Subliminal Explorations of Perceptions, Dream and Fantasies: Pioneering Contributions of Charles Fisher (Book Review)

Author:  Shevrin, Howard
Publisher: Madison: CT International Universities Press 2001
Reviewed By: Fonya Helm, Summer 2004, pp. 71-73

Howard Shevrin’s book of reprints of Charles Fisher’s experiments in subliminal perception provides a fascinating experience for all clinicians, especially those with a strong interest in dreaming and perception. I recommend this book with enthusiasm. The first part of the book comprises papers that study very carefully the subliminal perceptions and dreams of individuals, and present drawings and conclusions in great detail. The second part of the book comprises papers using a research methodology to test hypotheses in a reasonably rigorous manner. I will focus primarily on the papers that study the subliminal perceptions and dreams of individuals in detail, because I believe these papers will be most interesting for psychoanalysts and psychotherapists.

In addition to the original papers of Fisher and his collaborators, the book also contains Shevrin’s insightful introduction and thoughtful summary of Fisher’s ideas that he integrates with more recent work from his laboratory. Shevrin states:

Perhaps Fisher’s finest contribution to psychoanalytic theory is his proposed revision of the theory of dream formation…. Fisher discovered that his subjects’ images were in many respects as dreamlike in nature as their dreams. And yet these images were obtained only minutes after the exposure of the subliminal stimulus. These images appeared to contain evidence for the activation of powerful unconscious wishes and dreamlike primary process condensations. (p.17)

Shevrin gives an example: “[T]he subject’s initial impression of the subliminal stimulus already manifested the influence of unconscious forces. The stimulus was a colored photograph of two Siamese cats and a parakeet perched between them. Following the 1/100 sec exposure, the subject reported seeing two animals resembling dogs or pigs. However, when she attempted to draw the dogs or pigs, the animals turned out to look like peculiar combinations of mammal-like bodies and bird-like heads and tails. Although the subject was an artist, she complained that she had to draw the animals that way almost compulsively despite her intention to do otherwise” (p. 17-18).

Shevrin emphasizes that Fisher proposed that the mind registered many stimuli preconsciously during the day:

[The stimuli] provided the main source of day residues. These day residues had already been influenced by unconscious wishes and revealed primary process transformations. They were, in a sense, ready-made dream contents primed to be taken advantage of during the night when another current of unconscious influence would play upon them, and stitch them into the developing dream fabric. (p. 19)

Shevrin also points out: “Fisher’s reliance on drawings is particularly noteworthy, because drawings not only allow for convenient identification of visual forms, but often what appears in the drawings cannot at all be inferred from the verbal account of the image” (p. 20). Shevrin also notes that Brakel (1993), a colleague in his laboratory, has shown that drawings of dreams are much richer than verbal accounts (p. 21). In her paper, Brakel argues for changing psychoanalytic technique to include the investigation of drawings of dreams.

Shevrin also states: “Occasionally, Fisher cites a transformation that affects the meaning of a stimulus rather than its perceptual character, and this he will refer to as apperception rather than perception” (p. 20). This idea of apperception is very interesting and it fits well with Schacter’s (1992, 1995, 1996) study of priming in which he distinguishes between a perceptual representation system and a semantic representation system. The perceptual representation system involves visual communication, and the semantic representation system concerns itself with meaning, but with meanings that are literal, concrete, and very specific, rather than the kind of abstract or logical reasoning that we would include as part of secondary process thinking (Helm, 2004, p. 13).

In “Dreams and Perception: The Role of Preconscious and Primary Modes of Perception in Dream Formation,” Fisher (1954) advocates expanding key Freudian ideas concerning utility of the “day residue”: “Freud’s formulation that an unconscious idea cannot enter consciousness unless it is ‘covered’ or ‘screened’ by a preconscious day residue to include the notion that the memory pictures connected with the unconscious idea cannot attain consciousness unless they are covered or screened by preconscious sensory percepts associated with the day residue….Even, for example, when a figure from the past does appear in the dream, it can be demonstrated that fusion or condensation with a figure in the tachistoscopically exposed picture or with a visual percept from the scenes surrounding the experiment has taken place. Such a demonstration can only take place under experimental conditions which include control of the field of the day residues” (p. 74).

Fisher states that even though the percepts are registered outside of awareness, the perception is preconscious, something that can become conscious relatively easily when compared with something unconscious that can become conscious only with great difficulty. Nonetheless, there are important differences in the ease with which preconscious perceptions can enter conscious awareness. Some preconscious thoughts emerge very easily, but the kind of subliminal perception that Fisher is dealing with emerges with a fair amount of difficulty and is accompanied by strong emotion (p. 75-76). Fisher continues:

“[T]he type of perception involved in these experiments preconscious because, although the percepts are taken in and registered outside of awareness, they are capable of being made conscious. Kris (1950) has pointed out that preconcious is what is capable of becoming conscious easily and under conditions which frequently arise. It is different from unconscious processes in the case of which such a transformation is difficult, can only come about with considerable expenditure of energy, or may never occur” (p. 75-76).

