For years now, scientists and researchers have wondered why we really dream. But in spite of continuous research and inquiry, we still do not have a solid answer for it. However, there are a number of theories that have been developed by experts that aim at explaining the purpose of dreams. Let us go through a few of them in this article.
What is a dream?
A dream expresses the images, thoughts, and emotions that are experienced during sleep. Dreams can range from extraordinarily intense or emotional to very vague, confusing, fleeting, or even boring. Some dreams are joyful, while others are sad. Sometimes, dreams can have a clear narrative, while at other times, they make no sense at all.
Psychology of Dreams
In the 19th century, Sigmund Freud stated that all dreams, including nightmares, are images of the things you see in your daily life, but they are somewhat shaped into things fulfilling our subconscious wishes. He further added that whatever you feel while dreaming (thoughts, urges, desire, etc.) represents your subconscious part of thinking. Freud strongly believed that by keeping account of all these things you remember from your dreams, you can better understand your subconscious mind and help resolve and address the psychological issues that you may be repressing.
How often and why do we dream?
There is a lot that we still need to find out about dreams and sleep, but what scientists do know is that just about everyone dreams every time they sleep, for a total of around two hours per night, whether they remember it when they are waking up or not. The dreams that are most vivid happen during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, and those are the dreams that we are most likely to recall. We do dream during non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) sleep as well, but those dreams are remembered less often and usually have more mundane content.
Now that we know what dreams can comprise of, and how often we actually dream, let us answer the more pertinent question of why we dream at all. Given below are the most prominent theories on the reasons behind dreaming, along with how these explanations can be applied to specific dreams.
Dreams are a result of mental processing during sleep
According to the activation-synthesis model of dreaming, which was first proposed by J. Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley in 1977, circuits in the brain become activated during REM sleep. This process causes areas of the limbic system involved in emotions, sensations, and memories, including the amygdala and hippocampus, to create an array of electrical brain impulses. According to this theory, the brain synthesizes and interprets this internal activity and attempts to find meaning in these signals, which we experience as dreams. This model suggests that dreams are a subjective interpretation of these signals generated by the brain during sleep. When we wake, our active minds pull together the various images and memory fragments of the dream to create a cohesive narrative.
Dreams are a medium of unconscious expression
Consistent with the psychoanalytic perspective, Sigmund Freud’s theory of dreams suggests that dreams represent unconscious desires, thoughts, wish fulfilment, and motivations. According to Freud’s view of personality, people are driven by repressed longings and primitive thoughts, such as aggressive and sexual instincts, that are subverted from conscious awareness. Freud was of the opinion that repressed longings find their way into our awareness via our dreams. He also divined symbolic meaning from the random images that appear in our dreams as well as their emotional content, creating a method of dream interpretation. Under this ideology, the purpose of dreams is to bring these repressed wishes and deepest desires to the surface so that the dreamer can confront and reconcile these repressed feelings.
Dreams show your life in pictorial form
Under the continuity hypothesis, dreams function as a reflection of a person’s real-life and showcase his/her conscious experiences. But instead of a straightforward replay of waking life, dreams show up as a combination of memory fragments. However, this theory doesn’t explain why some parts of waking life, such as the scarier, embarrassing, or emotionally heightened components, are often replayed in dreams while other moments are not. Still, studies show that non-REM sleep may be more involved with declarative memory, while REM dreams include more emotional and instructive memories. So, as research shows, we don’t remember as much of the non-REM dreams; we may just not recall all the basic, day-to-day content we may have dreamed about the night before.
Dreams allow us to consolidate information and memories
According to the information-processing theory, one of the main explanations for why we sleep is that slumber allows us to consolidate and process all of the information and memories that we have collected during the previous day. Some dream experts suggest that dreaming is a by-product or even an active part of this experience processing. Research supports this theory, finding improvement in complex tasks when a person dreams about doing them. Studies also show that during REM sleep, low-frequency theta waves were more active in the frontal lobe, just like they are when people are learning, storing, and remembering information when awake.
Dreams promote creative thinking
Another theory about dreams says that their purpose is to help us solve problems. In this creativity theory of dreaming, the unconstrained, unconscious mind is free to wander its limitless potential while unburdened by the often-stifling realities of the conscious world. In fact, research has shown dreaming of being an effective promoter of creative thinking. Relishing in the absurdity or nonconventional content of your dreams may inspire epiphanies if you are receptive to the messages. Scientific research and anecdotal evidence back up the fact that many people do successfully mine their dreams for inspiration.
Dreams help us cope with our emotions
The emotional regulation dream theory says that the purpose of dreams is to help us process and cope with our emotions or trauma in the safe space of slumber. It suggests that REM sleep plays a vital role in emotional brain regulation. The theory also helps explain why so many dreams are emotionally vivid and the fact that emotional or traumatic experiences tend to show up on repeat. The amygdala, which is involved in processing emotions, and the hippocampus, which plays a vital role in condensing information and moving it from short-term to long-term memory storage, are active during vivid, intense dreaming. This shows a strong link between dreaming, memory storage, and emotional processing. In fact, research has shown a connection between the ability to process emotions and the amount of REM sleep a person gets.
Dreams make us prepare ourselves for the real world
The primitive instinct rehearsal and adaptive strategy theories of dreaming say that we dream to better prepare ourselves and to confront dangers in the real world. The dream as a social simulation function or threat simulation provides the dreamer a safe environment in which to practice important skills, especially potentially dangerous ones, such as evading a wild animal. So, while dreaming, we hone our fight or flight instincts to give us an increased potential for survival and build mental capability for handling such scenarios, from the frightening to the embarrassing, if they happen for real. The theory suggests that practicing or rehearsing these skills in our dreams gives us an evolutionary advantage and helps to explain why so many dreams contain scary, dramatic, or intense content. Additionally, this simulation model works to make sense of the often embarrassing, stressful, emotionally-fraught, or awkward dream narratives many of us experience. This theory contends that these dreams are intended to help us avoid, cope with, or endure these experiences in the real world.
So, these are a few theories that propose different reasons behind dreams—the true reason behind why we actually dream requires a lot more research to be found. However, most of the theories mentioned above are right on some level or the other. Thus, it is not appropriate to assume that only one hypothesis is correct. This is also why many researchers believe the purpose of dreaming is probably a combination of the factors proposed in a variety of dream theories. For now, since they’re still isn’t any definitive answer to why we dream, let us view our own dreams in the light that resonates best with us.