Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

From Freud's Dream-Work to Bion's Work of Dreaming: The Changing Conception of Dreaming in Psychoanalytic Theory

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

From Freud's Dream-Work to Bion's Work of Dreaming: The Changing Conception of Dreaming in Psychoanalytic Theory

Article excerpt

Bion moved psychoanalytic theory from Freud's theory of dream-work to a concept of dreaming in which dreaming is the central aspect of all emotional functioning. In this paper, I first review historical, theoretical, and clinical aspects of dreaming as seen by Freud and Bion. I then propose two interconnected ideas that I believe reflect Bion's split from Freud regarding the understanding of dreaming. Bion believed that all dreams are psychological works in progress and at one point suggested that all dreams contain elements that are akin to visual hallucinations. I explore and elaborate Bion's ideas that all dreams contain aspects of emotional experience that are too disturbing to be dreamt, and that, in analysis, the patient brings a dream with the hope of receiving the analyst's help in completing the unconscious work that was entirely or partially too disturbing for the patient to dream on his own. Freud views dreams as mental phenomena with which to understand how the mind functions, but believes that dreams are solely the 'guardians of sleep,' and not, in themselves, vehicles for unconscious psychological work and growth until they are interpreted by the analyst. Bion extends Freud's ideas, but also departs from Freud and re-conceives of dreaming as synonymous with unconscious emotional thinking - a process that continues both while we are awake and while we are asleep. From another somewhat puzzling perspective, he views dreams solely as manifestations of what the dreamer is unable to think.

Keywords: Bion, dreaming, dreamwork, Freud

Wir haben die Kunst, damit wir nicht ander Wahrheit zugrunde geben. [We have art so that we shall not be destroyed by the truth.]

(Nietzsche, in Ondaatje, 1970, Foreword)


Dreams paradoxically protect us from and inform us about unknown truths. Dreams paint a timeless montage, brushed freely by remnants of past, present, and possible future experience. The true meaning of a dream can never be known and never told. Dreams are works in progress that - if we are open to them - give us a chance to come to grips with truths that we feel least capable of facing. But those truths are always more than we can bear: in every dream, to some degree, we evade much of what is true to our emotional experience.

For some time now, it has seemed to me that psychoanalysis has moved its focus away from dreams. I think that this, at least in part, reflects reluctance by practicing psychoanalysts to think about dreams in ways that go beyond Freud's momentous contribution. Simply put, Freud's towering legacy dissuaded subsequent theorists from reconsidering dream-work from new perspectives that require of the contemporary analyst nothing less than a paradigm shift.

Bion makes this shift by putting dreaming at the core of psychological functioning, and moving the emphasis in dream theory ''from the symbolic meaning of dreams to the process of dreaming'' (Ogden, 2007b, p. 577). He is concerned more with the way we dream than with the dream's symbolic content (Bion, 1962a, 1962b).

Dreaming, for Bion, involves the pursuit of truth through thinking and feeling. He believes that the driving force of human development is the search for truth and that the mind is developed through dreaming as we strive to discover what is real about our experience.1

In this paper, I will develop two of Bion's ideas concerning dreaming: (1) the idea that aspects of all dreams are works in progress that allow some access to veiled truths about ourselves (Bion, 1962a, 1962b); and (2) the idea that all dreams also contain elements that are not works in progress and are the equivalent of visual hallucinations, an idea that Bion proposed to himself (in his Cogitations [1992, p. 68]), but never developed or published during his lifetime.

Freud's dream-work and Bion's work of dreaming

Freud rescued the study of dreams from mythmakers, seers, neurologists, and purveyors of the daemonic. …

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