Psychological Perspectives: Before Freud

Oftentimes, it is assumed that Western “scientific” interest in dreams came with the publication of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899. Yet, prior to Freud, there were the beginnings of a  dream studies movement. Like today, theories of dreaming were multitude, and covered a wide array of subject matter.  Scientific literature tended to be interested in biological causes of dreams, and experimental approaches to dreaming, hoping to rid the field of metaphysical attachments. Popular culture was more concerned with what might now be termed the more paranormal of dreams – dreams that came true, or clairvoyant and telepathic dreams.

Havelock Ellis

Havelock Ellis

Visitation Dreams were a source of scorn, for some early psychologists.  Havelock Ellis, for instance, writing in volume 2 of The Psychological Review (1899) writes:

The death of a friend sets up a barrier which cuts into two the stream of impressions concerning that friend. Thus, two streams of images flow into sleeping consciousness, one representing the friend as alive, the other as dead…[When the dreamer has a dream featuring interactions with the dead and believe it to be real,] the dreamer is in the same position as a paranoiac who constantly seems to hear threatening voices; henceforth he is absorbed in inventing a theory (electricity, hypnotism, or whatever it may be) to account for his hallucinations and his whole view of life is modifed accordingly (Ellis, 1899, pp. 460-461).

Ellis later expands his ideas (and his vitriol towards Visitation Dreams) into an entire chapter in his 1922 book The World of Dreams, comparing one who believes in such dreams to “savages” and “children” (Ellis, 1922/1976, p. 206). Interestingly, Ellis’s “bifurcation” model (above) has echoes in Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia, and in current grief and bereavement literature.

One approach to dreaming prior to Freud was that dreams were somehow reconstruction of memory (the correlation of dreams and memory is still a popular theory of dreaming today). Hendrika Vande Kemp, in her exhaustive survey of 19th Century dream literature, The Dream in Periodical Literature: 1860-1910 (1981), attributes the first systematized account of this process to Julius Nelson, in 1888. The correlation of dreams and memory certainly could explain the “two divergent streams of impressions” suggested by Ellis. This “memory” school of dream theory felt that a subset of hypermnesic (abnormally vivid or complete) memory could explain how dreams often told dreamers were to find lost valuables (money, wills, documents, etc.). The fact that this information frequently came from the dead in dreams was often downplayed (Vande Kemp, 1981, p. 95), or attributed to hyperaesthetic memory (Cobbe, 1872, pp. 341-342).


  • Cobbe, F. (1872). Darwinism in Morals, and Other Essays. London: Williams and Norgate.
  • Ellis, H. (1899). On Dreaming of the Dead. Psychological Review 2(5): 458-461.
  • Ellis, H. (1922/1976). The World of Dreams. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Vande Kemp, H. (1982). The Dream in Periodical Literature: 1860-1910. Journal of the History of Behavioral Science 17(1): 88-113.



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August 10th, 2012 by kkovelant