Experts do not agree on one simple explanation of why we dream. But there are many interesting theories.
So why do we dream? Are dreams worth analysing or are they simply reflections on thoughts and experiences of the day?
You could argue that cats and dogs dream, but we don’t pay special attention to those dreams. When a dog is sleeping and its legs twitch, we can safely assume it is dreaming of running or chasing. Not that its psyche is struggling with some unhidden desire or contemplating its own existence.
But, obviously, human beings are much more complex. We have intricate relationships, social networks, we travel, interact with others on a daily basis. We work, play, socialise, we build things, we break stuff down, we break up, and our dreams reflect all these things and so much more. So perhaps we should pay attention to them after all. Here are three dream theories to consider.
3 Interesting Theories That Explain Why We Dream
Dreams are secret desires we cannot admit to ourselves
The most famous expert to use dreams as part of psychoanalysis was, of course, Sigmund Freud. In his infamous 1899 book ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’, Freud argued that dreams represent our unconscious wishes and desires. The basis of his theory is that most of our desires are perfectly innocent.
However, some are so inappropriate or unacceptable to our conscious self that we bury them in our subconscious. They resurface in our dreams. Although Freud’s dream theory has largely been debunked, experts are now revisiting it, and with surprising results.
This is because of the way our mind works when we try to suppress thoughts. There are two active psychological processes that work when we try to stop thinking about something. One that actively works to suppress the thought, but another one that monitors it in the background.
Social psychologist Daniel Wegner tested the theory of thought suppression in relation to dreams. He asked participants to think about a person they knew and then write about them for 5 minutes. Before they went to bed, one group was told specifically not to think about the person, whereas the second group was told specifically to think about the person.
A third group could think about anything they wanted. In the morning all groups had to recall any dreams they had experienced in the night.
The results clearly showed that the participants who were told to suppress thoughts of the person dreamt of them much more than those who were told to actually think about the person.
Does this explain why we dream? Freud would argue that it is our unconscious mind prodding us during sleep in order to resolve issues we do not want to deal with.
Dreams are for our survival
Finnish philosopher Antti Revonsuo, argues that dreaming allows us to play out threatening scenarios so that we can rehearse them in our mind and gain an advantage in real life. By replaying these dangerous scenes, we can work out escape strategies and plans of attack. We can practise the mental and physical skills we need in the real world.
So how did Revonsuo come to this conclusion? He realised that out of all of our dreams, we tend to remember the most stressful dreams we have. Our nightmares, the ones that terrorise us, with threats of violence or aggression. Not the pleasant happy ones. And this made him think not only about the reasons why we dream but also why we only tend to remember the horrible dreams?
Revonsuo examined the difference between the dreams of children that had suffered from abuse, who had lived in war zones or through natural disasters and those with relatively calm upbringings. He found that traumatised children did indeed suffer from more stressful dreams. Indicating that their environment was a major factor in the subject matter of their dreams.
Revonsuo argues that for our early ancestors, the constant threat from their environment would have played out in their dreams. By continually rehearsing these scenes, they would become adept at overcoming any potential threats.
Dreams process traumatic events
We know that we need sleep to rest our physical bodies, but now experiments are revealing that dreaming is essential for our mental wellbeing. One study recorded the brain activity of participants while they viewed emotionally upsetting images.
One group of participants went to bed and got a good night’s sleep before viewing the images for a second time. Their brain scans showed less activity in the brain areas linked to emotion. Instead, the area responsible for rational thought was more active.
By contrast, there was a much stronger emotional reaction to the upsetting images from the second group of participants who had not been allowed to sleep. The brain scans confirmed more activity in areas related to emotional processing.
Scientists believe dreaming helps to process traumatic events is because of a chemical change in the body when we dream. During REM sleep, there is a dramatic reduction in the brain chemical norepinephrine. This chemical is associated with stress.
“By reprocessing previous emotional experiences in this neuro-chemically safe environment of low norepinephrine during REM sleep, we wake up the next day, and those experiences have been softened in their emotional strength.” Study leader, Dr Matthew Walker
This would also explain the relatively new therapy methods of EMDR (Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing). Some events are so traumatic that they get frozen in a person’s mind. This therapy uses the movements our eyes make during REM sleep. This helps process past traumatic events that are keeping us stuck in the present day.
The patient will watch a light moving across a bar which replicates the eyes when we are dreaming. This unlocks the frozen memory and allows processing to take place. During the process, the traumatic event is softened; noises are quieter, colours are less vivid, smells lose their intensity. The memory is less disturbing and more like ‘normal’ memory.
So, why do we dream? Experts may differ in their theories.
Some believe that dreams are nothing more than random neurons firing indiscriminately when we are asleep. Others, like Freud, think they are a window into our subconscious. Whatever you believe, research into why we dream has become an important area of study. Not least for those suffering from trauma such as PTSD and abuse, but other medical conditions as well.
As for which theory holds the most weight? To find the answer I believe we should look at our own dreams.
For example, I always find that I dream about whatever is worrying me. For instance, if I have an early appointment the next day, my dreams are always based around running late for something. At the end of the day, the brain is still a huge mystery so we might never know the real reason for why we dream.
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