Philosophy and science have spent millennia trying to answer the question of why we have dreams. Humans still don’t know why we dream despite extensive scientific investigation on the subject. Despite the fact that much about dreams is still unknown, several experts have formed hypotheses regarding their purpose, with fresh empirical study providing greater clarity.
What Is a Dream?
The pictures, thoughts, and feelings that a person has when asleep are all included in what is referred to as a “dream.” Intense and emotional dreams can be as vague, ephemeral, disorienting, or dull as you like. Dreams can be upbeat or depressing, depending on the content. Dreams can have a clear storyline at times, while other times they appear to have no narrative at all.
Although much remains to be discovered about the mysterious world of dreaming, scientists have discovered that everyone, regardless of whether they remember it or not, dreams every time they go to sleep, for a total of roughly two hours per night.
There’s more to dreams than just what’s in them, and that’s why we have them. Here are some of the most popular beliefs about the purpose of dreams and how they might be applied to individual dreams.
How Do Scientists Study Dreams?
When a person wakes up from a dream, he or she is expected to recall the events that occurred during the night. However, objective evaluation in a laboratory can also be used to accomplish observation.
Researchers in one study even constructed a rudimentary map of dream content using MRI data to track what patients dreamed about in real time. Upon awaking, the dreamers’ accounts corroborated the map.
The Role of Dreams
According to some of the most popular dream theories, the purpose of dreams is to:
- Remind yourself of important details.
- Feelings must be processed.
- Tell the world what we really want.
- Rehearse dealing with probable threats
Many specialists feel that we dream for a variety of causes rather than for any one hypothesis in particular. Additionally, some experts argue that dreams have no true significance at all despite the fact that many academics consider them crucial to mental, emotional, and physical health
While various hypotheses have been suggested, there is no clear consensus as to why we dream.
It’s possible that having different kinds of dreams at different stages of sleep has its own benefits. During rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, we have the most vivid dreams, and it is these that we are most likely to remember. Non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) sleep is also associated with dreaming, but those dreams are less vivid and more commonplace.
Dreams May Reflect the Unconscious
If you believe that dreams are an expression of our deepest ambitions, thoughts, wishes, and motives, then Sigmund Freud’s theory of dreams is a good fit. 4 For Freud, human behavior is governed by repressed and unconscious desires, such the want to be violent or sexually aggressive.
The “dream rebound effect,” also known as the “dream rebound theory,” says that suppressing a thought leads to dreams about it, despite the fact that many of Freud’s claims have been disproven.
What Causes Dreams to Happen?
Dreams are “disguised fulfillments of repressed wishes,” according to Freud in “The Interpretation of Dreams.” He also explained that dreams have two types of content: those that can be seen and those that can’t be seen (hidden meaning).
Due in large part to Freud’s work, dream interpretation has become increasingly commonplace. Some experts feel that dreams play a crucial role in processing emotions and stressful events, even if research has failed to show that the evident content of a dream conceals its psychological significance.
Dreams Process Information
The activation-synthesis hypothesis of dreaming, first presented by J. Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley, states that during REM sleep, circuits in the brain are activated, causing the amygdala and hippocampus to produce an array of electrical impulses. 6 As a result, when you sleep, you wake up with a jumbled mess of memories, images, and thoughts.
To make sense of a dream, the images and memories that we have stored in our minds are put together when we wake up.
When we wake up from our dreams, according to the activation-synthesis concept, they are a collection of seemingly unrelated events that appeared to our sleeping minds. Even in the waking world, dreams have the power to spark new relationships between people and provide helpful ideas and creative breakthroughs. 8
Dreams Aid In Memory
To put it another way, sleep permits us to consolidate and absorb the knowledge and memories we accumulated during the day. Some dream theorists argue that dreaming is a result of this experience processing, if not an active element of it.
The self-organization theory of dreaming proposes that the process of consolidating memories in the brain during sleep has the unintended consequence of dreaming as a byproduct. 8 It has been proposed that memories are either reinforced or diminished as a result of this process of unconscious information redistribution. Our valuable memories get stronger while our less useful ones fade away, according to the self-organization theory of dreams.
When a person dreams about completing a difficult activity, their performance improves. People’s brains are also more active during REM sleep while they’re learning, storing, and remembering new knowledge, according to research.
Dreams Spur Creativity
Another possibility for the meaning of dreams is that they’re meant to aid us in solving issues. Unconstrained by the constraining realities of the waking world, the unconscious mind is free to roam its infinite potential in this idea of dreaming. Indeed, research has proven that dreaming is a powerful tool for stimulating creativity.
Many people’s significant “aha” moments may be traced back to the inspiration they found in their dreams, as both scientific and anecdotal evidence shows.
One of the best ways to spark creativity is to make connections between the memories and ideas that arise in your dreams in an unexpected way.
Dreams Reflect Your Life
Dreams, according to the continuity theory, are a reflection of a person’s waking life and include their conscious experiences. 8 Dreams are more like a collage of memories than a direct replication of waking reality.
