The Nocturnal Self. Conceptual and Creative Approaches to the Dream in the Century of Psychology (1850-1950)



The DFG-network explores one of the most significant chapters in the cultural history of the dream using an interdisciplinary approach for the first time. The aim is to better understand the secular “dream cultures” emerging in the aftermath of the enlightenment. In this context the relationship between dream and subjectivity is of particular interest: To what extent did the post-enlightenment redefinition of subjectivity depend on the exploration of the “nocturnal self” undertaken by both scientists and artists?


The historical focus of our research is what could be called “the century of psychology”. Its starting point is the breakthrough of empirical and experimental research methods around 1850, and it ends around 1950 with the emergence of neurophysiology as the new paradigm of dream research. During this period there was an intense mutual exchange between new dream theories in psychology, medicine, philosophy and aesthetics on the one hand, and on the other hand innovative approaches to represent dreams both in the sciences and in literature, visual art, and film.


In what way were dreams represented? This turns out to be a key question, as dreams – or, to be more precise: dream contents can never be observed directly. Therefore any dream research exploring not just the physiology of the brain, but also dream contents can only deal with memories of dreams represented in a linguistic or visual medium. Rhetorical, iconographical, formal and material aspects concerning the representation of dreams thus play a crucial role for all anthropological or philosophical efforts to redefine subjectivity in a way involving the “nocturnal self” and its dreams.


The project is supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft.
Research period: 04.2015 - 03.2018