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Fantasy (psychology)

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Psychic mystery by Margret Hofheinz-Döring

In psychology, fantasy is a broad range of mental experiences, mediated by the faculty of imagination in the human brain, and marked by an expression of certain desires through vivid mental imagery. Fantasies are generally associated with scenarios that are impossible or unlikely to happen.

Conscious fantasy[edit]

In everyday life, individuals often find their thoughts "pursue a series of fantasies concerning things they wish they could do or wish they had done ... fantasies of control or of sovereign choice ... daydreams."[1][specify]

George Eman Vaillant in his study of defence mechanisms took as a central example of "an immature defence ... fantasy — living in a 'Walter Mitty' dream world where you imagine you are successful and popular, instead of making real efforts to make friends and succeed at a job."[2]

Other researchers and theorists[specify] find that fantasy has beneficial elements — providing "small regressions and compensatory wish fulfilments which are recuperative in effect."[3] Research by Deirdre Barrett reports that people differ radically in the vividness, as well as frequency of fantasy, and that those who have the most elaborately developed fantasy life are often the people who make productive use of their imaginations in art, literature, or by being especially creative and innovative in more traditional professions.[4]

Freud and fantasy[edit]

According to Sigmund Freud, a fantasy is constructed around multiple, often repressed wishes, and employs disguise to mask and mark the very defensive processes by which desire is enacted.[5] The subject's desire to maintain distance from the repressed wish and simultaneously experience it opens up a type of third person syntax allowing for multiple entry into the fantasy. Therefore, in fantasy, vision is multiplied—it becomes possible to see from more than one position at the same time, to see oneself and to see oneself seeing oneself, to divide vision and dislocate subjectivity. This radical omission of the “I” position creates space for all those processes that depend upon such a center, including not only identification but also the field and organization of vision itself.

For Freud, sexuality is linked from the very beginning to an object of fantasy. However, “the object to be rediscovered is not the lost object, but its substitute by displacement; the lost object is the object of self-preservation, of hunger, and the object one seeks to re-find in sexuality is an object displaced in relation to that first object.”[citation needed] [page needed]This initial scene of fantasy is created out of the frustrated infants' deflection away from the instinctual need for milk and nourishment towards a phantasmization of the mothers' breast, which is in close proximity to the instinctual need. Now bodily pleasure is derived from the sucking of the mother's breast itself. The mouth that was the original source of nourishment is now the mouth that takes pleasure in its own sucking. This substitution of the breast for milk and the breast for a phantasmic scene represents a further level of mediation which is increasingly psychic. The child cannot experience the pleasure of milk without the psychic re-inscription of the scene in the mind. “The finding of an object is in fact a re-finding of it.” [citation needed][page needed] It is in the movement and constant restaging away from the instinct that desire is constituted and mobilized.

Freud and daydreams[edit]

Rêverie (Daydream), 1901, by Paul César Helleu

A similarly positive view of fantasy was taken by Sigmund Freud who considered fantasy (German: Fantasie) a defence mechanism. He considered that men and women "cannot subsist on the scanty satisfaction which they can extort from reality. 'We simply cannot do without auxiliary constructions,' as Theodor Fontane once said ... [without] dwelling on imaginary wish fulfillments."[6] As childhood adaptation to the reality principle developed, so too "one species of thought activity was split off; it was kept free from reality-testing and remained subordinated to the pleasure principle alone. This activity is fantasying ... continued as day-dreaming."[7] He compared such phantasising to the way a "nature reserve preserves its original state where everything ... including what is useless and even what is noxious, can grow and proliferate there as it pleases."[8]

Daydreams for Freud were thus a valuable resource. "These day-dreams are cathected with a large amount of interest; they are carefully cherished by the subject and usually concealed with a great deal of sensitivity ... such phantasies may be unconscious just as well as conscious."[9] He considered these fantasies to include a great deal of the true constitutional essence of a personality, and that the energetic man "is one who succeeds by his efforts in turning his wishful phantasies into reality," whereas the artist "can transform his phantasies into artistic creations instead of into symptoms ... the doom of neurosis."[10]

Klein and unconscious fantasy[edit]

Melanie Klein extended Freud's concept of fantasy to cover the developing child's relationship to a world of internal objects. In her thought, this kind of "play activity inside the person is known as 'unconscious fantasy'. And these phantasies are often very violent and aggressive. They are different from ordinary day-dreams or 'fantasies'."[11]

The term "fantasy" became a central issue with the development of the Kleinian group as a distinctive strand within the British Psycho-Analytical Society, and was at the heart of the so-called controversial discussions of the wartime years. "A paper by Susan Isaacs (1952) on 'The nature and function of Phantasy' ... has been generally accepted by the Klein group in London as a fundamental statement of their position."[12] As a defining feature, "Kleinian psychoanalysts regard the unconscious as made up of phantasies of relations with objects. These are thought of as primary and innate, and as the mental representations of instincts ... the psychological equivalents in the mind of defence mechanisms."[13]

Isaacs considered that "unconscious phantasies exert a continuous influence throughout life, both in normal and neurotic people, the difference lying in the specific character of the dominant phantasies."[14] Most schools of psychoanalytic thought would now accept that both in analysis and life, we perceive reality through a veil of unconscious fantasy.[15] Isaacs however claimed that "Freud's 'hallucinatory wish-fulfilment' and his 'introjection' and 'projection' are the basis of the fantasy life,"[16] and how far unconscious fantasy was a genuine development of Freud's ideas, how far it represented the formation of a new psychoanalytic paradigm, is perhaps the key question of the controversial discussions.

