Inquiring minds have been pondering the significance of dreams for centuries. There is no conclusive scientific explanation for why humans dream despite decades of study. Numerous specialists have theorized about the meaning of dreams, and while much is still unknown, recent empirical study has shed light on the topic.
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What Is a Dream?
All of the sensations, ideas, and thoughts experienced during dreaming are considered part of the dream. Dreams can be anything from intensely vivid and moving to transient and baffling or even dull. Although most dreams aren’t scary or depressing, some of them can be. Dreams can have a distinct narrative at times, but other times they can make no sense at all.
While much about dreams and sleep remains a mystery to scientists, it is generally accepted that everyone dreams at least once during their two-hour nocturnal slumber.
The topic of why we dream at all goes beyond the content of any given dream. Some of the most popular speculations about dreams and their meanings are laid forth below.
How Do Scientists Study Dreams?
After awakening, the dreamer recalls his or her subjective experience of the dream. The ability to see, however, can also be demonstrated by laboratory testing and examination.
One study even went so far as to develop a crude dream content map that could monitor dream content in real time by analyzing MRI brain scans. Upon awakening, dreamers confirmed the map’s accuracy with their accounts.
The Role of Dreams
Some of the more well-known dream theories suggest that dreams serve to:
- Put your thoughts together.
- Deal with your feelings.
- Tell us what it is that we really want.
- Do not be afraid to face prospective threats.
Many specialists agree that there is no single explanation for why people dream. Also, some scientists argue that dreams have no real purpose, despite the fact that many academics hold the view that dreaming is crucial to mental, emotional, and physical well-being.
Although numerous explanations have been put out, there remains no universal agreement as to why we dream.
There may be a difference in the function of REM and NREM sleep dreaming. Our ability to remember dreams is greatly enhanced during REM sleep, when we experience the most vivid dreams. During non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) sleep, we also dream, although the content of these dreams is less vivid and less easily remembered.
Dreams May Reflect the Unconscious
According to Sigmund Freud, our dreams are symbolic of our deepest, most hidden, and most unexplored needs, wants, fantasies, and drives. According to Freud, violent and sexual impulses are just two examples of repressed and unconscious longings that drive humans.
A number of Freud’s claims have been disproven, however studies do support the existence of a dream rebound effect, often known as the dream rebound theory.
What Causes Dreams to Happen?
According to Freud’s “The Interpretation of Dreams,” our dreams are “disguised fulfillments of repressed wishes.” He also distinguished between the visible content of dreams (the actual visuals) and the latent substance of dreams (hidden meaning).
Freud’s theories helped propel the development and acceptance of dream analysis. Experts agree that dreams help in processing emotions and stressful experiences, but studies have failed to show that the apparent material hides the psychological importance.
Dreams Process Information
The activation-synthesis hypothesis of dreaming, first presented by J. Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley, states that the amygdala and the hippocampus are responsible for producing a wide variety of electrical impulses during REM sleep. This causes a jumble of disconnected ideas, visuals, and recollections to form in one’s dream.
When we awaken from a dream, our busy brains piece together the many scenes and bits of information we recall to form a coherent story.
The activation-synthesis hypothesis states that dreams are a jumble of unrelated images and sensations presented to the sleeping mind and then synthesized into a coherent whole upon awakening. Dreams can serve as a catalyst for insight and innovation in the waking world by prompting the dreamer to draw connections between seemingly unrelated thoughts or even leading to a sudden flash of inspiration.
Dreams Aid In Memory
There is a hypothesis that suggests that as we sleep, our brains consolidate and integrate all of the data and experiences from the previous day. Dreaming, according to some specialists in the field, may be an indirect result or perhaps an integral element of this experience processing.
The self-organization theory of dreaming postulates that nocturnal dreaming occurs as a byproduct of the brain’s neuronal activity during the consolidation of memories. It is hypothesized that during this period of unconscious redistribution of information, changes occur that either strengthen or impair the memory in question. The self-organization theory of dreaming postulates that during sleep, valuable memories are strengthened while irrelevant ones are discarded.
Evidence from studies shows that thinking about completing a difficult activity in one’s sleep can help one become more proficient at that task. Research has also shown that the same frontal regions of the brain that are active during wakeful learning and memory processing are also active during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.
Dreams Spur Creativity
Another hypothesis suggests that dreams exist to provide us with insight about how to approach challenging situations. Based on this notion of dream-inspired creativity, while dreaming, the mind is unrestrained and free to roam its infinite potential, unburdened by the often constraining realities of the conscious world. In fact, studies have found that dreaming is a powerful stimulus for original thought.
Several studies and personal accounts corroborate the widespread belief that dreaming can serve as a source of insight and innovation.
Dreams are a rich source of inspiration because they provide a unique opportunity to draw unexpected connections between different aspects of your life and your subconscious.
Dreams Reflect Your Life
The continuity hypothesis holds that a person’s dreams reflect their waking life and incorporate their own personal memories and experiences. Dreams are more like a collage of memories than a simple reenactment of waking reality.
