Classroom Lecture Notes: Quick Overview of the work of Calvin S. Hall

by G. William Domhoff

These are my own notes that I use when teaching classes about dream research. They may be of use to those looking for some general information about Calvin Hall's research on dreams.

  • Hall's work gave us a cognitive theory of dreams, three methods of studying dreams whatever our theory may be (a thematic dream series method, a metaphoric method, and a quantitative method called content analysis), along with a set of empirical findings on the consistency of patterns and specific elements (like percentage of male characters, rate of aggression) in a dream series. His work also gives us evidence that most dream conceptions are continuous with waking thoughts and concerns. Hall was able to bring dreams into academic psychology because he had legitimacy as a behavior geneticist and power as a departmental chair in a large university.
  • Hall's theory is that dreams express our "conceptions," which is more complex than it sounds because we can have more than one conception of ourselves and others, and our conceptions of self or others can be contradictory. Further, our conceptions are part of a huge conceptual system which is the basis for most of our actions in the world.
  • Hall said dreams are the "embodiment" of thoughts, which perhaps relates to today's concern with "embodied cognition." He said dreams are dramatizations of our thoughts. They are enactments. They are more like plays than any other waking analogue. Dreams thus reveal more than they conceal, although some people are more aware of their conceptions than others are. The most frequent conceptions expressed in dreams are those of self and significant others, along with our general conceptions of the world (e.g., as expressed in types of settings, weather conditions), our conceptions of our impulses, and our conceptions of our conflicts.
  • Hall found that the frequency of a character, social interaction, object, or type of setting reveals the intensity of that concern for the individual. Thus, we can say that for Hall dreams reveal conceptions and concerns.
  • Hall also had a theory of symbolism as the use of the same figurative thinking we do in waking life, but his general theory does not require a focus on symbolism. Nor he did not find a great deal of it in dreams. (I used my comments on Hall's theory of symbolism to raise the age-old issue of whether puzzling aspects of dream content are random filler/nonsense, as some physicians and physiologists still say, or are they meaningful figurative expressions, as they are for Freud, Jung, and Hall.
  • Hall found it a strike against Freud's disguise theory of symbols that some dreams in a series seem straightforward on an issue like sexuality, while others may be metaphoric. This suggested to him that symbols/metaphors in dreams are used because they express some concepts better and more succinctly, as in "one picture is worth a thousand words," or as in a telling political cartoon on the editorial pages. He also found that the same symbols are used in everyday slang. Then he asked why there would be so many sexual symbols when just a few would do for disguise, and he answered that different symbols expressed different conceptions, as in the fact that the alleged phallic symbols gun, tool, and banana express very different conceptions of sexuality--as aggressive, as workmanlike, as more natural.
  • Hall had several criteria for identifying possible metaphoric elements: (1) any element that is distorted from its usual state, any highly unusual placement, use, or change in any element; (2) any metamorphosis of a person or object or any composite person place, or object; (3) any uncommon element repeated in a dream series; and (4) all animals not belonging to the dreamer, which builds on Jung and also the fact that we use animals very frequently in waking life to express personifications of self or others (Person X is an animal, a dirty dog, catty, etc).

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