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Condensation is an essential aspect of the workings of the unconscious and especially of dream-work, as described by psychoanalysis.

Condensation, along with displacement, is an essential process in dream work and more generally in primary-process thinking.


Condensation is one of the methods by which the repressed returns in hidden ways.

For example, in dreams multiple dream-thoughts are often combined and amalgamated into a single element of the manifest dream (e.g. symbols).

According to Freud, every situation in a dream seems to be put together out of two or more impressions or experiences.

One need only think about how people and places tend to meld into composite figures in our dreams.

The same sort of condensation can occur in symptom-formation. The other method whereby the repressed hides itself is displacement.


In a dream, a single idea or image may represent the nodal point at which a number of chains of associations or ideas intersect, and can thus be a condensation of both their multiple unconscious meaning and their quota of affect or emotional charge.


The mechanism of condensation explains why the manifest content of a dream is often so laconic or fragmentary: it is an abridged translation of the latent content.

The second basis mechanism of the dream-work is displacement.

Both mechanisms can be observed in other unconscious formations, and notably in symptoms of hysteria and neurosis; they are also important features of jokes.

Following Jakobson, Lacan likes condensation and displacement to the linguistic mechanisms of metaphor and metonymy.


We tend to view it as a way of attributing, to a person or representative object, characteristics and properties that, from the point of view of latent thoughts, belong to other persons or objects.

In reality, if we go by Freud's text in The Interpretation of Dreams,[1] condensation, like displacement, does not proceed directly by modifying the content of a representation.

All dreams are made up of latent dream thoughts, each of which corresponds to one or several chains of associations, with each link being initially charged with a psychic intensity.

Dream work consists in changing the location of these fragmentary intensities without either increasing or reducing their global value.


In displacement, one assigns to link A in a chain of associations the intensity initially associated with link B.

Condensation, in contrast, operates by bringing intensities together. When two chains of association intersect, it assigns to the common link the sum of the intensities of the two intersecting chains.

This nevertheless indirectly alters the representation because, in the manifest content of the dream, a link will not figure if it does not retain an intensity.

By displacing the intensities of several chains to their common link, condensation makes it possible to represent all of the chains by a single link.

Hence, there is an economy of means that contributes to censorship. As a result, when one link takes the place of several chains, this makes it more difficult to read through to the wish corresponding to those chains.


Condensation thus has an indirect effect on the figural content of representations.

It does not create chimeras that bring together in one element the attributes of others.

Nor does it engage in metonymy, in which one of the links represents one or several chains of association.

It is a process that operates by displacing intensity, but when the intensity of several chains is brought to bear on their common link, condensation seeks to represent them all.


When explaining the effect of condensation, Freud used the metaphor of italics. A representative link whose intensity has been reinforced by condensation has a status comparable to that of a word in italics in a text. This metaphor calls for two remarks. First, the intensity added to a fragment of a representation through condensation makes it possible, like italics, to stress the importance of the representation. This added intensity indicates at the manifest level that the representation stands for the different latent chains intersecting at the link. Second, typographical emphasis warps the texture of a text and invites us to look for links other than those offered by successive statements. Typographical emphasis is an invitation to abandon linearity and search for the dreamer's associations.


The notion of intensity is complex. The term indicates the psychic interest of a particular idea. But we may well ask whether this interest should not be extended to the affect associated with each chain of associations or the instinct that determines each association.


Although Freud studied condensation particularly in relation to dreams, especially in The Interpretation of Dreams, he also describes the effect of this process in other manifestations of primary-process thinking, such as jokes, forgetting names, slips of the tongue, and symptoms. In these latter domains, however, it is sometimes quite difficult to distinguish between condensation and overdetermination. In both cases, as the result of a transformation, a representation substitutes for more elaborate thought content. Both processes seem to proceed by increasing intensity, that is, by economic modification, and this results in the reorganization of the thought content. But whereas condensation can be viewed as a sum of intensities relative to forces acting in the same direction, overdetermination appears more as an appropriation of content by heterogeneous if not antagonistic forces.


In fact, the content of an overdetermined representation acts as a fulcrum for opposing logics and conflicting systems (such as the preconscious and the unconscious). A thought content (or representation) resulting from the interaction of forces pushing for the fulfillment of an unconscious wish and forces opposing it (the censor) is a good example of overdetermination but not of condensation, since the censor is not part of the latent dream thoughts. However, as soon as the signifying element begins to represent conflict (as in the case of a symptom), the difference between condensation and overdetermination is more difficult to establish.

See Also


  1. 1900a
  1. Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4: 1-338; 5: 339-625.
  2. ——. (1905c). Jokes and their relation to the unconscious. SE, 8: 1-236.
  3. ——. (1916-1917a [1915-17]). Introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. SE, 15: 9-239; 16: 243-463.