Despite this, research suggests that non-REM sleep is more connected with declarative memory (the more mundane stuff), whereas REM dreams include more emotive and instructive memories. REM dreams are more readily remembered than non-REM dreams.
According to the continuity hypothesis, new information and experiences are integrated into long-term memory through fragmenting memories in the dream state. The topic of why certain facets of memories are highlighted more than others in dreams remains unresolved.
Dreams Prepare and Protect
Adaptive strategy and primal instinct rehearsal theories of dreaming suggest that humans dream to practice dealing with real-world threats. When one considers the role of the dream as a social simulation function or danger simulation, one realizes that it offers the dreamer a risk-free setting in which to hone critical survival abilities.
Our dream lives are where we train our minds to respond effectively to potentially life-threatening situations. According to the threat simulation idea, when we’re asleep, our brains activate the fight-or-flight response in preparation for potentially dangerous or emotionally taxing situations.
- Meaning to flee from an aggressor.
- Over the edge, as it were.
- Coming unclothed to a public place.
- Requiring the use of a public lavatory.
- Inadequate preparation for an impending examination.
According to this hypothesis, humans gain an evolutionary advantage by learning to deal with or avoid potentially dangerous situations in our dreams and then putting those lessons into practice when we awake. This provides some context for the common occurrence of disturbing or emotionally taxing scenes in dreams.
Dreams Help Process Emotions
According to the emotional regulation dream theory, our dreams serve a therapeutic purpose by providing us with a secure environment in which to work with difficult feelings and traumatic experiences.
The amygdala, which is responsible for emotional processing, and the hippocampus, which helps consolidate memories and move them from working memory to long-term storage, are both engaged during intense, vivid dreaming, according to studies. This shows that dreaming, remembering, and processing feelings are all interconnected.
According to this hypothesis, rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is crucial for controlling one’s emotions. This may also shed light on the reoccurring themes of emotional or traumatic experiences in dreams. Getting enough REM sleep has been linked to improved emotional processing, according to studies.
If dreamers have similar or identical content in their dreams, this could facilitate communication and bonding. In addition to providing us with a sense of community and interpersonal support, research has shown that dream sharing increases empathy.
Other Theories About Why We Dream
Several alternative explanations have been proposed to explain the occurrence of dreams.
- One hypothesis proposes that dreaming occurs when the brain tries to make sense of information from the outside world (such a dog’s bark, a piece of music, or a baby’s scream).
- One alternative explanation for dreams draws parallels to the functions of a computer, suggesting that sleeping helps “defrag” the mind of unnecessary information so that it can start the day with a clear head.
- According to the forgotten-knowledge hypothesis, sleep acts as a form of forgetting. Dreaming is a form of “pruning” the millions of synaptic connections between memories that exist in our brains, which would otherwise make it impossible to recall everything.
- According to the continuous-activation hypothesis, one reason we dream is to maintain our brains working properly during sleep.
When a person has a lucid dream, they are aware that they are dreaming and typically have some influence over the dream’s events. Half of all people can recall experiencing a lucid dream at some point in their lives, and an additional 10% say they have them twice a month or more frequently.
Why some people have lucid dreams more often than others is a mystery. Although the causes and mechanisms of lucid dreaming remain a mystery, preliminary studies suggest that the prefrontal and parietal lobes of the brain play an important role.
How to Lucid Dream
Having lucid dreams is something that many people wish they could do more regularly. It has been said that lucid dreaming is the pinnacle of self-directed dreamscape experiences, on par with virtual reality and hyper-realistic computer games.
Cognitive training, external stimulation during sleep, and drugs are all viable training strategies for creating lucid dreaming. While several of these approaches have showed encouraging results in preliminary studies, they have yet to be subjected to rigorous testing.
Researchers have observed a significant correlation between lucid dreaming and innovative problem solving and creative problem solving. In comparison to people who don’t have lucid dreams, lucid dreamers excel at creative endeavors, according to studies.
Difficult situations seem to recur frequently in our dreams. Traumatic, upsetting, and distressing dreams are common during times of stress.
Many different ideas have been proposed to try and explain how and why specific stressful content comes up in our dreams. These include the continuity hypothesis, the adaptive strategy theory, and the emotional regulation theory. Dreams experienced during times of mental stress appear to have a positive effect on psychological well-being.
- There is evidence that the stress of daily life manifests itself in nightmares; those who report higher levels of worry during the day and those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have more frequent and intense nightmares.
- People with mental health conditions, such as anxiety, bipolar disorder, and depression, are more likely to experience upsetting nightmares and have trouble sleeping.
- Having anxiety is associated with having nightmares that are upsetting or tense, according to studies. The brain’s attempt to make sense of and cope with traumatic situations may manifest in dreams.
A Word From Verywell
Although there are many hypotheses as to why we dream, further study is required to confirm any of them. Assuming only one hypothesis is true about dreams is unlikely, since they presumably serve multiple roles.
Since the reasons for dreaming remain mostly mysterious, each of us is free to interpret our nocturnal visions as we see fit.
It’s recommended to talk to a doctor or sleep expert if you’re worried about your dreams or if you’re suffering nightmares on a regular basis.