Metaphor and Psychoanalysis: An Extension of George Lakoff's "How Unconscious Metaphorical Thought Shapes Dreams

by Norman N. Holland

September 19, 2001


The metaphorical mappings in dreams that Lakoff describes add a new category to the various "ready-made" elements of dreams identified by Freud: calculations, speeches, sound associations, and cultural symbols. The distinction between ready-made and newly created dream images seems to me analogous to Pinker's distinction between regular and irregular grammatical forms. Hence, the same brain system may do the job of choosing between then and this same system may be relaxed to allow writers and artists to create.


    Lakoff's extension of his theories about metaphor to the interpretation of dreams strikes me as a bold initiative and, I think, as rendered in his paper, a convincing one. Whether his method would yield the same understandings of prohibited material as an interpretation of the patient's free associations--that we have yet to learn. Lakoff himself seems to doubt that it would. In the course of his paper, he suggests that applying his method would be "if anything, the tame part of dream analysis -- the study of how unconscious symbolic thought of the most ordinary non-tabooed kind shows up in dreams."

    I wonder, then, just what is the status of the hidden thoughts a Lakovian analysis brings into the open. Are they unconscious ideas or merely preconscious? Are we dealing with "unconscious" in a psychoanalytic sense or only in a cognitive sense? Or are we seeing a new relationship between them?

    I would like to explore the implications of Lakoff's theory of metaphors for psychoanalysis by turning to a section of The Interpretation of Dreams to which most people don't pay a lot of attention. That is section called "Intellectual Activity in Dreams" (VI-G) in which Freud brings forward evidence to support his thesis that we do not create arithmetical operations or sentences in dreams; we remember them. He begins this idea in the preceding section (VI-F, second part) "Calculations and Speeches in Dreams." Freud is implying, I think, that there are--what shall we say?--sophisticated cognitive activities, secondary processes, sections of the brain, that are shut down during dreaming which is less sophisticated, less secondary. From a linguistic point of view, it is particularly interesting that these are the sections with which we compose sentences.

    Another issue in The Interpretation of Dreams bears on Lakoff's metaphorical approach to dreams: the many, many examples of free associatons based on klang associations or connections between ideas based on similarities in the sounds with which they are expressed. These similarities are also something the dreamer incorporates from the surrounding linguistic culture. Presumably, a dreamer with a strong Southern American accent could use "many" and "Minnie" as identical sounds; a Northern American could not.

    In yet another relevant section of The Interpretation of Dreams Freud discusses symbolism. This section of the book grew and grew from modest beginnings in 1900 to a whole (rather overstated) chapter in the edition of 1910. Always, however, Freud regards the interpretation of symbolism as an alternative mode of interpretation to be brought into play if the patient cannot come up with free associations. To Freud, free associations always offered the best way to understand the patient's dreams. If, however, free associations fail, the analyst can turn to symbolism.

    Symbols are not invented by the patient, but by the culture. They are taken in and used by the patient to express unconscious ideas. Freud's symbols differ from Lakoff's metaphors, though, in that they are not "tame" and they are "tabooed." In Jones' and Freud's early formulations, symbols were always unconscious and sexual.

    I find it interesting that Freud's conception of symbolism approaches Jung's collective unconscious. In principle, the Jungian analyst turns to the collective unconscious only when free associations fail--like Freudians with symbolism. But Jung's collective unconscious can draw its symbols from anywhere and anytime. There need be no causal connection between, say, thirteenth century alchemical symbols and this particular patient on the analyst's couch today. The patient need never have heard of alchemy. For Freud (when he is not in one of his phylogenetic moods), patients pick up their symbols from their cultural surround. In that sense, Freud's symbols are akin to Lakoff's metaphorical systems.

    We have found, then, a number of things that have something in common in their relation to dreams: Lakoff's "tame" metaphors: Freud's "tabooed" symbolism; Jung's collective unconscious; arithmetical operations; previously created sentences; sound associations. All these things are lying to hand in the brain to be used by other processes. They are ready-made, off the shelf, available to be plugged unaltered into a dream (or, presumably, into a free association, a poetic creation, or a psychotic raving).

    At this point, I'd like to bring in an idea from far afield. I am thinking of Steven Pinker's recent book, Words and Rules (Basic Books, 1999), on regular and irregular verbs. Pinker gives counterexamples to disprove the two prevailing explanations of the way our brains handle irregular verbs. One is the Chomskyan idea that we have rules for them. The other is the PDP (parallel distributed processing) idea that we learn irregular forms by association: drink, drank, drunk; sink, sank, sunk, and so on.

    Pinker argues that our brains handle the two kinds of verbs (or noun plurals) in two different ways. We memorize and store the irregular forms. In English we derive regular forms by applying the -ed rule for the past tenses of verbs and the -s rule for plurals. Pinker shows that one can use this same principle for other languages with irregulars plus many different rules for regulars, such as German, and even non-Indo-European languages like Mandarin Chinese.

    If so, then, we can guess, and Pinker does guess, that there has to be something in our brains, some kind of program, if you will, that chooses between the two modes. There has to be a program that considers a given word and 1) searches memory for an irregular form, and 1a) if it finds one, 2) it applies the irregular form, and 1b) if it does not find an irregular form, 2) it applies the rule. In other words, there has to be something in the brain that begins with our "mentalese" phrasing of an idea and decides whether to go to this area in the brain or that.

    We have seen links ready-made for dreams in metaphors, symbolism, the collective unconscious; arithmetic; sentences; sounds. It seems to me that the opposition of off-the-rack availability to the de novo invented part of the dream corresponds to these two kinds of processes to which Pinker points. One is rule-governed creativity (as first proposed for sentence formation by Chomsky). The other is memorized connections.

    Pinker suggests a program that decides whether to use a ready-made irregular form or to apply a linguistic rule to derive the regular form. Such a program could also decide, for example, in making a dream, whether to use a ready-made metaphorical or symbolic or memorized link and some new way of thinking about a phenomenon. We might extend that idea from dreaming to creativity, in the now quite traditional link that Freud established between creative writing and day-dreaming. If this form-choosing program extends that far, we may be glimpsing in it the core of creativity, either in an artistic or a scientific context.

    In a creative person, the program that chooses between the ready-made and the rule-governed may be set, so to speak, differently. It may be that creative poets and scientists do not so much choose between as combine these two modes. That is, these creative people find unconventional, invented (but rule-governed) ways of using established metaphorical linkings. Indeed, when Lakoff and Turner examine poetic metaphors this is what they find. Poets like Dickinson or Stevens use the stock metaphors of our culture, DEATH IS GOING ON A JOURNEY or CREATION IS GIVING BIRTH. But they use them in a highly inventive way. Perhaps it is the case that when less creative writers deal with conventional metaphors, they either use them as such or invent a straightforward sentence that "says what I want to say." The creative writer says it slant, using a set metaphor but embedding it in a newly minted sentence.

    F. Scott Fitzgerald suggested that a "first-rate intelligence" could "hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." Lakoff's essay on dreams suggests that those ideas will take the form of set metaphors, even clichés, and invented fantasies. Pinker's work on verbs and nouns suggests that we choose between created regular forms and stored irregulars. He posits a program that does the choosing. I am suggesting that the less creative will choose one or the other. The creative person will use both together. In doing so, I am, of course, being highly speculative--but that's the aim of the game, isn't it?

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Norman N. Holland "Metaphor and Psychoanalysis: An Extension of George Lakoff's "How Unconscious Metaphorical Thought Shapes Dreams". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available October 1, 2023 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: August 25, 2001, Published: September 19, 2001. Copyright © 2001 Norman N. Holland