Why We Dream & The Importance of Dreaming

10 Min Read | By Sam Atherton

Last Modified 5 March 2024   First Added 25 March 2021

This article was written and reviewed in line with our editorial policy.

For centuries, people have questioned the meaning of dreams. Early civilisations thought of dreams as a medium between humans and the gods. The Greeks and Romans were convinced that dreams could predict the future. Since then, times have changed. Now, there are many different theories on dream meanings and dream interpretation.

In this article, we explore the different theories behind why we dream, talk to dream analysts, and find out what happens while we dream to decipher whether our dreams have any true meaning.

Why do we dream?

There is no concrete answer to the question. Despite numerous scientific investigations into dreams, the answer to why we dream remains elusive. A singular theory hasn’t been certified due to the various schools of thought from different areas of psychology.

Some theorists from evolutionary psychology believe that dreams are a way for us to practise social situations, which helps us develop our defence mechanisms. Whereas cognitive psychologists believe that dreams are a way for us to process information and learn whilst we sleep, helping us to turn short-term memories into long-term memories. Some neurologists believe dreams serve a physiological function, helping clear neural pathways for processing new information. Dreaming is a complex process that we can’t fully explain yet.

We know that our dreams occur when we enter the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) cycle of sleep. This is the sleep period when the brain is most active, leading to intense dreaming. Dream analyst Lauri Quinn Loewenberg explains that dreaming is a continuation of your thoughts from the day:

“That chatter in your head that goes on all day long continues as you drift off to sleep, and, once you enter REM sleep, when dreaming takes place, those thoughts continue in symbols and metaphors instead of in words.

During REM, the brain is working differently to when we are awake; certain parts of the brain have become dormant, such as the prefrontal cortex which controls rational thought, while other parts become highly active, such as the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls emotions. Through the dreaming process, you are continuing your thoughts about your day: your mistakes, your achievements, your hopes for tomorrow. Your dream thoughts are actually more focused and significantly more profound because your dreams provide you metaphoric commentary on yourself.”

What happens while we dream?

Dreams are essentially stories we play out in our heads overnight; they can follow a linear narrative or be abstract. Scientists estimate that we have roughly 3-6 dreams in one night and around 95% of these dreams are forgotten the following morning.

Whilst we forget most of our dreams, this doesn’t mean that dreams are unimportant; rather the opposite. REM-sleep dreaming is the only time the brain is devoid of noradrenaline – an anxiety-triggering molecule. This is coupled with the fact that key emotional and memory-related parts of the brain are active during REM sleep.

This allows your brain to process potentially upsetting or anxiety-inducing memories in a stress-free environment. Dreaming, therefore, has the potential to reduce emotional reactivity, helping you to process events in a more rational way.

What are the benefits of dreaming?

While we may not know a lot when it comes to dream meanings, more can be said about the benefits of dreaming. For example, the REM stage in which we dream allows us to commit things we learn to memory, meaning that dreams are possibly part of cognitive processes. One study showed that REM sleep can make you better at solving word puzzles.

As well as this, dreams offer emotional benefits, such as introspection. Loewenberg adds:

“Our dreams are full of information, advice, guidance and even warnings we need to know about ourselves and about our lives. Dreaming is a very deep and profound thinking process in which we focus solely on the self. Through dreaming, we examine our current issues, behaviours and goals. We come up with ideas, we sort things out, we look at ourselves in a deeper light, and we gain a clearer picture of ourselves and the situation so that we can make better decisions. Those of us that are dream researchers and who use dream work in our mental health practices have found that dream interpretations are the deepest form of therapy available.”

A man in a blue shirt snoozing

Theories about the meaning of dreaming

There are many different theories when it comes to dream interpretation and whether our dreams really mean something. While we often enjoy recalling our dreams the following day, it’s important to decipher if there’s any significance in dream meanings. Here, we explore three leading scientific theories below…

Activation-synthesis hypothesis

One neurobiological theory of dreaming is the activation-synthesis hypothesis. This was proposed by Harvard University psychiatrists, John Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley. The activation-synthesis theory states that we dream because the mind attempts to make sense of, i.e., synthesise, brain activity that happens when we sleep. Resultingly, the theory states that dreams don’t actually mean anything as dreams are just the result of neuronal processes.

