Why do we dream
What is the reason for dream? Some dreams may help our brains process our thoughts and the events of the day. Others may just be the result of normal brain activity and mean very little, if anything. Researchers are still trying to figure out exactly why we dream.
In the third millenium BCE,
Mesopotamian kings recorded and interpreted their dreams on wax tablets.
A thousand years later,
Ancient Egyptians wrote a dream book
listing over a hundred common dreams and their meanings.
And in the years since,
we haven't paused in our quest to understand why we dream.
So, after a great deal of scientific research,
we still don't have any definite answers, but we have some interesting theories.
We dream to fulfill our wishes.
In the early 1900s,
Sigmund Freud proposed that while all of our dreams, including our nightmares,
are a collection of images from our daily conscious lives,
they also have symbolic meanings,
which relate to the fulfillment of our subconscious wishes.
Freud theorized that everything we remember when we wake up from a dream
is a symbolic representation
of our unconscious primitive thoughts, urges, and desires.
Freud believed that by analyzing those remembered elements,
the unconscious content would be revealed to our conscious mind,
and psychological issues stemming from its repression
could be addressed and resolved.
We dream to remember.
To increase performance on certain mental tasks,
sleep is good,
but dreaming while sleeping is better.
In 2010, researchers found
that subjects were much better at getting through a complex 3-D maze
if they had napped and dreamed of the maze prior to their second attempt.
In fact, they were up to ten times better at it
than those who only thought of the maze while awake between attempts,
and those who napped but did not dream about the maze.
Researchers theorize that certain memory processes
can happen only when we are asleep,
and our dreams are a signal that these processes are taking place.
We dream to forget.
There are about 10,000 trillion neural connections
within the architecture of your brain.
They are created by everything you think and everything you do.
A 1983 neurobiological theory of dreaming, called reverse learning,
holds that while sleeping, and mainly during REM sleep cycles,
your neocortex reviews these neural connections
and dumps the unnecessary ones.
Without this unlearning process,
which results in your dreams,
your brain could be overrun by useless connections
and parasitic thoughts could disrupt the necessary thinking
you need to do while you're awake.
We dream to keep our brains working.
The continual activation theory proposes that your dreams result
from your brain's need to constantly consolidate and create long-term memories
in order to function properly.
So when external input falls below a certain level,
like when you're asleep,
your brain automatically triggers
the generation of data from its memory storages,
which appear to you in the form of the thoughts and feelings
you experience in your dreams.
In other words,
your dreams might be a random screen saver your brain turns on
so it doesn't completely shut down.
We dream to rehearse.
Dreams involving dangerous and threatening situations are very common,
and the primitive instinct rehearsal theory
holds that the content of a dream is significant to its purpose.
Whether it's an anxiety-filled night of being chased through the woods by a bear
or fighting off a ninja in a dark alley,
these dreams allow you to practice your fight or flight instincts
and keep them sharp and dependable in case you'll need them in real life.
But it doesn't always have to be unpleasant.
For instance, dreams about your attractive neighbor
could actually give your reproductive instinct some practice, too.
We dream to heal.
Stress neurotransmitters in the brain are much less active
during the REM stage of sleep,
even during dreams of traumatic experiences,
leading some researchers to theorize
that one purpose of dreaming is to take the edge off painful experiences
to allow for psychological healing.
Reviewing traumatic events in your dreams with less mental stress
may grant you a clearer perspective
and enhanced ability to process them in psychologically healthy ways.
People with certain mood disorders and PTSD often have difficulty sleeping,
leading some scientists to believe that lack of dreaming
may be a contributing factor to their illnesses.
We dream to solve problems.
Unconstrained by reality and the rules of conventional logic,
in your dreams, your mind can create limitless scenarios
to help you grasp problems
and formulate solutions that you may not consider while awake.
John Steinbeck called it the committee of sleep,
and research has demonstrated
the effectiveness of dreaming on problem solving.
It's also how renowned chemist August Kekule
discovered the structure of the benzene molecule,
and it's the reason that sometimes the best solution for a problem
is to sleep on it.
And those are just a few of the more prominent theories.
As technology increases our capability for understanding the brain,
it's possible that one day
we will discover the definitive reason for them.
But until that time arrives, we'll just have to keep on dreaming.