Any survey of modern dream research must include Calvin Hall (1909-1985). Hall was a behavioral psychologist who explored the cognitive dimensions of dreaming. His work began before the discovery of REM sleep, so little was known about the biology of sleep and dreams. Hall drew worldwide attention for his cognitive theory of dreaming, which was among the first scientific theories of dream interpretation based on quantitative analysis… rather than wishful thinking.
Dreams Images are the Embodiment of Thought
Central to Hall’s cognitive theory is that dreams are thoughts displayed in the mind’s private theater as visual concepts. Like Jung, Hall dismissed the Freudian notion that dreams are trying to cover something up. In his classic work The Meaning of Dreams (1966), Hall writes, “The images of a dream are the concrete embodiments of the dreamer’s thoughts; these images give visual expression to that which is invisible, namely, conceptions.” (p. 95).
So dreams reveal the structure of how we envision our lives, a display that is clearly valuable for anyone who remembers and studies their own dreams.
The Way We See the World
After studying thousands of dreams collected from his students and from around the world, Hall suggested that the main cognitive structures that dreams reveal include:
- conceptions of self (how we appear to ourselves, the roles we play in life)
- conceptions of others (the people in our lives and how we react to their needs
- conceptions of the world (our environment: is it a barren wasteland or a nurturing place?)
- conceptions of penalties (how we view the Man. What is allowed? What is forbidden?)
- conceptions of conflict (our inner discord and how we struggle with resolving it).
As a behavioral psychologist, Hall believed these conceptions are antecedents to our behavior in the waking world. They’re like maps to our actions, and “with these maps we are able to follow the course of man’s behavior, to understand why he selects one road rather than another, to anticipate the difficulties and obstacles he will encounter, and to predict his destinations.” (as qtd in Van De Castle, p. 190)
Content Analysis: the Hall-Van de Castle Scale
Hall’s work is still widely cited today, but his greatest legacy is the system of dream content analysis he developed with psychologist Robert Van De Castle in the 1960s.
Known as the Hall Van De Castle scale, this quantitative system scores a dream report with 16 empirical scales. Some scales are settings, objects, people, animals, and mythological creatures. You know, the sort of things you see walking down the street on any given day. (If you haven’t seen any chimeras or griffins recently, then you’re working too much). Other scales include emotions, sexual content, aggression, etc. .
The value of the project is that there are now hundreds of thousands of dreams measured using the HVdC system, creating a “baseline” for normal dreaming cognition. So researchers can add dreams from special interest groups (children, Vietnam vets, Armenian students) to measure their profiles against the norm. (see Figure 1 for an example of the possibilities)
This innovation is a huge milestone in the scientific study of dreams. Now researchers can easily get a snapshot of dreaming cognition that is measurable, quantitative, and statistically significant. Besides psychologists, this scale is still used widely today by sociologists and anthropologists.
And thanks to Hall’s student Bill Domhoff, now a powerful dream research figure in his own right, much of Hall and Van De Castle’s database is available online.
Dream content has coherent meaning—that is the main message behind Hall’s work with dreams. This view later came under fire by the controversial work of neuroscientist Allan Hobson, who implied that dreams may be nothing more than images stitched together from random brain pulses. This rift may be the central conflict in dream studies today.
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