A Cognitive Theory of Dreams
Calvin S. Hall
NOTE: If you use this paper in research, please use the following citation, as this on-line version is simply a reprint of the original article:
Hall, C. S. (1953). A cognitive theory of dreams. The Journal of General Psychology, 49, 273-282. Abridged version in M. F. DeMartino (Ed.). (1959). Dreams and Personality Dynamics (pp. 123-134). Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.
In the final years of the nineteenth century, Freud formulated a
theory of the dream which has proved exceedingly useful to the
clinical practitioner and to a lesser extent to the personality
theorist for verifying propositions derived from dynamic theories of
personality. Freud was very proud of his first original and
independent achievement in psychological theorizing, so much so that
he appears to have been reluctant to alter it as he did so many other
discoveries of these early years.
In a singularly mistitled lecture Revision of the Theory of
Dreams published in 1933, Freud revises his original theory to the
extent of adding the italicized word to the fundamental proposition,
"the dream is an attempted wish-fulfillment." In this same essay,
Freud observes that "the analysts behave as though they had nothing
more to say about the dream, as though the whole subject of
dream-theory was finished and done with." Freud must have had himself
in mind as well as his colleagues when he made this observation for
in his valedictory he abides by his original formulation, despite the
fact that the psychoanalytic theory of the person had made great
strides in the intervening 40 years. Probably the most noteworthy
advances made by Freud in his later years were a revised theory of
anxiety, a new theory of motivation, and the development of a far
reaching ego theory. Of these three, ego theory has had the greatest
impact upon current psychoanalytic theorizing.
What we should like to do in this paper is to bring dream theory
within the context of ego psychology by defending the proposition
that dreaming is a cognitive process. Before addressing ourselves to
this theisis, let us define a dream. A dream is a succession of
images, predominantly visual in quality, which are experienced during
sleep. A dream commonly has one or more scenes, several characters in
addition to the dreamer, and a sequence of actions and interactions
usually involving the dreamer. It resembles a motion picture or
dramatic production in which the dreamer is a participant-observer.
Although a dream is an hallucination, the dreamer experiences it as
he does any perceptual phenomenon. Scenes, people, objects, and
actions are experienced as though they were impressing themselves on
the senses from the external world. The world of dreams, it goes
without saying, is a world of pure projection.
The principal thesis of this paper is that these images of a
dream are the embodiment of thoughts. They are a medium by which a
psychological process, cognition, is transformed into a form that can
be perceived. Although images are the only means by which ideas find
sensible expression in dreams, other media such as words, numbers,
gestures, and pictures are employed in waking life for making one's
thoughts known. When thought is made perceptible, it is said to be
communicated. Unlike the communications of waking life, which may
have an audience of millions, the audience of a dream consists of
only one person, the dreamer himself. A dream is a highly private
showing of the dreamer's thoughts.
In order to develop the thesis of this paper, it is necessary
to say a few words about thinking. Thinking is a process of
conceiving. The end-product of this process is a conception (idea). A
conception is an item of knowledge, a formulation of experience which
has meaning for a person. It is derived ultimately from experience
but it is not dependent for its existence at any given moment upon
the reception of sensory impressions from the external world or from
one's body. In other words, conceiving is an autonomous process that
requires no direct sensory data. It may be contrasted with
perceiving, a process which is dependent upon direct stimulation of
the senses. One perceives a wintry landscape when one looks out at a
scene as it exists in the world and incorporates through the eyes a
pattern of light waves which is the raw material for the formation of
One has a conception of winter when one thinks of it
as being a time of cold weather, snow, short days, icy streets, and
bare trees. One can conceive of winter at any time of the year, but
one can only perceive winter during the winter. Although not a great
deal is known about the process of conceiving, we are fairly well
acquainted with its products, i.e., conceptions or ideas, since they
are rendered perceptible in a variety of forms including dreams. An
artist expresses his conceptions in visual terms, while writers and
speakers use words to make their ideas public. Mathematicians employ
numbers and symbols for conveying their thoughts, and musicians
express themselves in patterns of tone, rhythm, intensity, and
quality. A dancer embodies her ideas in physical movement, a sculptor
in three dimensional forms, and an architect in buildings. The
formulation and communication of ideas are the essence of all
We return now to dreaming and dreams. If dreaming is defined as
thinking that occurs during sleep, and if thinking consists
essentially of generating ideas, then dreaming is also a process of
conceiving and the resulting dream images may be viewed as the
embodiment of conceptions. That which is invisible, namely a
conception, becomes visible when it is transformed into a dream
image. The images of a dream are pictures of conceptions. A dream is
a work of art which requires of the dreamer no particular talent,
special training, or technical competence. Dreaming is a creative
enterprise in which all may and most do participate.
