Why do we have dreams?

Saba Halabisaz
February 8, 2022


What are dreams? We may know them as little nonsensical adventures that our subconscious minds undertake while we sleep, but dreams are, as described by Hannah Nichols from MedicalNewsToday, "universal human experience[s] that can be described as a state of consciousness characterized by sensory, cognitive and emotional occurrences during sleep."

Dreams are a fascinating topic that can raise questions about our identity and unconscious thoughts and feelings, however, scientists and researchers all over the world are still stumped on the most simple facets of how dreams function. What even causes dreams? Why do they happen? What do our dreams mean? These are some of the biggest questions at the forefront of research that is happening around dreams. The theories are endless, but we must identify its role in self-discovery.

Inevitably, dreams are our brain’s way of assessing the events and information processed during the day. Research published in 1985 has shown that because of this cause, dreams are a byproduct of the brain retaining and developing, or sometimes weakening, long-term memories. In a way, the brain uses dreams to make connections and organize all that it’s seen, heard, felt, and taken in throughout the day in order to strengthen memory recall. This theory is called the self-organization theory of dreaming. The empirical evidence backing this theory is fascinating: REM-sleep, also known as Rapid Eye Movement sleep, is when the bulk of our memorable dreaming happens, and the association of the low-frequency theta waves to the activity happening at the frontal lobe, the area of the brain where logical analysis and decision-making takes place, helps support the theory that dreams are for learning, storing, and remembering information processed during the day.

TL;DR: Researchers speculate that dreams act as another tool for the brain to develop its cognitive capabilities, such as strengthening neural connections and organizing knowledge and memories.

Two theories that are somewhat similar to one another are that dreams are a threat-preventing mechanism that became an evolutionary advantage to humans. The first part of the theory is that dreams involve scary and intense scenarios, such as being chased by an attacker or showing up to an event naked, in order to prepare us for the real world. That includes any dangers or potential future obstacles that we may face. Dreams, in this case, function as a way for our brain to go through these scenarios in a safe environment and practice our survival and coping skills. Since we are able to practice these skills during dreams, they have become a useful evolutionary advantage. We may have had dreams since way back in the evolutionary ladder, but because of their multitude of advantages, they helped us become better adaptive and responsive creatures, able to tackle the hurdles in our world.

A more matter-of-fact theory in dreaming is called the activation-synthesis model of dreaming. First proposed by J. Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley, two Harvard University psychiatrists, this theory explains that dreaming is simply bursts of electrical impulses that create images, thoughts, and memories through activated electrical circuits in the amygdala and hippocampus during REM-sleep. In a way, this theory suggests that dreaming is a whole lot of randomness, but the dreams we often remember when we wake up are somewhat cohesive narratives that our brains put together last-minute to make it all make sense. On the upside, this theory also implies that randomness actually helps the brain in forming new and thoughtful connections, helping in developing creativity and having epiphanies!

Sigmund Freud proposed the theory of dreams, which describes them as a mental manifestation of our unconscious, deep-rooted wishes and desires. Dreams can represent our repressed longings, such as pugnacious and sexual instincts, or act as wish fulfillment. In his book, The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud argued that there are two parts to dreams: manifest content (the literal storyline) and latent content (deeper or hidden messages). Even though most of his theories have been debunked or do not have enough evidence to be considered plausible, his ideas popularized dream interpretation. It is common— and sometimes fun— to try and interpret your dreams in order to gauge the deeper meaning that your brain is trying to communicate with you.

Overall, there are three ways to approach this paradox:

  • For memory organization, collection, and retention
  • Side effects of neural processing during REM-sleep
  • A part of healthy brain development

It’s bizarre to realize that something so seemingly trivial as what we think of and see during our deep sleep does not have an agreed-upon reason as to why it happens. The research on dreams grows every day and it’s exciting to learn more about what scientists and philosophers alike have to say about them.



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