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Latent dream thoughts (latent content) are the meanings psychoanalytic interpretation discovers in the manifest dream (the narrative the dreamer constructs of his dream).

Freud introduced the contrast between manifest and latent in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), and he never abandoned this distinction, as witness An Outline of Psychoanalysis (1940a [1938]).

Latent thoughts (also called by Freud "dream thoughts" or "latent content") are primary; they are the motor of the dream. They are comprised of infantile memories—of "egoistic," sexual, or incestuous contents—which because of their moral unacceptability are rejected by the censorship. They are marked by the primary processes (condensation, displacement, figurability) and undergo the "distortions" that constitute the "dream work."

Unconscious latent thoughts—the demands of the drives and their prohibition—are the foundation of the dream and exert an attractive power over certain pre-conscious formations. Residues of the day, events of the day before, function as possible jumping-off places for associations allowing the dream to be interpreted.

Over time, accumulated clinical experience and theoretical developments nuanced Freud's initial stark distinction between manifest and latent. In the Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, Freud conceded that "one manifest element can replace several latent ones or one latent element can be replaced by several manifest ones" (1916-17a [1915-17], p. 125), arguing that dream interpretation can be based either on pre-conscious content or on the unconscious. After Freud's introduction of the second topography (1920-25), a notion even arose of "thought-transference" (1933a, p. 40) suggesting circulation of latent thought between two persons (and not only within a mental apparatus).

In 1933 and 1938 Freud returned to the notion of the latent content of the dream, emphasizing its unconscious character. In effect it was a "primitive language without any grammar," in which "only the raw material of thought is expressed and abstract terms are taken back to the concrete ones that are at their basis" (1933a, p. 20), where temporal relations are transformed into spatial ones, and "contraries are not kept apart but treated as though they were identical" (1940a [1938], p.169). The latent is fashioned out of a "forgotten childhood," and of an "archaic heritage, which a child brings with him into the world, before any experience of his own, influenced by the experiences of his ancestors" (p. 167). The content of dreams is said to be like that of tales and myths, and "to constitute a source of human prehistory."

Freud reported noticing the latent functioning of psyches in treatments handled by colleagues: Helene Deutsch observed a "thought transference," a phenomenon also recorded by Dorothy Burlingham between a mother and a son who were both undergoing psychotherapy.

In present-day theory, the "latent" may describe an unconscious psychic communication between the analyst and the analysand: the transference is intertwined with the counter-transference, the unconscious of the analyst as important to the outcome as that of the analysand, and the analyst's interpretation may also have a "latent" aspect (Jean-Paul Valabrega). This approach takes as its starting point Freud's remark that there is a "secret language" created "secret language" created "between two people who see a lot of each other" (1933a, p. 49).

Within the treatment, an analyst's dream of the patient in session may represent the latent fantasy functioning of the two psyches, and perhaps the starting point of an essential working through (André Missenard). An analogous function can be served by a "chimera" (Michel de M'Uzan), or by "co-thinking" (Daniel Widlöcher). Outside the treatment, in certain group situations with analyst(s) (small groups, combined therapies, families in psychotherapy) a latent fantasy system is said to underlie a shared psychic functioning.

Manifest and latent were notions introduced by Freud in connection with theories of the dream and of the mental approaches. Like other concepts, they were the product of his self-analysis. Since 1900, the use and the meaning of the idea of the latent has greatly evolved, as witness the specific place and strict meaning accorded to it currently in the theory of psychic functioning during treatment, as well as its broader and more descriptive application in clinical thinking to latent homosexuality, latent depression, latent perversion, and so on.


See also: Clinging instinct; Condensation; Dream; On Dreams; Fantasy; Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis; Homosexuality; Interpretation; Interpretation of dreams (analytical psychology); Interpretation of Dreams, The; Latent dream thoughts; Manifest; Primary process/secondary process; Representability; Thought; Wish fulfillment.