How well do we really know ourselves? While answering that question may not necessarily be at the heart of Freud’s project, it is certainly an issue he suggestively raises. In the modern day, it is relatively fair to say that we all believe we understand ourselves well. Even in the case of mental illness, we claim to know the causes behind it – we know why we are depressed even if we don’t know exactly how to make it “better.” According to Freud, though, there seems to be a lot we don’t know about ourselves. But how can we go about proving that there are determining factors in our mental processes and states that we really just don’t know about at all?
It makes logical sense to follow the same sort of path into proving the truth of the unconscious mind as Freud himself does – by starting with the concept of dreams, because they are a non-waking mental life which every person – mentally ill or not – experiences to a certain degree. From dreams, how can we derive that there are in fact mental processes of which we aren’t fully aware within ourselves? Freud believes, in the context of dream interpretation, that there are manifest and latent components to every dream. “It follows that the dream as a whole is a distorted substitute for something else, something unconscious, and that the task of interpreting a dream is to discover this unconscious material” (139). It seems clear to Freud that the manifest content of a dream is in fact that which we see. When you dream about something the “reality” of that dream which seems to appear before you is that manifest content – but it is, as Freud says, distorted, and a representation of something else entirely: the latent dream-thoughts. He gives several examples of dreams in which this proves to be true. A strong example seems to be the dream of a man sitting around a peculiar table with his own family – the manifest content of the dream. Freud, however, notes that in fact this table, from another family which the dreamer had extended contact with, is meant to help create the association in his dream: “there was a peculiar relationship between the father and son in this family…. The same thing was true of the relationship between himself and his own father. So the table had been taken into the dream in order to point out this parallel” (146). There seems to then be a relationship that Freud is establishing between the manifest content and the latent thoughts: the manifest content seeks to make associations, make parallels – all which eventually serve to help discover the underlying, latent thought that causes the particular dream experience.
After understanding that dreams are composed of a manifest and latent component, the concept is applied more broadly to the general mind – there are things we clearly don’t know about in our mind that manifest themselves in particular ways – like dreams. He divides the mind into the unconscious and the conscious – we might think of those as the latent and manifest components of the mind respectively. “Let us therefore compare the system of the unconscious to a large entrance hall…. Adjoining this entrance hall there is a second, narrower room… in which consciousness, too, resides” (366). This spatial representation serves a slightly different purpose for Freudian analysis – the idea of the censoring of the mind, but also serves to note the two most distinct parts of the mind.
Finally, how do we reach neuroses from this understanding of the manifest and latent components of the mind? To simplify the matter, an infantile sexual experience occurs, and the libido – the desire for pleasure – is unable to be freely directed, so the energy must shift elsewhere. The primary reason that the libido is unable to be directed freely at what it desires is because of a censorship – because of “the watchmen” who reside between the divide in the mind of the conscious and unconscious. A particular thought, perhaps, for example, the desire to have sex with one’s own son, is “rejected” by the watchman – it is not allowed to leave the unconscious mind and becomes a repressed thought. The “energy” that is stored within this particular thought must shift its attention elsewhere. The manifest symptom, in Freud’s case neuroses, becomes an outward expression of the latent, unconscious thought which is unknowingly repressed via the censorship in the mind – a sort of redirection of the mental energy into a physical form.
So then, if in Freud’s analysis, neuroses are the result of repression of latent thought that becomes outwardly manifested in a symptom – at least in very simplified terms, can we make the same association for modern mental illnesses? In the therapist’s office, we might come to the conclusion of sources of upset or stress that are causing a mentally-based reaction in our mind, but how much of it do we actually see? Are there truly latent thoughts which are the “true” causes of even modern mental illnesses, and are they similarly based in sexual context and expression as Freud believes neuroses to be?