Lacan, fantasy, and desire[edit]

Lacan engaged from early on with "the phantasies revealed by Melanie Klein ... the imago of the mother ... this shadow of the bad internal objects"[17] — with the Imaginary. Increasingly, however, it was Freud's idea of fantasy as a kind of "screen-memory, representing something of more importance with which it was in some way connected"[18] that was for him of greater importance. Lacan came to believe that "the phantasy is never anything more than the screen that conceals something quite primary, something determinate in the function of repetition."[19]

Phantasies thus both link to and block off the individual's unconscious, his kernel or real core: "subject and real are to be situated on either side of the split, in the resistance of the phantasy",[20] which thus comes close to the centre of the individual's personality and its splits and conflicts. "The subject situates himself as determined by the phantasy ... whether in the dream or in any of the more or less well-developed forms of day-dreaming;"[21] and as a rule "a subject's fantasies are close variations on a single theme ... the 'fundamental fantasy' ... minimizing the variations in meaning which might otherwise cause a problem for desire."[22]

The goal of therapy thus became "la traversée du fantasme, the crossing over, traversal, or traversing of the fundamental fantasy."[23] For Lacan, "The traversing of fantasy involves the subject's assumption of a new position with respect to the Other as language and the Other as desire ... a utopian moment beyond neurosis."[24] The question he was left with was "What, then, does he who has passed through the experience ... who has traversed the radical phantasy ... become?."[25]

The fantasy principle[edit]

The postmodern intersubjectivity of the 21st century has seen a new interest in fantasy as a form of interpersonal communication. Here, we are told, "We need to go beyond the pleasure principle, the reality principle, and repetition compulsion to ... the fantasy principle - not, as Freud did, reduce fantasies to wishes ... [but consider] all other imaginable emotions"[26] and thus envisage emotional fantasies as a possible means of moving beyond stereotypes to more nuanced forms of personal and social relating.

Such a perspective "sees emotions as central to developing fantasies about each other that are not determined by collective 'typifications'."[27]

Narcissistic personality disorder[edit]

Two characteristics of someone with narcissistic personality disorder are:[28]

  • A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior)
  • A preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.


Fantasy is a common symptom in people suffering from schizophrenia.[29] In fact these people depict specific patterns of high-neurological activities in their brains' default mode network, which possibly constitute the biomarker of these fantasies.[30][31]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Erik H. Erikson, Childhood and Society (Middlesex 1973) p. 183
  2. ^ Robin Skynner/John Cleese, Life and how to survive it (London 1994) pp. 53–4
  3. ^ Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (London 1946) p. 554
  4. ^ Barrett, Deirdre Fantasizers and Dissociaters: An Empirically based schema of two types of deep trance subjects. Psychological Reports, 1992, 71, p. 1011 1014; Barrett, Deirdre L. Dissociaters, Fantasizers, and their Relation to Hypnotizability in Barrett, Deirdre (Ed.) Hypnosis and Hypnotherapy, (2 vol.): Vol. 1: History, theory and general research, Vol. 2: Psychotherapy research and applications, NY, NY: Praeger/Greenwood, 2010.
  5. ^ Freud, Sigmund (2021-08-12). The Interpretation of Dreams. Translated by Brill, A. A. (Abraham Arden).
  6. ^ Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (Penguin Freud Library 1) p. 419
  7. ^ Sigmund Freud, On Metapsychology (Penguin Freud Library 11) p. 39
  8. ^ Freud, Introductory p. 419
  9. ^ Sigmund Freud, On Psychopathology (Penguin Freud Library 100 p. 88
  10. ^ Sigmund Freud, Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (London 1995) p. 81
  11. ^ Robert Hinshelwood and Susan Robinson, Introducing Melanie Klein, (Cambridge 2006) p. 100
  12. ^ R. D. Laing, Self and Others (Middlesex 1969) p. 17 and note
  13. ^ Hinshelwood/Robinson, Introducing p. 174
  14. ^ Quoted in Laing, p. 19
  15. ^ Janet Malcolm, Psychoanalysis: the Impossible Profession (London 1988) p. 76
  16. ^ Quoted in Laing, p. 18
  17. ^ Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection (London 1997) p. 284 and p. 21
  18. ^ Sigmund Freud, Case Histories II (Penguin Freud Library 9) p. 328
  19. ^ Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (London 1994) p. 60
  20. ^ F. Wahl, in Lacan, Four p. 89
  21. ^ Lacan Four p. 185
  22. ^ Phillip Hill, Lacan for Beginners (London 1997) p. 75
  23. ^ Bruce Fink, The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance (Princeton 1997) p. 61
  24. ^ Fink p. 62 and p. 72
  25. ^ Lacan, Four p. 273
  26. ^ Michael Vannoy Adams 1996 (The Multicultural Imagination: Race, Color, and the Unconscious), quoted in Dawn Freshwater and Chris Robertson, Emotions and Needs (Buckingham 2002) p. 43
  27. ^ Freshwater/robertson, p. 43
  28. ^ Narcissistic personality disorder Archived 2010-01-08 at the Wayback Machine
  29. ^ Shneidman, E. S. (1948) - Schizophrenia and the MAPS test: a study of certain formal psycho-social aspects of fantasy production in schizophrenia as revealed by performance on the Make A Picture Story (MAPS) test. Genetic Psychology Monographs, 38, 145-223. American Psychological Association Accessed November 19th, 2017
  30. ^ SB Kaufmann (2009), (Josie Glausiusz 2009) - [1] Psychology Today Accessed November 19th, 2017
  31. ^ Buckner RL, Andrews-Hanna JR, Schacter DL. (2008) & Buckner Laboratory Archived 2017-01-16 at the Wayback Machine The brain's default network: anatomy, function, and relevance to disease. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2008 Mar;1124:1-38 doi: 10.1196/annals.1440.011 Retrieved November 19th, 2017

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

  • The dictionary definition of fantasy at Wiktionary