Why we dream is still one of the behavioral sciences’ greatest unanswered questions. Researchers have offered many theories—memory consolidation, emotional regulation, threat simulation—but a unified one remains, well, a pipe dream. Nevertheless, people continue mining their nighttime reveries for clues to their inner lives, for creative insight, and even for premonitions. (See what you can read in All About Dreaming).
Science has made great progress in deepening our understanding of dreaming. Still, there is no answer to the question: Why do we dream?. Theories of dreaming span scientific disciplines, from Psychiatry and psychology to neurobiology. Some current theories suggest that dreaming is:
- A component and form of memory processing, aiding in the consolidation of learning and short-term memory to long-term memory storage.
- An extension of waking consciousness, reflecting the experiences of waking life.
- A means by which the mind works through difficult, complicated, unsettling thoughts, emotions, and experiences, to achieve psychological and emotional balance.
- The brain responding to biochemical changes and electrical impulses that occur during sleep.
- A form of consciousness that unites past, present and future in processing information from the first two, and preparing for the third.
- A protective act by the brain to prepare itself to face threats, dangers and challenges.
(You can find the complete information about the scientific explanation about dream in why do we dream.
Doctor Patrick McNamara suggests us not to believe about folly dream interpretation. You can read more his writing in The Folly of Dream Interpretation. But, Freud essentially called dreams is poems, we tell ourselves at night in order to experience our unconscious wishes as real. Dreams allow us to be what we cannot be, and to say what we do not say, in our more repressed daily lives. For instance, if I dream about burning my workplace down, it’s probably because I want to dominate the workplace but am too nervous to admit that aggressive drive when I’m awake and trying to be nice to the people who might give me a raise.
In her post What Do Dreams Do for Us?, Ilana simons wrote that there are 5 reason why we dream. Let’s take a look it one by one.
We Dream to Practice Responses to Threatening Situations
Ever notice that most dreams have a blood-surging urgency to them? In dreams, we often find ourselves naked in public, or being chased, or fighting an enemy, or sinking in quicksand. Antti Revonsuo, a Finnish cognitive scientist, has shown that our amygdala (the fight-or-flight piece of the brain) fires more than normal when we’re in REM sleep (the time in sleep when we dream). In other words, Revonsuo and other evolutionary theorists argue that in dreams, we are actually rehearsing fight-and-flight responses, even though the legs and arms are not actually moving. They say that dreams are an evolutionary adaptation: We dream in order to rehearse behaviors of self-defense in the safety of nighttime isolation. In turn, get better at fight-or-flight in the real world.
Dreams Create wisdom
If we remembered every image of our waking lives, it would clog our brains. So, dreams sort through memories, to determine which ones to retain and which to lose. Matt Wilson, at MIT’s Center for Learning and Memory, largely defends this view. He put rats in mazes during the day, and recorded what neurons fired in what patterns as the rats negotiated the maze. When he watched the rats enter REM sleep, he saw that the same neuron patterns fired that had fired at choice turning points in the maze. In other words, he saw that the rats were dreaming of important junctures in their day. He argues that sleep is the process through which we separate the memories worth encoding in long-term memory from those worth losing. Sleep turns a flood of daily information into what we call wisdom: the stuff that makes us smart for when we come across future decisions.
Dreaming is Like De-fragmenting Your Hard Drive
Francis Crick (who co-discovered the structure of DNA) and Graeme Mitchison put forth a famously controversial theory about dreams in 1983 when they wrote that “we dream in order to forget.” They meant that the brain is like a machine that gets in the groove of connecting its data in certain ways (obsessing or defending or retaining), and that those thinking pathways might not be the most useful for us. But, when we sleep, the brain fires much more randomly. And it is this random scouring for new connections that allows us to loosen certain pathways and create new, potentially useful, ones. Dreaming is a shuffling of old connections that allows us to keep the important connections and erase the inefficient links. A good analogy here is the defragmentation of a computer’s hard drive: Dreams are a reordering of connections to streamline the system.
Dreams Are Like Psychotherapy
But what about the emotion in dreams? Aren’t dreams principally the place to confront difficult and surprising emotions and sit with those emotions in a new way? Ernest Hartmann, a doctor at Tufts, focuses on the emotional learning that happens in dreams. He has developed the theory that dreaming puts our difficult emotions into pictures. In dreams, we deal with emotional content in a safe place, making connections that we would not make if left to our more critical or defensive brains. In this sense, dreaming is like therapy on the couch: We think through emotional stuff in a less rational and defensive frame of mind. Through that process, we come to accept truths we might otherwise repress. Dreams are our nightly psychotherapy.
The Absence of Theory
Of course, others argue that dreams have no meaning at all—that they are the random firings of a brain that don’t happen to be conscious at that time. The mind is still “functioning” insofar as it’s producing images, but there’s no conscious sense behind the film. Perhaps it’s only consciousness itself that wants to see some deep meaning in our brains at all times.
What do you think? We are all authors, in a way, every night we dream. Is there a mind behind what’s written in your dreams? Why are your dreams of use?
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