Why do we dream?

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Alexis Thomson
Alexis Thomson

Despite rigorous scientific investigation, the question of why humans dream remains a puzzle with no clear answer. Among the leading theories, there is a consensus that dreaming serves multiple purposes, such as aiding in the processing of memories and facilitating a deeper understanding of our emotions.

Additionally, dreams may provide a unique avenue for us to express our desires and offer a practice ground for confronting life’s challenges.

What Is a Dream?

A dream is essentially the combination of images, thoughts and emotions that are experienced when we sleep. They can be extraordinary, intense, emotional, or even just boring. Some bring us happiness, and some bring us fear. Often they are led by our subconscious mind. Luckily you can get them explained by using our dream interpreter 

There are lots of unknowns when dreaming, but what scientists do know is that just about everyone dreams when they sleep. You might just not remember them. If you do want to remember your dreams, head over to our how-to dream guide. You will be remembering your dreams in no time. 

But let’s explore the theories of why we dream and the purpose of dreams. 

What does the science say

If we’re honest. Scientists and philosophers are still confused by dreams. The main way in which they are studied is objectively. Measuring what people remember when they wake up. Some scientists have even tracked people’s brain patterns using MRI machines. 

The role of dreams

There are lots of theories. But here are the main 4:

  • To consolidate memories
  • To process emotions
  • Express our deepest wants and desires
  • Gain practice confronting uncomfortable situations that may happen in your conscious state.

At Explain the Dream we believe that we dream not for one singular reason, but for a combination of the above rather than one particular theory. Dreams are there for a reason and understanding your dreams is essential to mental, emotional and physical well-being. 

Although there isn’t a single consensus on why we dream. The patterns and explanations of our dreams through the dream interpreter signal to us the importance and relation they hold to our everyday lives. 

Reflecting the unconscious

Have you ever thought about something that day, or been worrying about it and then you happen to have a dream about that exact subject? This is part of the two different components of dreams; manifesting content, and latent content. Meaning actual images in your thoughts and the hidden meaning. This is even backed by famous neurologist Sigmund Freud.

On the other hand, there are times when you have suppressed thoughts in your everyday life and they then come out in dreams where you tend to think about them unconsciously. Either way, there is a definite link between your manifestation and unconscious thoughts and the dream content. 

Processing your daily lives through dreaming

Our brains are clever. The activation-synthesis theory, first proposed by neuroscientists Hobson and McCarley in the 1970s, suggests that dreaming is driven by random neural activity in the brain during REM sleep. According to this model, circuits in the brainstem become activated and trigger increased activity in the amygdala and hippocampus. This generates a flurry of electrical signals and impulses that create the imagery, emotions, and memories that constitute dreams.

When we wake up, our minds attempt to weave together this chaotic mix of neural signals into a coherent story. Essentially, dreams are formed from random neural noise that our brain synthesises into a narrative structure after the fact. While dreams themselves may not have inherent meaning, the activation-synthesis theory proposes that the process of dreaming can spark new connections and creativity when we’re awake, as we reflect on the content of our dreams.

Improving your memory through dreams

Dreams improve our memory. The information-processing theory proposes that dreaming plays an active role in consolidating and processing memories from waking life. During sleep, the brain replays events and information gathered throughout the day, strengthening important memories and weakening irrelevant ones through the redistribution of neural connections.

Some researchers view dreaming as a byproduct of this memory consolidation process. According to the self-organisation theory, dreams reflect the brain’s activity during sleep as it synthesises and integrates new memories and learnings. Neural oscillations during REM sleep mirror those seen during wakeful information processing and learning.

Studies show we may process emotional memories and improve skills during dreaming. For example, research finds people perform better on complex tasks after dreaming about them, suggesting dreams help strengthen procedural memory. The information-processing theory posits that dreams help optimise memory storage and learning overnight. Our dreams may be a window into how the sleeping brain assimilates information from the previous day.

Dreams enhance your creative mind

The creativity theory proposes that dreams provide an unconstrained environment for the mind to foster innovation. In dreams, the unconscious is free to make connections and generate ideas without the limitations of waking life. Studies show dreaming promotes flexible thinking and problem-solving. For example, research finds people perform better on creative tasks after dreaming about them. Dreams likely spur creativity by enabling unexpected connections between memories and concepts. The randomness of dreams produces novel combinations that may spark “aha” moments and epiphanies when awake.

Dreams reflect your living experiences

The continuity hypothesis states that dreams reflect a person’s waking life experiences. Dreams incorporate memories into fragmented, patchwork narratives rather than verbatim replays. Research shows that non-REM dreams include more routine declarative memories, while REM dreaming contains more emotional and instructive content. Under continuity theory, memory fragmentation in dreams may aid in processing experiences and incorporating them into long-term storage. However, questions remain about why certain memories are featured more prominently in dreams.

Dreams protect and prepare you for your battles

The threat simulation theory proposes that dreams allow humans to rehearse responding to dangers. In dreams, we can safely confront threats and intense emotions to hone survival skills. Dream content often focuses on fight-or-flight responses to perceived threats like falling, being chased, public embarrassment or failing exams. Threat simulation proposes this function gives an evolutionary advantage by preparing us to handle similar scenarios in waking life. The prevalence of dramatic, scary dream content may reflect this mental practice for dealing with potential threats.

Dreams help your wellbeing

The emotional regulation theory suggests dreams allow us to safely process emotions and trauma. The amygdala and hippocampus, involved in emotional processing and memory formation, are active during emotional dreams. This demonstrates a link between dreaming, memory and emotion. REM sleep may regulate emotional circuits in the brain. Recurrent dreams about traumatic events support the role of dreams in emotional processing. Shared dream content may also build community and empathy. Overall, this theory proposes dreams provide a secure space to work through our feelings.

A conclusion from me

Though there are many theories at explain why we dream. There is still a need for more scientific research to fully understand the purpose of our dreams. But in our expert opinion, there is no doubt the fact that dreams serve a variety of functions. By using our dream journal and interpreter we can view each of our dreams through a lens and understand their meanings and relations to our everyday lives.

If you want to find out what your dream means. Head to the interpreter page and start your dream journey now.