In Memoriam: U.Va.’s Dream Researcher, Robert Van de Castle

February 07, 2014

Psychologist Robert L. Van de Castle, an expert in dreams who worked at the University of Virginia Health System for 25 years, died Jan. 29 in Charlottesville. He was 86.

In his 1994 book, “Our Dreaming Mind,” he wrote, “I have been the white-coated scientist attaching EEG electrodes to a subject’s head and face to study his or her sleep and dream patterns, and I have been the pajama-wearing research subject to whom other scientists have attached EEG electrodes.”

Van de Castle, who joined the faculty in 1967, was a professor of behavioral medicine and psychiatry (now psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences) when he retired at the end of 1992. His life’s work was devoted to dreams and dream research. He was also interested in parapsychology and using scientific investigation to study psychic phenomena.

Jean-Marc Emden and Matt Tabrizi, co-founders of the website, DreamsCloud, described him as “the grandfather of dreams.”

“He was a rare and unique integrator of science, research, dreams and anthropology,” Emden wrote, “with unparalleled knowledge that was rooted within the strictest of academia, life and field experience.”

Colleague Carlos Alvarado, who was a research assistant in U.Va.’s Division of Parapsychology (now Division of Perceptual Studies), wrote that Van de Castle had recently been to Panama to conduct a study of dreams and ESP, and he wrote about the trip just two days before he died.

Van de Castle served as director of the U.Va. Sleep and Dream Laboratory (now the Sleep Disorders Center) from 1967 to 1985.

His laboratory experience researching psychic phenomena in dreams extended more than 40 years. He co-wrote, with his mentor, Calvin Hall, the classic and influential book, “The Content Analysis of Dreams,” published in 1966. From 1961 to 1965, he studied dreams collected in the sleep laboratory at Hall’s Institute of Dream Research in Miami. Hall and Van de Castle revolutionized the objective study of dream content with a comprehensive coding system.

Van de Castle and colleagues argued that just as every individual has his or her own distinctive and unique fingerprint, each person has a particular “dreamprint.”

“Each of us develops our own associations to experiences that have had an emotional impact upon us,” Van de Castle wrote on his website. Thus, he was not a proponent of dream dictionaries, not even Sigmund Freud’s dream symbols.

He also published “The Psychology of Dreaming” in 1971. In addition, Van de Castle was president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams from1985 to 1986, and was the first recipient of that association’s Lifetime Achievement Award. He was also a past president of the Parapsychological Association in 1970. Most recently, he was on the advisory board of DreamsCloud.

An interview with Van de Castle for DreamsCloud from a year ago can be seen here.

Van de Castle discussed dreams with such national TV show hosts as Phil Donahue, Barbara Walters, David Letterman, Tom Snyder and Mike Douglas. He also spoke on Voice of America and had articles appearing in prominent newspapers and popular magazines.

He received his B.A in psychology at Syracuse University in 1951, his M.A. in clinical psychology at the University of Missouri in 1953 and his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of North Carolina in 1959.

Charlottesville Daily Progress obituary

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