Cognitive Theory of Dreaming Explained


Calvin Hall developed the cognitive theory of dreaming before the discovery of REM sleep. Before this theory, the ideas of dreaming often involved wishful thinking rather than scientific analysis. For Hall, a dream was more about the brain using visual concepts to process information instead of trying to cover up something shameful or a regret.

Hall believed that the images of a dream are the embodiment of the thoughts that an individual happens to have. The images of a dream would therefore be an expression of those thoughts, helping a person move from expression to conception. This means a dream would essentially envision how someone wanted to live their lives according to the cognitive theory of dreaming.

Are Dreams a Reflection of How We See the World?

Hall received thousands of different dreams that his students submitted for consideration. He also received dreams from people from all over the world. In studying these dreams, he developed 5 specific observations that would become the foundation of the cognitive theory of dreaming.

  • Dreams are a conception of self, which means we dream about the roles we play in life and how we think about ourselves.
  • Dreams are a conception of others, which means we dream about how we react to meeting the needs of loved ones, friends, and the other people in our lives.
  • Dreams are a conception of the world, so we dream about our environment and what kind of place we have created for ourselves.
  • Dreams are a conception of consequences, so we dream about how we view societal structures and how we fit into them, exploring behaviors and actions that are allowed and those that may be taboo.
  • Dreams are a conception of conflict, which means we dream about internal conflicts and how we may be able to solve them.

Before Hall’s cognitive theory of dreaming, most people believed that dreams were a reaction to what happened to us in the real world. It was viewed as a method of coping or exploring who we wanted to be. Hall suggests that the opposite is true with this theory. Dreams, he proposed, were a roadmap to what we would then make of our lives in the real world.

By using the maps that a dream could provide, we can begin to understand the decisions that we make. It also allows us to anticipate detours or obstacles that could be encountered so that the most efficient route to a destination could be achieved.

Do Dreams Produce Content that is Coherent?

Hall believed that dreams have a coherent meaning. This is in conflict with the work of other dream researchers, who believe that dreams may be nothing more than specific images that the brain has stitched together through random brain pulses and firing neurons.

Hall’s work helped to determine that dreams tend to change as people age. Dreams can also change based on the experiences people have in life. Children, for example, tend to have many dreams about animals when they are younger in age. Children at the age of 4, according to Hall’s work, have 60% of their dreams involved animals. By the time they reach the age of 7-8, the number of animal dreams is reduced to less than 30%. Then at the age of 15, fewer than 10% of dreams involve animals.

Hall also showed that dreams could be compared against a general population guideline to determine the status of an individual’s personal health. People who serve in war, for example, could have their dreams compared against the dreams of the general population to determine if they are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The dreams of children could be evaluated to determine the environment of their home.

What We Can Take from the Cognitive Theory of Dreaming

We now know that REM sleep unlocks the dreaming process. The language of dreaming shows that certain parts of the brain are active during dreams while others are inactive. This allows us to see the irrational as a normal event, while emotional processing and symbolic identities can be explored. There is the perception of movement and the rapid eye movement makes the brain trick you into believing that you are awake.

Hall’s cognitive theory of dreaming still has relevance in the fact that the brain can perceive and process information during this period of time. Rather than cope with something shameful, the mind uses dreaming as a way to communicate, setting forth a roadmap for a potential journey that can be taken.