If dreaming consists of transforming conceptions into images,
then dream interpretation reverses this process; images are
translated into their referent ideas. How is this translation
accomplished? It is accomplished by drawing inferences from material
in the dream text, and by checking these inferences against other
dreams of the person or against other information about the person.
Although we cannot describe the methods of interpreting dreams within
the limits of this paper, some general remarks regarding dream
interpretation may be made here. To interpret a dream means,
according to the theory presented in this paper, to discover the
conceptions or conceptual systems of the dreamer, these conceptions
may be inferred from a number of lines of evidence, some of which are
as follows: (a) the actions and qualities of the dreamer in the
dream, i.e., the role or roles played by the dreamer, (b) the kind of
characters introduced in the dream, (c) the actions and qualities
assigned to them, (d) the nature of the interactions between the
dreamer and these characters, and between the characters themselves,
(e) the setting or dream scene (f) transitions within the dream, and
(g) the outcome of the dream. The final objective of dream
interpretation is not to understand the dream but rather to
understand the dreamer.
What kinds of conceptions are found in dreams? One is tempted
to reply all kinds but this is not correct since many ideas seem to
be excluded from dreams. Dreams are relatively silent regarding
political and economic questions; they have little or nothing to say
about current events in the world of affairs. I was collecting dreams
daily from students during the last days of the war with Japan when
the first atomic bomb was exploded, yet this catastrophe did not
register in a single dream. Presidential elections, declarations of
war, the diplomatic struggles of great powers, major athletic
contests, local happenings that make the headlines, all are pretty
largely ignored in dreams. A count of characters in a large sample of
dreams reveals that the number of prominent people appearing in
dreams is very small. Nor are intellectual, scientific, cultural and
professional topics or the affairs of finance, business, and industry
the subject matter of dreams.
What then is left? The whole world of the personal, the
intimate, the emotional, and the conflictful remain. These are the
ideas which register in dreams. For the sake of discussion, we shall
present a classification of some common conceptions found in dreams.
(a) Conceptions of Self.
A dream is a mirror that reflects the
self-conceptions of the dreamer. Ideas of self are revealed by the
repertoire of parts taken by the dreamer in a series of dreams. The
repertoire may consist of a few roles, or it may be extensive and
varied. In one dream series, for example, the dreamer is pictured as
a great general, a rich and influential man, and an important steel
manufacturer. In each case, however, he loses his power by being
disabled in vigorous combat with a superior force. Here we see that a
self-conception of strength and potency cannot be maintained. A
typical dream of strength turning into weakness is the following one:
"I was sitting knee deep in quarters in my room. People kept
rushing into my room and stealing handfuls of money. I chased after
them, grasping them violently and retrieving my money, But after a
while so many people kept grabbing my money at once that I couldn't
chase them all so I just sat there and cried."
This young man's conceptions of himself are disjunctive; he
is both strong and weak, with weakness winning out over strength.
Perhaps no other medium gives us a more candid picture of
what a person thinks about himself than do dreams. It was Ralph Waldo
Emerson who wrote: "A skillful man reads his dreams for his
(b) Conceptions of Other People.
