Have you ever wondered how dreams work and why we have them? This and other questions about dreams have been a source of wonder for ages.

Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology, was convinced that dreams were an expression of unfulfilled fantasies. More pragmatic theorists after him saw dreams as a reflection of life. But neither Freud nor those who came after him investigated based on solid and objective data.

So how do dreams work and do today’s scientists know the answer to this question?

How Ancient Civilizations Regarded Dreams

Before psychological science, Shakespeare’s Prospero proposed in The Tempest that “we are such stuff as dreams are made on”. Let’s rewind a bit more and see what ancient civilizations had to contribute in the matter:

Mesopotamian civilization

In the Mesopotamian civilization, people had their dreams translated by ‘dream priests’ who were like prophets of one’s fortune and future. This bore a significant impact on the cultural beliefs of the Egyptians and gave rise to the Hebrew, Arabic and Greek traditions of dream interpretation.

Ancient Egypt

The Egyptians borrowed ideas from the Sumerians who also had dream interpreters in temples. The British Museum archives their Dream Book which contains messages that were once regarded as divine.

Ancient Greeks

Greek philosopher Aristotle said that human beings were capable of achieving the pure form of wisdom when the mind was liberated in sleep.

Hippocrates saw dreams as important indicators of physical and mental health.

Artemidorus wrote Oneirocritica (meaning “Interpretation of Dreams” in Greek ) which has become foundational for many contemporary books on dreams.

Ancient Romans

Augustus, the successor of Caesar, strongly believed in the prophetic nature of dreams; he notably created a law that required every citizen to report dreams of the empire in the market towns.

Asian Civilizations

Ancient Indian and Chinese texts that are both religious and non-religious offer elaborate explanations of dreams as studies in physiology, pathology and mythological presentations.

What Modern Science Has to Say about Dreams

Phew. Dreams and humans go way back. Animals are also capable of dreaming; which only implies that dreams evolved long before human beings did and it has been a significant aspect of the evolutionary process.

Today, we have a more scientific explanation of sleep cycles and dream – dreams occur during the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) period of sleep. During this period, the brain paralyzes the body so it does not go off to do whatever it is dreaming about. The brain suppresses the release of neurotransmitters like norepinephrine, serotonin, and histamine, whose primary function is to send motor and reflex signals to the muscles.

The REM episodes happen throughout the sleep cycle and vary in duration. People who suffer from sleepwalking have a dysfunctional REM pattern.

There are lots of theories about how dreams work. Let’s examine a few of those.

Scientific Theories That Offer Possible Explanations of How Dreams Work

Dreams and Memory

Our brains are more active when we are asleep than when we are awake. This might be explained as a computer reboot of sorts; where if the brain were likened to a computer, it renews itself every time you take a nap.

Some theorists believe that dreams play a functional role in keeping long-term memory. Others argue that dreams assist in semantic memory.

There are also those who argue that dreams are vital to the limbic part of the memory, which is responsible for emotions, sensations and sensual memories. The limbic part of the brain, or the emotional part, gets highly activated while the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the executive part of the brain, is under-activated.

So the kind of cognitions experienced during dreams are highly emotional, visually vivid, but often illogical, disconnected and sometimes bizarre. That suggests that our dreams may have some role in emotional stability.

Then there is the idea that dreams help process and organize temporary memories as well; where our brain plays and replays fragmentary memories of our daily experiences.

Psychologist and dream researcher at Harvard Medical School, Deirdre Barrett, believes they represent something more.

“I think it’s a fallacy that knowing brain action negates a subjective, psychological meaning any more than it does for waking thought. I think dreams are thinking in a different biochemical state.”

Threat simulation may also be an explanation for nightmares. Our dreams help us work out methods of dealing with threatening situations.

Psychosomatic Theory of Dreams

A psychosomatic theory of dreams is that it involves a mind and body nexus that allows the repair of nerves by stimulating a very intense movement that is suppressed by the brain.

In Man and His Symbols, Carl Jung states ambiguously that: “What we consciously fail to see is frequently perceived by our unconscious, which can pass the information on through dreams. Dreams may often warn us in this way; but just as often, it seems, they do not”.

Jung believed that we strive continually for a balance between the conscious and unconscious and this process of ‘individuation’ can take a lifetime.

Academic psychologists have dismissed both Freudian and Jungian theories as either too simple and misleading or too whimsical and spiritual. Neither had scientific evidence to back up their convictions.

Dreams and Physical & Mental Health

While dreams can be entertaining, disturbing, or downright weird, the occurrence of dreams has a direct correlation to one’s physical and mental health.

Studies have proved that those who were incapable of dreaming experienced increased tension, anxiety, depression, difficulty concentrating, lack of coordination, weight gain, and a tendency to hallucinate.

In general, scientists agree that dreams help us solve problems, process emotions, and incorporate memories.

So How Do Dreams Work and What Do They Really Mean?

Most theorists would agree upon this: paying attention to both our dreaming and waking lives might lead to important clues from the unconscious. It is an important aspect of our sense of perception, insight, and intuition.

There may not be a conclusive explanation of how dreams work. We can never be sure what dreams are made of or what they mean. Still, they do seem to bring to our attention important aspects of ourselves and other people that we might have missed living our busy lives.


I’m Aileen Brent, a freelance STEM Education Coordinator for undergraduate and graduate levels, a start-up blogger, and a mother to an 8-year-old super-curious daughter. Head on over to my blog called [email protected].

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