Why do we dream?

Dreaming is a phenomenon that has left humankind astounded for ages. We often ponder the meaning, purpose, and origin of these vivid dreams. Freud had said that dreams allow us to express our deepest wishes and fears, which are otherwise suppressed in a conscious state. Although we often see our mind playing out dreams with various interpretations of these hidden thoughts and desires, we sometimes find it hard to make sense of some of the very mundane dreams. While previous interpretations of dreams were psychological, the discovery of Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep has helped scientists better understand the mechanisms in the brain that may be involved in dreaming. While we are still not a hundred percent confident about the answers to our questions, we are inching closer to it. We now know that dreams are most prominent during REM, and these are the dreams that we are able to recall more often. However, the extent of the memory of it varies among individuals. 1

Sleep cycles infographic, nighttime resting stages, healthy sleep phases. Young woman sleep and wake stages vector concept illustration. Human sleeping and nighttime resting stages.
Sleep cycles infographic, nighttime resting stages, healthy sleep phases. Young woman sleep and wake stages vector concept illustration. Human sleeping and nighttime resting stages. Image by Adobe Stock.

Studies show characteristics of primary consciousness when we dream during a REM cycle, a state of awareness with perception and emotions. Although different from our waking consciousness, this dream consciousness paints a powerful picture that makes us feel like we are awake. 2 Recent studies have associated dreams with memory consolidation. It suggests that the brain uses the REM cycle to process information collected during our waking consciousness and that dreams are a conscious expression of these memory-forming networks.3,4  Research has shown several similarities in brain activity during REM sleep and active waking. 5 We are only now beginning to understand the neurophysiology of REM sleep, and this is a starting point to understanding the underlying brain activity that influences the manifestation of dreams.

While REM and memory consolidation are the most widely researched, other emerging theories about dreaming have emerged. This includes dreaming of practicing fight or flight situations. This theory emerged from the fact that most of our dreams involve an adrenaline rush. It has been shown that the amygdala, a region of the brain involved in processing emotional reactions, including fear and anxiety, shows more firing in the REM state compared to normal. 6 Another theory proposed by Francis Crick (of Watson and Crick’s model of DNA) and Graeme Mitchison suggests that dreams serve as a mechanism for unlearning or reverse learning. This theory states that dreams work to remove traces of certain unwanted interactions in the network of cells in the cerebral cortex, which is involved mainly in perceiving environmental cues, such as vision and touch. It was speculated to be doing this to avoid an overload of associations. It explains the consequences of these overlapping patterns, such as fantasies, obsessions, and hallucinations, if not for eliminating these connections when dreaming. 7

While there are several emerging theories on dream consciousness and its meaning, it is still a mystery, and the discussion is open.

Originally published within the margins of Zealousness e-magazine in 2018. Revised and updated 2022.

Read more articles on Zealousness blog on personal development and self-actualization Personal Development – iN Education Inc. (ineducationonline.org)

 

Sources:

  1. Bryant, Charles. “Why do we dream?” HowStuffWorks Science. August 12, 2010. Accessed April 27, 2017. http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/human-brain/why-do-we-dream.htm.
  2. Hobson, J. Allan. “REM sleep and dreaming: towards a theory of protoconsciousness.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 2010. doi:10.1038/nrn2716. 
  3. “Why Do We Dream? Recent Developments In Neuroscience May Have The Answer.” Forbes. October 04, 2016. Accessed April 27, 2017. https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2016/10/04/why-do-we-dream-recent-developments-in-neuroscience-may-have-the-answer/#49925f395451.
  4. Stickgold, R., J. A. Hobson, R. Fosse, and M. Fosse. “Sleep, Learning, and Dreams: Off-line Memory Reprocessing.” Science. November 02, 2001. Accessed April 27, 2017. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/294/5544/1052.full. – [PDF] Sleep, Learning, and Dreams: Off-line Memory Reprocessing | Semantic Scholar
  5. Nir, Yuval, and Giulio Tononi. “Dreaming and the brain: from phenomenology to neurophysiology.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences14, no. 2 (2010): 88-100. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2009.12.001.
  6. Simons, Ilana. “What Do Dreams Do for Us?” Psychology Today. November 11, 2009. Accessed April 27, 2017. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-literary-mind/200911/what-do-dreams-do-us.
  7. Crick, Francis, and Graeme Mitchison. “The function of dream sleep.” Nature304, no. 5922 (1983): 111-14. doi:10.1038/304111a0.

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