Non-REM sleep, on the other hand, appears to be more engaged in declarative memory (the more routine stuff), while REM dreams include more emotive and instructive memories. 4 Non-REM dreams are generally more difficult to recollect than REM dreams.
Memory fragmentation in our dreams may be a deliberate effort to incorporate new information and experiences into long-term memory, according to the continuity theory. 7 Some components of our memories appear more strongly in our dreams than others, although the reasons for this remain obscure.
Dreams Prepare and Protect
Theories of dreaming such as primitive instinct rehearsal and adaptive strategy suggest that we dream in order to better prepare ourselves to face real-world hazards. The dream serves as a secure place for the dreamer to practice critical survival skills since it serves as a social simulation.
While we sleep, we hone our impulses to fight or flee and develop the mental capacity to deal with dangerous situations. When we sleep, our brains activate the fight-or-flight mechanism to prepare us for life-threatening and emotionally stressful situations, according to the threat simulation theory
- The act of fleeing a pursuer
- A cliff-jumping accident
- Wearing nothing except a loincloth
- The act of urinating in a public place
- Making the mistake of not studying for a final examination.
According to this hypothesis, we get an evolutionary advantage by exercising or rehearsing these skills in our dreams so that we can better deal with or avoid dangerous situations in the real world. Because of this, we can better understand why so many dreams are filled with frightening, dramatic, or intense material.
Dreams Help Process Emotions
As far as the emotional regulation idea goes, dreams are supposed to assist us absorb and cope with our emotions or trauma while we sleep.
When people are dreaming, the amygdala, which processes emotions, and the hippocampus, which helps consolidate information and move it from short-term to long-term memory storage, are active. Dreaming, memory storage, and emotional processing are all linked in a strong way.
This idea implies that REM sleep plays an important role in the regulation of emotional brain activity. Emotional or painful experiences are more likely to recur in dreams, which may help explain why so many people have emotionally vivid nightmares. Emotional intelligence appears to be linked to REM sleep, as evidenced by studies.
Similarities in content and shared dreams among dreamers may aid in the development of a sense of community. Another way that dreams might help us cope is by increasing community and interpersonal support, as evidenced by research showing increased empathy among people who share their experiences.
Other Theories About Why We Dream
A wide variety of alternative hypotheses have been advanced to explain why we dream.
- We may dream because we are trying to make sense of what we are hearing and seeing around us while we sleep, according to one idea.
- In a computer analogy, another idea states that dreams “clean up” the mind, allowing the brain to be refreshed for the next day.
- According to reverse-learning, we dream of forgetting. When we dream, we “prune” the neuronal connections connecting memories in our brains.
- Continuous activation theory states that we dream to keep our brains engaged while we sleep.
Dreams in which the dreamer is aware that they are dreaming and has some control over the content of the dream are called lucid dreams. Approximately half of people say they’ve had at least one lucid dream in their lifetime, and slightly more than a tenth say they have one every month or more.
Lucid dreams occur more frequently in certain people than others, but why this is the case remains a mystery. Preliminary study indicates that the prefrontal and parietal regions of the brain play a substantial part in lucid dreaming, but scientists are unsure why or how it occurs.
How to Lucid Dream
Lucid dreaming is a desire of many people, and they want to experience it more frequently. Virtual reality and hyper-realistic video games have been used to compare lucid dreaming, claiming that it provides a self-directed dreamscape experience unmatched by any other.
It is possible to induce lucid dreaming by utilizing cognitive training, external stimulation while sleeping, and medicine. None of these treatments has been carefully researched or proven to be effective, even if they appear promising.
Lucid dreaming has been proven to have a strong connection to highly innovative and creative thinking and production. Researchers have found that those who are lucid in their dreams are more creative than those who are not.
In our waking lives, we often have vivid dreams about stressful events. Sad, frightful, and horrific are some common descriptors for stress dreams.
We don’t have all the answers, but a range of hypotheses, including the continuity hypothesis, adaptive strategy, and emotional regulation dream theories, have been used to explain the phenomenon of specific stressful content showing up in our dreams. There seems to be a correlation between stress dreams and mental health issues.
- Nightmares are more common and more intense in individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and those who are anxious on a daily basis, according to research. 21
- Anxiety, bipolar illness, and depression all increase the likelihood of having stressful dreams, as does the difficulty falling asleep as a result of these disorders.
- Researchers have found a substantial link between anxiety and the content of one’s dreams. 22 The brain’s attempt to assist us cope and make sense of these stressful experiences may be manifested in these dreams.
A Word From Verywell
More research is needed to completely grasp what dreams are for and why they occur. A better way to think about dreams is to consider the possibility that they serve a number of functions rather than just one.
It is possible to perceive our dreams in a way that resonates most with us, knowing that so much is ambiguous about why we have dreams.
Consult a sleep specialist if you are concerned about your dreams and/or have a history of frequent nightmares.
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