Fantasy (psychology)
See fantasy
Fantasy is a genre of fiction that commonly uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary element of plot, theme, or setting. Many works within the genre take place in imaginary worlds where magic is common...

 for an account of the literary genre involving the development of common or popular fantasies.

Fantasy in a psychological sense is broadly used to cover two different senses, conscious and unconscious. In the unconscious sense, it is sometimes spelled "phantasy".

Conscious fantasy

A fantasy is a situation imagined
Imagination, also called the faculty of imagining, is the ability of forming mental images, sensations and concepts, in a moment when they are not perceived through sight, hearing or other senses...

 by an individual or group that has no basis in reality
In philosophy, reality is the state of things as they actually exist, rather than as they may appear or might be imagined. In a wider definition, reality includes everything that is and has been, whether or not it is observable or comprehensible...

 but expresses certain desires or aims on the part of its creator. Fantasies sometimes involve situations which are impossible (such as the existence of magic powers) or highly unlikely; or they may be more realistic. Fantasies can also be sexual
Sexual fantasy
A sexual fantasy, also called an erotic fantasy, is a fantasy or pattern of thoughts with the effect of creating or enhancing sexual feelings; in short, it is "almost any mental imagery that is sexually arousing or erotic to [an] individual"...

 in nature. Another, more basic meaning of fantasy is something which is not real, or cannot be real.

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 omnipotent control or of sovereign choice or of sexual licence...daydreams'. Perhaps indeed 'Dreams of office and power as motives of action - the Treasury Bench and the "Marshall's stick"...are almost universal and usually unavowed'. The roots of such dreams may lie in the omnipotence of the three year old, still liable to 'proclaiming that he was God...behind this outburst was a day-dream, a wish to be all-powerful, to compel others to do his bidding...[like an] underpaid clerk in a department store who consoled himself at night with dreams of glory in which a stroke of fortune put him in the boss's job'.

Sexually speaking, men in particular 'may be driven to nurse their fantasies by looking at films and strip-tease shows, or by day-dreaming over pornographic material...when [their] feeling attitude toward life has remained infantile'. Alternately, one might valorise women's fantasies as 'brilliant insights into what motivates real life - clues to our identity as valuable as the dreams we dream at night...Fantasy is where the sexual drive does battle with opposing emotions'.

Vaillant in his study of defence mechanisms took as a central example of 'an immature defence...fantasy - living in a "Walter Mitty
Walter Mitty
Walter Mitty is a fictional character in James Thurber's short story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty", first published in the New Yorker on March 18, 1939, and in book form in My World and Welcome to It in 1942...

" dream world where you imagine you are successful and popular, instead of making real efforts to make friends and succeed at a job'. Fantasy, when pushed to the extreme, is a common trait of narcissistic personality disorder
Narcissistic personality disorder
Narcissistic personality disorder is a personality disorder in which the individual is described as being excessively preoccupied with issues of personal adequacy, power, prestige and vanity...

; and certainly 'Vaillant found that not one person who used fantasy a lot had any close friends'.

Other researchers and theorists find that fantasy has beneficial elements - providing 'small regressions and compensatory wish fulfilments which are recuperative in effect'. Research by Deirdre Barrett
Deirdre Barrett
Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D. is an author and psychologist who teaches at Harvard Medical School. She is known for her research on dreams, hypnosis, and imagery and has written on evolutionary psychology. Barrett is a Past President of The International Association for the Study of Dreams and of the...

 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.

Narcissistic personality disorder

Two characteristics of someone with narcissistic personality disorder
Narcissistic personality disorder
Narcissistic personality disorder is a personality disorder in which the individual is described as being excessively preoccupied with issues of personal adequacy, power, prestige and vanity...

  • A pervasive pattern of grandiosity
    Grandiosity is chiefly associated with narcissistic personality disorder, but also commonly features in manic or hypomanic episodes of bipolar disorder....

     (in fantasy or behavior)
  • Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.

Freud and daydreams

A similarly positive view of fantasy was taken by Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud , born Sigismund Schlomo Freud , was an Austrian neurologist who founded the discipline of psychoanalysis...

. 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
Theodor Fontane
Theodor Fontane was a German novelist and poet, regarded by many as the most important 19th-century German-language realist writer.-Youth:Fontane was born in Neuruppin into a Huguenot family. At the age of sixteen he was apprenticed to an apothecary, his father's profession. He became an...

 once said...[without] dwelling on imaginary wish-fulfillments'. 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. 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'.

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'. He considered 'These phantasies include a great deal of the true constitutional essence of the subject's personality' and that the energetic man 'is one who succeeds by his efforts in turning his wishful phantasies into reality', while the artist 'can transform his phantasies into artistic creations instead of into symptoms...the doom of neurosis'.

Klein and unconscious fantasy

Melanie Klein
Melanie Klein
Melanie Reizes Klein was an Austrian-born British psychoanalyst who devised novel therapeutic techniques for children that had an impact on child psychology and contemporary psychoanalysis...

 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" (spelled with an "f")'.

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
Controversial discussions
The Controversial discussions were a protracted series of 'Scientific Meetings' of the British Psychoanalytical Society which took place between October 1942 and February 1944 between the Viennese school and the supporters of Melanie Klein...

 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'. 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'.

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'; Most schools of psychoanalytic thought would now accept that 'Both in analysis and life, we perceive reality through a veil of unconscious fantasy'. Isaacs however claimed that 'Freud's "hallucinatory wish-fulfilment" and his.."introjection" and "projection" are the basis of the fantasy life'; and how far unconscious fantasy was a genuine development of Freud's ideas, how far it represented the formation of a new psychoanalytic paradigm
The word paradigm has been used in science to describe distinct concepts. It comes from Greek "παράδειγμα" , "pattern, example, sample" from the verb "παραδείκνυμι" , "exhibit, represent, expose" and that from "παρά" , "beside, beyond" + "δείκνυμι" , "to show, to point out".The original Greek...

, is perhaps the key question of the Controversial discussions.

Lacan, fantasy, and desire

Jacques Lacan
Jacques Marie Émile Lacan was a French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist who made prominent contributions to psychoanalysis and philosophy, and has been called "the most controversial psycho-analyst since Freud". Giving yearly seminars in Paris from 1953 to 1981, Lacan influenced France's...

 engaged from early on with 'the phantasies revealed by Melanie Klein...the imago of the mother...this shadow of the bad internal objects ' - 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' 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'.

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 ', 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'; 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'.

The goal of therapy thus became ' la traversee du fantasme, the crossing over, traversal, or traversing of the fundamental fantasy'. 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'. The question he was left with was 'What, then, does he who has passed through the experience...who has traversed the radical phantasy...become?'.

The fantasy principle

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'; 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"'.

Further reading

  • Michael Vannoy Adams, The fantasy principle: psychoanalysis of the imagination (East Sussex 2004)
  • Julia Segal, Phantasies in Everyday Life (1995)
  • Riccardo Steiner ed., Unconscious fantasy (Karnac 2003)
  • G. Vaillant, Adaptation to Life (Boston 1977)
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