Manifest and Latent: The Mental Unknown

Our behavior, our opinions, our decisions: all of these things are expressions of the thoughts generated in our mind. Indeed, one can look at them as manifestations of latent thoughts–latent thoughts that were strong enough to push themselves into our consciousness. Of course, it is not obvious to us that there exists a deeper level of our mind filled with ideas that sometimes find expression in our behavior. Freud discusses two main ways in which we encounter latent thoughts: dreams and neuroses. These phenomena indicate that there are latent elements of our mind which drive us but which of which we are unaware. This is an uncomfortable fact; we want to think we know our motives and impulses, especially if they sometimes manifest in a negative symptom which we would like to get rid of. The puzzle with which this blog post will grapple is largely the puzzle of Freudian psychoanalysis: by tracing a thought from its manifestation to its latent source, can one develop an understanding of the mental processes that will allow one to cure psychical illness? We will first analyze how dreams demonstrate the emergence of latent thoughts.


Freud begins his lectures about dreams by stating that they are a consequential part of life. Although they seem to be unclear and random, he argues that they are very influential and systematic (105). He explains the relationship between the dream and the stimulus. He states, “Dreams do not simply reproduce the stimulus; they work it over, they make allusions to it, they include it in some context, they replace it by something else” (117). Dream-work is the process of transforming latent content into a manifested form. However, the manifest form is not the point of a dream. The point of a dream is that there is a latent mental process at work. Freud states that we are unaware of this mental process (119). Dreams do not merely manifest the stimulus because the mental process we use in dreams is capable of substituting, symbolizing and censoring dream content. Freud is interested in understanding the mental process because we are driven by our latent thoughts, even though we can only see what is manifested.  

Freud continues his discussion by trying to figure out why the mind substitutes and censors dream content. Since the mind is capable of censorship and substitution, Freud concludes that there is a latent meaning and purpose behind a dream (137). The mind tries to protect itself by using a self-defense mechanisms like censorship and substitution. Therefore, manifested content does not provide the full picture. A dream is a puzzle of a narrative because it conceals the “genuine thing” we are looking for (137). In his description of their composition he states, “the dream actually tells us as the manifest dream-content, and the concealed material, which we hope to reach by pursuing the ideas that occur to the dreamer, as the latent dream-thoughts” (147). Dreams are composed of manifest thoughts and latent thoughts. Manifest thoughts are socially available systems of meaning, but our latent thoughts are our personal desires. Latent thoughts are forced into the unconscious because they are classified as inappropriate or shameful according to social norms. Freud is interested in tracing manifested thoughts to uncover latent thoughts in the unconscious. In dreams, latent thoughts are distorted, symbolized, or substituted because of the internal conflict between unconscious and conscious. Freud emphasizes the importance of latent thoughts because they can govern our agency. Overall psychoanalysts, like Freud, are determined in translating dreams to understand the mental process behind censorship, symbolization, and substitution.


While dreams are a good starting place for studying the unconscious and the conscious as they appear in everyone, patients with neuroses allow for a more dramatic example of latent sources causing great changes in the person. Neuroses are caused by a contradiction between the ego and the libido that cannot be resolved unless the contradiction resides in the same plane of the mind. This contradiction creates excess stimulation that the mind associated with unpleasure (443).  Since these stimuli reside in the inaccessible unconscious layer, the latent thought cannot manifest in a way that is immediately clear to the patient.  In order to manifest, the thoughts must change shape.  These thoughts were not allowed by the patient to exist and be recognized as lust or guilt; instead they were manifested as symptoms.

The latent thoughts in the mind want to become manifest in anyway they possibly can. They have excess energy that since they cannot be expressed as they are, must change shape.  As an analogy, the latent thoughts are attempting to drive a car, but they’re forced to detour away from the route they want, instead choosing a less direct, winding road.  This alternate road with the help of a map or GPS will still eventually get to the intended destination even if it takes longer.76e79a8d163d5cd975d441de27fcccd2_-clipart-etc-detour-of-detour-sign-clip-art_450-494 The psychoanalyst acts as the GPS to revealing the root truth, the latent thought forced into silence by the patient’s view of what is proper. Freud goes as far as to say that “these symptoms offer the plainest indication of there being a special region of the the mind shut off from the rest.  They lead, by a path that cannot be missed” to the unconscious mind, the place where a person has repressed their latent thoughts (345).    
Neurotic patients experienced manifest symptoms of their latent shameful thoughts hidden in the unconscious. In Freud’s research, he realized one of the common themes throughout his hysterical patients was “in every one of our patients, analysis shows us that they have been carried back to some particular period of their past by the symptoms of their illness or their consequences” (339).  The latent thoughts manifest by bringing the person back to the time that the thoughts were repressed.  In Anna O, this meant she relived the year 1880 to the point where her mind caused her distress when she was not wearing the same color dress that she had worn a year previously (Hysteria 33). These latent thoughts can produce pain like in the case of Elisabeth Von R or compulsions.  A nineteen year old girl, who lusted for her father, would have a very particular night time ritual, because her latent mind took advantage of the symbolism of pillows, vases and clocks as feminine objects so the girl manifested a set of requirements in order to sleep that used the feminine objects with male ones to symbolize her lust (327-333). She was able to connect the objects as she wished she connected with her father, or if the objects represented her mother, keep them far apart.  The girl wouldn’t say that she completed these compulsion, but by finding the latent root and bringing it into the conscious, her compulsions were able to stop.  By locating the latent cause of the manifested symptoms, the psychoanalyst may hope for a successful treatment.

What Understanding the Latent Can Do for You

Uncovering the latent thoughts that find expression in neuroses makes the neurotic aware of unresolved traumas or impulses that have been rejected from the consciousness. As we discussed above, symptoms manifest when an especially energetic latent thought tries to emerge into the consciousness, but is repressed by the Watchman back into the unconscious. Removal of the symptoms equates with the removal of the manifestation of the latent thought. According to Freud, awareness of latent thoughts allows the ego to manage the mental tension they cause, thus removing the symptom. As he says in his description of how society shapes us, the ego is taught by society to forego immediate pleasure that conflicts with its social reality. In other words, “an ego thus educated has become ‘reasonable’; it no longer lets itself be governed by the pleasure principle but obeys the reality principle” ( Lectures 444). When the latent libidinal impulse coexists with a strong ego in the consciousness, the ego can be strong enough to dominate the libido and prevent its manifestation. Thus, when the libido opposes the ego, psychical illness is avoided if the libido remains latent. It is only that a latent thought can manifest problematically if it slips by the ego. However, as Freud discovered in his case studies, when a latent idea is made conscious, one can make a conscious mental effort to control it.


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