Dreams reveal what the
dreamer thinks about his mother and father, his brothers and sisters,
his spouse and children, and diverse other classes of people. These
conceptions, like those of self, are embodied in the roles played by
the various characters. If the dreamer conceives of his father as a
stern demanding, autocratic person, the father is assigned a part
that is in keeping with this conception. If he thinks of his mother
as a nurturant person, she will perform some service in the dream to
depict her nurturance. Young men commonly dream about being attacked
by other men, thereby displaying a conception of enmity that exists
in males for other males. Less commonly young men are friendly with
other men. Women also conceive of men as attackers but their dreams
reveal many other conceptions. In a single dream series, multiple
conceptions of the same person or class of persons are the rule
rather than the exception, which suggests that the average person has
a network of conceptions regarding his mother, father, siblings, and
various other individuals and classes with whom he interacts during
waking life. These ideational or cognitive networks are conceptual
systems, and it is one of the aims of dream analysis to delineate
these conceptual systems.
(c) Conceptions of the World.
By the world is meant
the totality of the environment, that which is not-self. In dreams as
in poetic fancy the world may be invested with animistic qualities
which reflect the dreamer's conceptions of the world. It may be
viewed as benign, hostile, turbulent, sorrowful, lonely, or degraded
depending upon the mood of the dreamer. These world-conceptions are
often conveyed by the character of the dream setting. If the dreamer
feels that the world presents a cold, bleak face, he may materialize
this conception in the form of a cold climate and a bleak, rocky
setting. A dreamer who feels that his world is one of turbulence and
agitation, may dream of thunderstorms, raging seas, battles, milling
Crowds, and traffic jams. A feeling that the world is benign and
peaceful can be scenically represented in dreams by serene natural
(d) Conceptions of Impulses, Prohibitions, and Penalties.
Since dreams are filled with impulse gratification, in
particular those of sex and aggression, it is not surprising that
Freud came to the conclusion that wish-fulfillment is the essence of
dreams, and that the objective of dream analysis is the discovery of
the wish which is fulfilled. It is hardly necessary, however, to
consult dreams in order to learn that man seeks gratification of his
urges. What dreams can tell us more profitably is how the dreamer
conceives of his impulses, for it is these conceptions, not the
impulses directly, that ordinarily elicit specific ways of behaving. Most
people experience a sex drive, but they differ in respect to their
conceptions of the sex drive. The sex impulse may be regarded
variously as wicked, as unclean, as a mechanical pressure needing
periodic release, as a natural force serving reproduction, as a way
of expressing love and tenderness, or as a primitive and
uncontrollable form of energy against which one wages a losing
battle. Among our collection of nocturnal emission dreams, these and
many other conceptions of this biological force appear. The following
dream reveals a purely mechanical conception of sex.
I got out of bed and went into the bathroom and
attempted to turn on the water faucet. I turned and turned but no
water came out. I then decided to call a plumber. Soon afterwards the
door opened and an individual dressed in coveralls approached me.
Upon closer examination I discovered the plumber was a female. I
scoffed at the idea of a lady plumber, but unruffled she went to the
basin, turned the faucet, and water immediately flowed. An emission
Dreams also show the person's conceptions of the
obstacles that stand in the way of the gratification of his impulses.
These obstacles are often prohibitions emanating from his conscience
and may be represented in dreams by such obstacles as walls, curbs,
and locked doors, by acts of restraint such as putting on the brakes
of a car, or by the appearance of authority figures who interrupt the
dreamer's pleasure. If an impulse is gratified, the dreamer may
express his conception of the punishment that will be visited upon
him for his transgression. He may be punished directly by another
person, or he may be the victim of misfortune. In any event, the
kinds of obstacles and the kinds of penalities which appear in dreams
are interpreted in order to throw light upon the nature of the
conceptual system which is called the superego. This conceptual
system which is assumed to be detached from the ego contains the
moral ideology of the person.
(e) Conceptions of Problems and Conflicts.
Perhaps the most important information provided by dreams is the way in
which they illuminate the basic predicaments of a person as that person
sees them. Dreams give one an inside view of the person's problems, a
personal formulation that is not so likely to be as distorted
or as superficial as are the reports made in waking life. Since it is
the way in which a person conceives of his conflicts that determines
his behavior, the inside view is a prerequisite for clear
understanding of human conduct. . . . the delineation of a person's
conflicts may be made by analyzing a dream series.
