What Is Manifest Content?

Exploring the manifest content of a dream
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The manifest content of a dream is the actual literal content and storyline of the dream. This is usually contrasted with what is referred to as the latent content or hidden meaning of the dream.

For example, imagine that you have a very vivid dream that you fly out your bedroom window and soar around your city. The sights, sounds, and storyline of the dream are the manifest content. A dream interpreter might suggest that your dream reveals a hidden desire to seek freedom from your day-to-day life.

This symbolic meaning behind the literal content of the dream is known as the latent content.

A Closer Look at the Two Types of Dream Content

According to the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, the manifest content of a dream includes the actual images, thoughts, and content contained within the dream. The manifest content is the elements of the dream that you remember upon awakening.

In his book The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud suggested that the content of dreams is related to wish fulfillment. Freud believed that the manifest content of a dream, or the actual imagery and events of the dream, served to disguise the latent content or the unconscious wishes of the dreamer.

For example, if you dreamed that you were being chased by an ominous creature through the dark streets of a strange city, that would be the manifest content of the dream. What that dream might actually mean, or the interpretation of its symbolic meaning, would be considered the latent content.

In this case, a dream analyst might suggest that the manifest content of your dream suggests that you are running from something in your life or worried about an upcoming change in your life.

How the Mind Disguises Unconscious Thoughts

So why does the latent content of a dream end up being hidden by the manifest content?

Freud believed that the unconscious mind contained desires, urges, and thoughts that are unacceptable to the conscious mind. These might involve traumatic memories, secret desires, or socially objectionable urges that might cause distress if they were brought into awareness.

As you recall, Freud believed that dreams served as a form of wish fulfillment. Since we cannot act on our unconscious desires in our waking life, we can explore these feelings in dreams. However, we tend to do this in hidden, symbolic forms. According to Freud, the mind uses a number of different strategies to censor of the latent content of a dream. By censoring the unconscious wishes and disguising them in the manifest content, we can explore our hidden thoughts and memories in a way that protect the ego from anxiety.

For example, imagine a new person just started working at your office. Everyone else seems to like this person, but you still feel a strange sense of ambivalence. One night, you dream that the new co-worker hates you and is going out of her way to sabotage your efforts and work with the goal of getting you fired.

In the dream, she spreads untrue gossip about you throughout the office and even starts taking credit for your work. While the dream is obviously stressful, it does not really reflect the actions of this co-worker. The events of the dream represent the manifest content, but there is clearly something else behind this strange and rather frightening dream.

Freud might suggest that you are using a psychological strategy known as projection to disguise your true feelings about the new co-worker. This defense mechanism involves projecting your feelings onto someone else. The reality is that you deeply dislike the new co-worker, but you realize that these feelings are not shared by your officemates and would be deemed socially unacceptable.

So you instead project these feelings onto the co-worker, dreaming that she hates you when it is actually the other way around. By doing this, you can explore your unconscious feelings in a way that seems more acceptable.

Some other common ways that the mind censors latent content include displacement, symbolization, rationalization, and condensation.

References

Freud, S. (1900). The Interpretation of Dreams.

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