In ancient times, civilizations believed that dreams were divine messages or predictions of the future. During the third millennium BCE, rulers of Mesopotamia documented and analyzed their dreams using wax tablets. After a millennium, the Ancient Egyptians compiled a book dedicated to interpreting dreams, featuring an extensive list of common dreams and their significance. And in the years following, we have not stopped trying to figure out why we dream.
Throughout history, scientists and philosophers have been grappling with the question of why people dream. Despite the advancements in technology and various research, the exact reason behind dreaming remains elusive. However, experts have formulated several interesting theories to shed light on this phenomenon.
Some researchers say that dreams serve as a means of processing the events and emotions we encounter throughout the day. In the early 1900s, Sigmund Freud suggested that the things we remember after dreaming are actually symbols that represent our hidden thoughts and desires. These thoughts and desires are from our primitive instincts. Freud thought that by studying the things we remember, we can learn about the things we don't remember, which can help us deal with and solve psychological problems. On the other hand, some researchers claim dreaming allows us to work through unresolved problems or conflicts. It offers a creative realm where the mind can explore various solutions or viewpoints regarding the challenges we encounter in our lives.
According to the primitive instinct rehearsal and adaptive strategy theory, practicing or rehearsing of certain skills during our dreams can provide us with an evolutionary edge, enabling us to more effectively handle or avoid challenging situations in reality. This concept serves to clarify why a significant number of dreams feature frightening, dramatic, or intense content. When we are asleep, our brains prioritize the fight-or-flight response to prepare us for situations that are potentially life-threatening or emotionally intense, such as: neglecting to prepare for a comprehensive examination, running away from a chaser, slipping, and falling from a height.
Dreams heal us from traumatic experiences. During the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage of sleep, when we dream, the activity of neurotransmitters in the brain decreases, even when dreaming about traumatic experiences. This has led researchers to propose that one function of dreaming is to alleviate the emotional intensity of painful experiences, allowing for psychological healing. By processing traumatic events in dreams with reduced mental stress, individuals may gain a clearer perspective and improve their ability to handle them in a psychologically healthy manner. Some scientists suggest that a lack of dreaming could contribute to sleep difficulties and certain mood disorders such as PTSD.
A neurobiological theory known as reverse learning, proposed in 1983, suggests that during REM sleep cycles, your neocortex engages in a process of reviewing these connections and discarding the unnecessary ones. This process of unlearning, manifested as dreams, prevents your brain from being overwhelmed by useless connections and ensures that essential cognitive functions are not disrupted by intrusive thoughts while you are awake.
The continual activation theory suggests that we dream because our brain wants to keep organizing and creating memories that will last a long time so it can work properly. When we are asleep and not receiving information from the outside world, our brain starts using memories to create thoughts and feelings that you experience in dreams. Basically, our dreams could be like a random screen saver that our brain activates to stay partially active instead of completely shutting down.
While numerous theories exist, technological advancements may one day figure out the definitive purpose of dreams. Until then, we just need to continue dreaming.