Of what value is it to know the conceptions of a
person as expressed in his dreams? How does it help the psychologist
to understand the person and thereby to predict and control his
behavior? Of one thing we can be quite certain, namely that these
conceptions are not dependable guides to objective reality; what one
conceives to be true and what is actually true do not invariably
coincide. A person may conceive of his father as a stem, autocratic
unreasonable person, when, in fact, his father does not possess these
characteristics in the eyes of impartial observers. Dreams should not
be read for the purpose of constructing a picture of objective
Our thesis is that dreams are one dependable source
of information regarding subjective reality, and that knowledge of
subjective reality is useful precisely because it does have effects
in the conduct of a person. If a boy sees his father as an autocratic
authority, he will react toward his father as though he really is
that way. In other words, these personal cognitions are the real
antecedents of behavior.
Parenthetically, we would like to observe that
psychology may have been hampered in its development because it has
tended to ignore subjective cognitions in favor of objective stimulus
variables. Stimulus conditions are varied and the effects in behavior
are noted, often without taking into consideration that the person's
conception of the stimulus may be the decisive factor. People may
react differently to the same stimulus because they have different
conceptions of the stimulus or they may react in the same way to
different stimuli because they have similar conceptions.
This is a truism whose truth is too often
forgotten in psychological experiments, although there are
indications that the pendulum is swinging back in the direction of
Although this is not the place to develop fully our
theory of conceptual systems, it is not inappropriate to mention
briefly our view that the conceptions of a person are organized into
interconnected networks. One network may consist of the conceptions
that a person has of his family, and this network in turn may be
interconnected with a network of ideas about government, or religion,
or education. A recent study has demonstrated in a convincing manner
how ideas about minority groups are intimately related with ideas
about family, religion, government, and economics. It is the task of
psychology, as we see it, to explore these conceptual systems or
personal ideologies, to show how they are interrelated, to learn how
they are developed, to demonstrate how they control and regulate
conduct, and to discover how they may be changed. In order to do all
of these things, it is necessary to devise methods of finding out
what a person's conceptions are. Attitude-opinion questionnaire
methods have reached a high level of development and are employed on
a large scale to determine people's beliefs about everything under
the sun. The value of such methods, although great, is nonetheless
limited by several factors inherent in the methods. The respondent
may not answer a question either because he does not want to or
because he does not know the answer, or he may answer it untruthfully
either intentionally or unintentionally. Moreover, the wording of the
question is an important variable. At best, questionnaires get at the
conscious and verbalizable conceptions of a person.
If one assumes, as the writer does, that the contents
of personal ideologies are pretty largely unconscious or
preconscious, then methods have to be used which will reveal these
unconscious conceptions. Projective methods, especially of the
picture-story type, lend themselves to the exploration of conceptual
systems, although they have not been employed to any great extent for
this purpose. Picture-story tests do have one drawback, however, and
that is that the person's conceptions may not be fully laid bare by
the collection of pictures used. Since the material ob
tained will be a function of the kind of pictures shown to the
person, it is possible that those conceptions which are of greatest
significance for him may not be tapped. This limitation does not
apply to dreams. The dreamer makes his own pictures of those
conceptions that are of greatest importance to him currently. Over a
period of time, his dreams will depict the essential features of his
conceptual systems. Moreover, dreams tap the unconscious and bring to
the surface those prototypic conceptions around which conceptual
systems are formed. It is our view that prototypic conceptions have
their origin in early life and that they are more likely to express
themselves in dreams than through any other medium. For these
reasons, we feel that dreams constitute the best material for
studying the conceptual systems of a person and that such knowledge
is absolutely essential if we are to understand why people behave as
We shall conclude by demonstrating how the views
presented in this paper may be utilized in analyzing a dream. The
following dream was reported by a young man.
I was at the blackboard in a school room doing a trig
problem but I was having trouble with it because I could not remember
the valence of nitrogen. I was about to give up on it when a girl
came up to me and asked if I would like to dance. The music was good
but very erratic, being very fast one instant and very slow the next;
however, we were always exactly in step. She was an excellent dancer.
