The Science Behind Your Dreams
1 September 2021
The question of “why we dream” has fascinated scientists for thousands of years. Despite scientific research into the function of dreams, we still don’t have a full-proof answer for why exactly do we dream. Many experts have developed theories about what the dreams signify and underlying health and phycological conditions.
What is a Dream?
A dream includes images, thoughts, emotions that are experienced during sleep. Dreams can range from being extraordinarily intense to very vague or lucid and confusing, or even boring. Some dreams are joyful, while others might be frightening or sad. Sometimes dreams seem to have a clear narrative, while others may appear to make absolutely no sense at all.
How Scientists Study Dreams?
The study of dreams is called Oneirology. Traditionally the dream content is measured by descriptive recollections of the dreamer upon waking up. However, observation is also collected through objective evaluation in a lab.
During one study, researchers created a rudimentary dream content map that was able to track what people dreamed in real time using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) patterns. The map was then compared with the dreamers' report upon waking.
What is the Function of Dreaming?
Some of the prominent dream theories contend that function of dreaming is to:
To consolidate our memories
To process our emotions
To express our deepest desires
To gain practice for confronting potential dangers
Many experts believe that we dream due to a combination of these above-mentioned reasons rather than any one particular theory. While many researchers believe that dreaming is essential for our mental, emotional, and physical well-being, some scientists also suggest that dreams serve no real purpose at all.
Dreaming during different phases of sleep duration may also serve unique purposes. The most vivid dreams happen during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep (your eyes are closed but it`s easy to wake you up), and these are the dreams that we're most likely to recall. We also dream during non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) which is the deep sleep phase, but those dreams are known to be remembered less often and mainly consists of mundane content.
How Dreams Process Information?
According to the activation-synthesis model proposed by J. Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley, circuits in the brain become activated during REM sleep, which in turn triggers the amygdala and hippocampus to create an array of electrical impulses. This results in a compilation of random thoughts, images, and memories that appear to us while dreaming.
When we wake, our active minds pull together these various images and memory fragments from the dream to create a cohesive narrative.
How Dreams Aid in Organising Memory?
The model, known as self-organization theory of dreaming, explains that dreaming is a side effect of brain neural activity as memories are consolidated during sleep.It suggests that during this process of unconscious information redistribution, memories are either strengthened or weakened. As per the self-organization theory of dreaming, while we dream, helpful memories are made stronger, whereas less useful ones fade away.
How Dreams Prepare and Protect Us?
While dreaming, our fight-or-fight instincts are strengthened and our mental capability for handling threatening scenarios grows stronger. According to the threat simulation theory, our sleeping brains focus on the fight-or-flight mechanism to prepare us for fighting life-threatening and/or emotionally intense scenarios including:
Running away from a potential threat
Falling over a cliff
Showing up somewhere undressed
Going to the bathroom in public
Forgetting to prepare for a final exam
This theory suggests that rehearsing these skills in our dreams gives us an evolutionary advantage due to which, we can better cope or completely avoid such threatening scenarios in the real world.
What are Lucid Dreams?
Lucid dreams are relatively rare type of dreams where the dreamer has awareness of being in their dream and often has some control over the dream content. Research indicates that around 55% of people recall having had at least one lucid dream in their lifetime and over 12% report having them two or more times in a month.
It is still unknown as to why certain people experience lucid dreams more frequently than others. While experts are unclear as to why or how lucid dreams occur, preliminary research indicates that the prefrontal and parietal regions of the brain play a significant role. Research has shown that lucid dreamers tend to perform better on creative tasks compared to those who do not experience lucid dreams.
What are Stress Dreams?
Stressful experiences often tend to show up frequently in our dreams. Stress dreams may be described as sad, scary, bad or nightmares. Stress dreams are believed to be closely associated with mental illness.
Few reasons for stress dreams are:
Daily stress shows up in dreams: Research shows that those who experience great levels of stress and worry in their waking lives and people who have been diagonised with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) report having frequent nightmares.
Mental health disorders may contribute to stress dreams: Those diagnosed with mental health disorders such as anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression etc. tend to have more distressing dreams.
Anxiety is related to stress dreams: Research points out a strong corelation between anxiety and stressful dream content. These stressful dreams may be the brain's attempt of helping us cope with and make sense of these stressful experiences.
While there are many theories explaining why we dream, more research is being carried out to fully understand their purpose. Rather than assuming that only one hypothesis is correct, dreams are likely to serve a variety of different purposes.
Knowing that much is uncertain about why do we dream, we are free to view our own dreams in the light that resonates best with us.
If you are having frequent nightmares, recurring bad dreams or concerning stress dreams consider speaking to a doctor or consulting a sleep specialist.