestation was the suppressed, but once conscious memory of a boy whom he had often seen four years earlier, and who offered a warning example of many bad habits, including masturbation, for which he was now reproaching himself. At that time his mother had noticed that the complexion of this ill-mannered boy was greenish and that he had red (i.e., red-rimmed) eyes. Hence his terrifying vision, which merely determined his recollection of another saying of his mother’s, to the effect that such boys become demented, are unable to learn anything at school, and are doomed to an early death. A part of this prediction came true in the case of my little patient; he could not get on at school, and, as appeared from his involuntary associations, he was in terrible dread of the remainder of the prophecy. However, after a brief period of successful treatment his sleep was restored, his anxiety removed, and he finished his scholastic year with an excellent record.

Here I may add the interpretation of a vision described to me by an hysterical woman of forty, as having occurred when she was in normal health. One morning she opened her eyes and saw her brother in the room, although she knew him to be confined in an insane asylum. Her little son was asleep by her side. Lest the child should be frightened on seeing his uncle, and fall into convulsions, she pulled the sheet over his face. This done, the phantom disappeared. This apparition was the revision of one of her childish memories, which, although conscious, was most intimately connected with all the unconscious material in her mind. Her nurserymaid had told her that her mother, who had died young (my patient was then only eighteen months old), had suffered from epileptic or hysterical convulsions, which dated back to a fright caused by her brother (the patient’s uncle) who appeared to her disguised as a spectre with a sheet over his head. The vision contains the same elements as the reminiscence, viz., the appearance of the brother, the sheet, the fright, and its effect. These elements, however, are arranged in a fresh context, and are transferred to other persons. The obvious motive of the vision, and the thought which it replaced, was her solicitude lest her little son, who bore a striking resemblance to his uncle, should share the latter’s fate.

Both examples here cited are not entirely unrelated to the state of sleep, and may for that reason be unfitted to afford the evidence for the sake of which I have cited them. I will, therefore, refer to my analysis of an hallucinatory paranoic woman patient * and to the results of my hitherto unpublished studies on the psychology of the psychoneuroses, in order to emphasize the fact that in these cases of regressive thought-transformation one must not overlook the influence of a suppressed memory, or one that has remained unconscious, this being usually of an infantile character. This memory draws into the regression, as it were, the thoughts with which it is connected, and which are kept from expression by the censorship- that is, into that form of representation in which the memory itself is psychically existent. And here I may add, as a result of my studies of hysteria, that if one succeeds in bringing to consciousness infantile scenes (whether they are recollections or phantasies) they appear as hallucinations, and are divested of this character only when they are communicated. It is known also that even in persons whose memories are not otherwise visual, the earliest infantile memories remain vividly visual until late in life.

* Selected Papers on Hysteria, "Further Observations on the Defence-Neuro-Psychoses," p. 97 above.

If, now, we bear in mind the part played in the dream-thoughts by the infantile experiences, or by the phantasies based upon them, and recollect how often fragments of these re-emerge in the dream-content, and how even the dream-wishes often proceed from them, we cannot deny the probability that in dreams, too, the transformation of thoughts into visual images may be the result of the attraction exercised by the visually represented memory, striving for resuscitation, upon the thoughts severed from the consciousness and struggling for expression. Pursuing this conception. we may further describe the dream as the substitute for the infantile scene modified by transference to recent material. The infantile scene cannot enforce its own revival, and must therefore be satisfied to return as a dream.

This reference to the significance of the infantile scenes (or of their phantastic repetitions) as in a certain degree furnishing the pattern for the dream-content renders superfluous the assumption made by Scherner and his pupils concerning inner sources of stimuli. Scherner assumes a state of visual excitation, of internal excitation in the organ of sight, when the dreams manifest a special vividness or an extraordinary abundance of visual elements. We need raise no objection to this assumption; we may perhaps content ourselves with assuming such a state of excitation only for the psychic perceptive system of the organ of vision; we shall, however, insist that this state of excitation is a reanimation by the memory of a former actual visual excitation. I cannot, from my own experience, give a good example showing such an influence of an infantile memory; my own dreams are altogether less rich in perceptual elements than I imagine those of others to be; but in my most beautiful and most vivid dream of late years I can easily trace the hallucinatory distinctness of the dream-contents to the visual qualities of recently received impressions. In chapter VI., H, I mentioned a dream in which the dark blue of the water, the brown of the smoke issuing from the ship’s funnels, and the sombre brown and red of the buildings which I saw made a profound and lasting impression upon my mind. This dream, if any, must be attributed to visual excitation, but what was it that had brought my organ of vision into this excitable state? It was a recent impression which had joined itself to a series of former impressions. The colours I beheld were in the first place those of the toy blocks with which my children had erected a magnificent building for my admiration, on the day preceding the dream. There was the sombre red on the large blocks, the blue and brown on the small ones. Joined to these were the colour impressions of my last journey in Italy: the beautiful blue of the Isonzo and the lagoons, the brown hue of the Alps. The beautiful colours seen in the dream were but a repetition of those seen in memory.