When the music stopped we were both in the school shower but we still
had our clothes on. I wanted to take hers off and make love to her
but I had never done anything like that before so we just laughed and
Then I was outside the school. It was night and
lights shone in all the windows silhouetting a wild orgy of a party.
I felt very lonely. I wanted to go inside but something seemed to
hold me back. I heard chimes ringing in the church.
In the opening scene, we see the dreamer hard at work
on a mathematical problem with which he is having difficulty. His
self-conception is that of an industrious student engaged in a purely
intellectual task for which he does not have the requisite knowledge.
A girl appears and invites him to dance; that is, he conceives of the
girl as a temptress and of himself as her victim.
At her bidding, he leaves the hardships of intellectual activity for
the pleasures of sensuality. Their sensuality stops short of complete
fulfillment because he cannot conceive of himself as consummating the
sexual act. The scene changes in line with a new conception. The
dreamer now sees himself as a lonely outsider looking in on a wild
orgy. He would like to go in, but he is held back by an unidentified
force. The church bells, embodying as they do ideas of virtue and
morality, suggest that the unknown force is his own conception of
This dream, then, reveals two opposing conceptual
systems, one which contains the young man's conception of himself as
a moral, industrious, and intellectual person, the other which
contains his conception of himself as a sensual being. These
disjunctive conceptions tend to inhibit one another. He cannot
maintain a consistent conception of himself as being either moral or
sensual. When he is doing the "right" thing, he is lured away by
sexuality; when he is doing the "wrong" thing, he is pulled away by
morality. A self-conception of inadequacy for either role is
portrayed by his inability to solve the intellectual task or to
fulfill his sexual wish. In this dream we see that it is not the sex
drive per se that is of significance, but rather his conception of it
as being forbidden to him.
Other dreams collected from this young man help to
fill out the contents of his conceptual systems. In one dream, he
does consummate the sex act, but only because the girl actively
seduces him. This suggests that his conception of morality can be
subordinated when he sees himself as the victim of external forces.
Even in this dream, however, the dreamer feels ashamed because he is
so easily excited. His personal ideology regarding women is an
interesting yet not uncommon one. Women are of two types:
aggressively sexual women who seduce men and pure women who are to be
loved in a respectful manner but with whom sexual relations are
forbidden prior to marriage.
We have spoken of the disjunctive nature of the
dreamer's moral and immoral self-conceptions. In one dream he makes a
partial fusion of these opposed views.
I was studying for a test with my girl. We were lying
on the bed in her room reviewing our notes and asking each other
questions about them. As each topic would come up, instead of
discussing the text, I would demonstrate a different point in making
love to her. Although each type of love making seemed different, it
never got beyond the kissing stage.
Work and sex are integrated, although the sex impulse
is kept within bounds. The girl in the dream is one of the "nice"
girls in the dreamer's life toward whom he would not be likely to
have unrestrained sexual feelings.
The argument presented in this paper consists of the following assertions:
1. Dreaming is a cognitive activity, and a dream is a pictorial representation of the dreamer's conceptions.
2. Dream interpretation consists of discovering the conceptions that lie behind the dream images.
3. Conceptions represented in dreams usually fall into one of the following classes: (a) self-conceptions, (b) conceptions of other people, (c) conceptions of the world, (d) conceptions of impulses, prohibitions, and penalties, and (e) conceptions of conflicts.
4. Conceptions are organized into conceptual systems, and these systems are the antecedents of behavior.
5. Dreams provide excellent material for the analysis of conceptual systems since they portray unconscious and prototypic conceptions.
6. The theory presented in this paper represents an extension of ego psychology to include dreaming as a function of the ego.
It is doubtful whether a pure perception ever takes place.
Perceptions are probably always acted upon and changed by
autochthonous processes within the person, the chief of which may be
The expression "objective reality" is used in contrast to
"subjective reality." By the former, we mean those conceptions of
reality which can be publicly demonstrated and repeatedly verified.
By the latter, we mean those conceptions of reality which reside in a
person's mind irrespective of whether these conceptions can be
demonstrated and verified. Both kinds of conceptions are "real"
inasmuch as they both have "effects."
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