But Fisher notes also notes that Kris understood that there is great variation in the reaction when preconscious material emerges into consciousness. Some of it emerges very easily without being noticed. But the preconscious percepts under consideration emerge accompanied by very strong emotional reactions. “[T]he subjects in these experiments…showed great astonishment and wonder when they recognized the dream images after confrontation with their tachistoscopically exposed pictures” (p. 76).

Fisher states that free association was not enough to bring these subliminal percepts into conscious awareness and that the subjects had to be confronted with both their drawings and the original subliminal stimulus. Potzl (1917) found that subjects were also very likely to forget what they had drawn. And Fisher found that the visual percepts were not only taken from the tachistoscopically presented stimuli, but also from everything surrounding the experiment, such as paintings in the hallway that the subject saw on the way to the experiment. Fisher though the visual percepts were basically structured around the transference to the experimenter and the experimental situation (p. 76-77).

Furthermore, Potzl’s finding that the parts of the picture that were consciously perceived did not appear in the subject’s dream turned out not to be true in the experiments of Fisher and his colleagues, and in the work of Shevrin and his colleagues also. Both consciously perceived and subliminally perceived stimuli can appear in dreams. Often there is a “double registration”:

“Some of the visual structures are registered twice, once consciously, once preconsciously. The preconscious percept is registrered with much greater accuracy and involves details not appearing in the conscious percept. For example, in experiment IV, the guard and the sentry box were consciously perceived as a silo, but preconsciously there was registration of many of the details of the figure of the guard and the structure of the sentry box… As opposed to the conscious percepts, the preconscious percepts appear to be connected with more deeply repressed material” (p. 76-78).

To return to Fisher’s ideas about the transference, Fisher notes that subjects didn’t dream if they weren’t given any instructions to record dreams, and he seems to be unaware that everyone has four or five dreams a night, whether they remember them or not. Rapid eye movement sleep (REM) was being discovered in Chicago at about the same time that Fisher was working in New York. In any event, Fisher states, “the instruction to record dreams functions as an indirect but highly effective suggestion to dream and is interpreted as a command to dream about the [tachistoscopically presented] pictures” (p. 80). Fisher believes that the “experimental situation, procedure, and instructions activate unconscious wishes in relation to the experimenter” (p. 80), and that all the dreams are transference dreams. He notes that the patients had psychosomatic illnesses and he thought they had unconscious wishes to be cured. Furthermore, there is growing evidence that the most exciting and/or anxiety-provoking stimulus is selected as the day residue for dreaming and creates a match between the pictorial memories and ideas from the past (Reiser, 1997, 1999; Winson, 1986).

Fisher also has some interesting observations about modern art, and particularly Picasso’s work. Fisher notes that memory images of subliminal stimuli easily can be apperceived as something else, and he points out that, similarly, Picasso’s bronze, Baboon and Young, has a face composed of toy automobile, with the hood of the car and the sloping windshield resembling the forehead, eyes and brow of the baboon. Fisher summarizes certain mechanisms of “gestalt-free perception and imagery”: the abolition of the usual figure-ground relationships, including reversals; fusions and condensations, such as the breast of one figure being also the eye of another; the percept can be multiplied, so that there can be five profiles for three dancers; displacements, such as putting both eyes on one side of the head; extensive fragmentation; loss of meaning and the acquisition of another meaning, and “frequent rotations and spatial translocations” (Fisher, 1959, p. 234-237).

The second part of the book presents four papers of experiments by Fisher and his colleagues, using more rigorous methodology, and Shevrin provides an excellent summary of these experiments.

A study done by Paul and Fisher (1959) found a relationship between whether the subject was conscious of the stimulus or not and the subliminal effect. There was a negative relationship between success at detection (consciousness) and the emergence of subliminal effects. This finding shows that subliminal effects are not a function of some degree of consciousness, and, in fact, awareness of the stimulus inhibits unconscious effects, and thus relates to the way defenses work. In other work, Shevrin, Bond et al., (1996) found “that people high in repressiveness inhibit the effect of subliminally activated unconscious conflicts from appearing consciously.” Snodgrass, Shevrin and Kopka (1993) found that an active effort to see the stimulus causes an inhibition of subliminal effects, while a passive attitude helps. (p. 248-250).

The study done by Shevrin and Fisher found primary process transformations occurring after subjects were awakened during REM sleep, and secondary process transformations occurring after being awakened during N-REM.

The final chapter reported a study by Luborsky, Rice, Phoenix and Fisher (1968) that examined the eye movements of subjects as they viewed very faint stimuli. The idea was that there should be no eye movements if the stimulus was subliminal and the subject was not consciously looking at something. They found that the eye movements began to center on target stimuli just before the subject reported seeing “something.” They also found that this centering of eye movements was positively correlated with associations to the target word.