Let us summarize what we have learned about this peculiarity of dreams: their power of recasting their idea-content in visual images. We may not have explained this character of the dream-work by referring it to the known laws of psychology, but we have singled it out as pointing to unknown relations, and have given it the name of the regressive character. Wherever such regression has occurred, we have regarded it as an effect of the resistance which opposes the progress of thought on its normal way to consciousness, and of the simultaneous attraction exerted upon it by vivid memories. * The regression in dreams is perhaps facilitated by the cessation of the progressive stream flowing from the sense-organs during the day; for which auxiliary factor there must be some compensation, in the other forms of regression, by the strengthening of the other regressive motives. We must also bear in mind that in pathological cases of regression, just as in dreams, the process of energy-transference must be different from that occurring in the regressions of normal psychic life, since it renders possible a full hallucinatory cathexis of the perceptive system. What we have described in the analysis of the dream-work as regard for representability may be referred to the selective attraction of visually remembered scenes touched by the dream-thoughts.

* In a statement of the theory of repression it should be explained that a thought passes into repression owing to the co-operation of two of the factors which influence it. On the one side (the censorship of Cs) it is pushed, and from the other side (the Ucs) it is pulled, much as one is helped to the top of the Great Pyramid. (Compare the paper Repression, p. 422 below.)

As to the regression, we may further observe that it plays a no less important part in the theory of neurotic symptom-formation than in the theory of dreams. We may therefore distinguish a threefold species of regression: (a) a topical one, in the sense of the scheme of the Psi-systems here exponded; (b) a temporal one, in so far as it is a regression to older psychic formations; and (c) a formal one, when primitive modes of expression and representation take the place of the customary modes. These three forms of regression are, however, basically one, and in the majority of cases they coincide, for that which is older in point of time is at the same time formally primitive and, in the psychic topography, nearer to the perception-end.

We cannot leave the theme of regression in dreams without giving utterance to an impression which has already and repeatedly forced itself upon us, and which will return to us reinforced after a deeper study of the psychoneuroses: namely, that dreaming is on the whole an act of regression to the earliest relationships of the dreamer, a resuscitation of his childhood, of the impulses which were then dominant and the modes of expression which were then available. Behind this childhood of the individual we are then promised an insight into the phylogenetic childhood, into the evolution of the human race, of which the development of the individual is only an abridged repetition influenced by the fortuitous circumstances of life. We begin to suspect that Friedrich Nietzsche was right when he said that in a dream "there persists a primordial part of humanity which we can no longer reach by a direct path," and we are encouraged to expect, from the analysis of dreams, a knowledge of the archaic inheritance of man, a knowledge of psychical things in him that are innate. It would seem that dreams and neuroses have preserved for us more of the psychical antiquities than we suspected; so that psycho-analysis may claim a high rank among those sciences which endeavour to reconstruct the oldest and darkest phases of the beginnings of mankind.

It is quite possible that we shall not find this first part of our psychological evaluation of dreams particularly satisfying. We must, however, console ourselves with the thought that we are, after all, compelled to build out into the dark. If we have not gone altogether astray, we shall surely reach approximately the same place from another starting-point, and then, perhaps, we shall be better able to find our bearings.


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Chicago: Sigmund Freud, "B. Regression," The Interpretation of Dreams, trans. A. A. Brill Original Sources, accessed December 8, 2023,

MLA: Freud, Sigmund. "B. Regression." The Interpretation of Dreams, translted by A. A. Brill, Original Sources. 8 Dec. 2023.

Harvard: Freud, S, 'B. Regression' in The Interpretation of Dreams, trans. . Original Sources, retrieved 8 December 2023, from