Censorship by IsaacMao via Flickr

The censor is a psychological mechanism hypothesized by Sigmund Freud in which threatening or socially inappropriate dream material is toned down. Freud describes the censor through the analogy of professional writing.

To be effective, media writers must consider their audience. If words are too strident or suggestive, an editor rejects or possibly edits an article for publication.

With regard to dreams, Freud believed the censor acts like a newspaper editor. The censor disguises an unconscious wish symbolized in a dream. The stronger the prohibition of the wish by the ego, superego or conscience, the more it will be distorted in the dream, or in a series of dreams.

Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) is worth quoting at length here:

A similar difficulty confronts the political writer who has disagreeable truths to tell those in authority. If he presents them undisguised, the authorities will suppress his words…A writer must beware of censorship, and on its account he must soften and distort expression of his opinion…The stricter the censorship, the more far-reaching the disguise and the more ingenious too may be the means employed for putting the reader on the scent of the true meaning. The fact that the phenomena of censorship and of dream-distortion correspond down to their smallest details justifies us in presuming that they are similarly determined.¹

However, Freud’s analogy might not hold up in the 21st century because it assumes a political writer is concerned with telling the truth and not just with making a living, stomping on an opponent, or winning an election.

As for the idea of the censor itself, it assumes that the brain (and person) works like software filters, merely distorting hidden desires before they reach consciousness. The idea that dreams could be symbolic because they point to something far greater than mundane reality is never considered. Why? Well, Freud was a reductionist atheist. So for most of his life he saw just about everything from a sexual, materialist and conceptual bias, which for spiritually biased people is not entirely wrong but definitely incomplete.

¹ Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) trans. James Strachey, London: Pelican, 1976, pp. 223-224.


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