This book will be very helpful for all clinicians in that it provides an excellent understanding of subliminal perception and how it relates to dreaming. Fisher’s work illustrates the importance of the visual and pictorial, and how that can be obscured by verbal reports. Brakel (1993), a colleague of Shevrin’s, advocates using drawing in dream interpretation. Her approach deserves serious consideration. Fisher’s papers and Shevrin’s insightful commentary will provide the clinician with a new understanding of dreaming and perception.


Brakel, L. (1993). Shall drawing become a part of free association?: Proposal for a modification in psychoanalytic technique. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 41, 359-394.
Fisher, C. (1954). Dreams and perception: the role of preconscious and primary modes of perception in dream formation. In Subliminal Explorations of Perception, Dreams, and Fantasies: The Pioneering Contributions of Charles Fisher, edited by Howard Shervin. Madison, CT: International Universities Press, Inc. 2003, Psychological Issues, Monograph 64.
Fisher, C. (1954). Further observations on the Potzl phenomenon: the effects of subliminal visual stimulation on dreams, images, and hallucinations. In Subliminal Explorations of Perception, Dreams, and Fantasies: The Pioneering Contributions of Charles Fisher, edited by Howard Shevrin. Madison, CT: International Universities Press, Inc. 2003, Psychological Issues, Monograph 64.
Fleiss, R. (1953). The Revival of Interest in the Dream. New York: International Universities Press.
Helm, F.L. (2004). Conscious, unconscious and nonconscious communication: Subliminal and supraliminal priming. Presented at the Winter Meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association. January 2004, New York, NY.
Kris, E. (1950). On preconscious mental processes. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 19, 540-560.
Luborsky, L., Rice, R., Phoenix, D. and Fisher, C. (1968). In Subliminal Explorations of Perception, Dreams, and Fantasies: The Pioneering Contributions of Charles Fisher, edited by Howard Shervin. Madison, CT: International Universities Press, Inc. 2003, Psychological Issues, Monograph 64.
Paul, I.H. and Fisher, C. (1959). Subliminal visual stimulation: A study of its influence on subsequent images and dreams. In Subliminal Explorations of Perception, Dreams, and Fantasies: The Pioneering Contributions of Charles Fisher, edited by Howard Shervin. Madison, CT: International Universities Press, Inc. 2003, Psychological Issues, Monograph 64.
Potzl, O. (1917). Experimentall erregte Traumbilder in ihren Beziehungen sum indirekten Sehen. Zeitschr. f. Neurol. & Psychiat., 37, 278-349.
Reiser, M.F. (1997). The art and science of dream interpretation: Isakower revisited. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 45, 892-905.
Reiser, M.F. (1999). Commentary on The New Neuropsychology of Sleep by Hobson, J. A. (1999). In Neuro-Psychoanalysis, 1, 201-206.
Schacter, D.L. (1992). Priming and multiple memory systems: Perceptual mechanisms of implicit memory. Journal of Cognitive Neurosciences, 4, 244-256.
Schacter, D.L. (1995). Implicit memory: a new frontier for cognitive neuroscience. In The Cognitive Neurosciences, Gazzaniga, M.S., eds. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 815-824.
Schacter, D.L. (1996). Searching for Memory. New York: Basic Books, Inc.
Shevrin, H., Bond, J.A., Brakel, L. A.W., Hertel, R.K. and Williams, W.J. (1996). Conscious and Unconscious Processes: Psychodynamic, Cognitive, and Neurophysiological Convergences. New York: Guilford Press.
Shevrin, H. and Fisher, C. (1967), Changes in the effects of a waking subliminal stimulus as a function of dreaming and nondreaming. In Subliminal Explorations of Perception, Dreams, and Fantasies: The Pioneering Contributions of Charles Fisher, edited by Howard Shervin. Madison, CT: International Universities Press, Inc. 2003, Psychological Issues, Monograph 64.
Snodgrass, M., Shevrin, H. and Kopka, M. (1993). The mediation of intentional judgments by unconscious perceptions: The influences of task strategy, task preference, word meaning, and motivation. Consciousness and Cognition, 2, 194-203.
Winson, J. (1986). Brain and Psyche. New York: Vintage Books.


© APA Div. 39 (Psychoanalysis). All rights reserved. Readers therefore must apply the same principles of fair use to the works in this electronic archive that they would to a published, printed archive. These works may be read online, downloaded for personal or educational use, or the URL of a document (from this server) included in another electronic document. No other distribution or mirroring of the texts is allowed. The texts themselves may not be published commercially (in print or electronic form), edited, or otherwise altered without the permission of the Division of Psychoanalysis. All other interest and rights in the works, including but not limited to the right to grant or deny permission for further reproduction of the works, the right to use material from the works in subsequent works, and the right to redistribute the works by electronic means, are retained by the Division of Psychoanalysis. Direct inquiries to the chair of the Publications Committee.