This is because, whilst we may be asleep, our brains are anything but. Whilst we sleep, our brains perform several activities, including cleaning, known as metabolic clearance. These activities often occur in the amygdala and hippocampus, areas of our brain responsible for emotions, senses and memories, which causes a spike in brain signals and impulses.

The effort to give these sudden signals meaning is what leads us to dream. Memories in the brain are used to make sense of the signals and impulses resulting from this activity.  For example, if these resulting signals are similar to those produced whilst running, you may dream of running.

However, critics of the activation-synthesis theory argue that current neurophysiology fails to fully account for dreams and their meanings as it is too reductionist and simplistic. The presence of recurring dreams, for example, challenges the theory’s position on the randomness and non-meaning of dreams.

Freud & wish-fulfilment theory

It is these critiques that make the work of renowned psychologist Sigmund Freud so irrepressible. Rather than seeing dreams as the product of the sleeping brain, Freud regarded dreams as “a royal road to the unconscious”. For Freud, dreams are not random. Dreams derive from real life, and the connections are constrained by unconscious desires hence “a dream is the fulfilment of a wish”.

He believed that dreams revealed unconsciously repressed conflicts or wishes. According to Freud, dreams are the imagery of a wish or impulse that has since been repressed. Our brains repress dreams, i.e., ‘dream-censorship’, where our latent dreams (the true meaning of the dream) become toned down or distorted, and it is the job of the psychoanalyst to uncover the true meaning. This is why Freud studied dreams as a gateway to understanding the unconscious mind.

However, the strongest criticism of Freud is concentrated on its most important axiom – that dreams are wish-fulfilment. Rather than being a gateway to the unconscious, Aserinsky and Kleitman’s (1953) discovery that dreams typically occur during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep led to the conclusion that dreams are bizarre, not due to an elaborate disguise mechanism hiding their true meaning, but more simply due to brain stem activity. Indeed, many of Freud’s neurobiological assumptions are now thought of as inaccurate.

Threat simulation theory

Another theory is the threat simulation theory, which describes dreams as a defence mechanism our brains put in place to prepare us for threatening events. This theory is evolutionary-derived and is based on the idea that creatures with a more highly developed threat simulation system have a better chance of survival.

Dreams act as a dress rehearsal for the real thing, allowing us to practise the cognitive mechanisms necessary for threat perception and avoidance. Following research in 2005, it was found that children who live in an environment in which their physical and psychological well-being is constantly threatened have a more highly activated dream production and threat simulation system compared to those who are free of such threats.

Further studies have also supported threat simulation theory finding that threatening events are frequent in dreams, the most frequent threat being aggressive behaviour, that the self is often the target of these threats and recurrent dreams include more severe threat simulations.

However, there are critiques of this theory:

  • Threat content may be the result of selective memories from emotionally charged experiences
  • The bizarre nature of dreams fails to offer us realistic and, therefore, beneficial simulations of threats
  • Nightmares or disturbed sleep can hardly be regarded as beneficial or functional to the dreamer due to what we know about the benefits of sound sleep

Bad dreams? It might be your evening snack...

Dream analyst Ian Wallace on what exactly is a dream

We asked best-selling author and dream analyst Ian Wallace his thoughts on exactly what a dream is. Here is what he had to say:

“A dream is how you instinctively make sense of all the information and experiences that you unconsciously absorb every day. This individual sense-making process naturally provides you with meaningful insights into specific challenges that you encounter in your day-to-day life. Your dreams are not just some random occurrence. They are actually a deliberate process that you unconsciously use to draw on your past experiences to help you understand how to make the most of future opportunities.”

Ian also explains how dreams are created, stating that they don’t just happen and that our brains purposely construct dreams:

“The areas of your brain that are most active when you dream are those associated with exploring how to fulfil your needs, story creation and emotional motivation. The dreams that you generate every night are your natural way of creating stories. This can be about fulfilling your deeper needs in waking life and resolving the emotional tensions that you may encounter.”

According to Ian Wallace, our dreams are an incredibly powerful resource that draws on the experience and awareness unavailable to us in our conscious waking life. Our dreams can therefore access our unconscious self, helping us to understand who we really are, what we need and what we truly believe without our conscious mind interfering.

Dr Pixie McKenna discusses dream meanings

Here Dr Pixie McKenna is joined by Dr Neil Stanley, who has studied dreams for 37 years, discussing the ins and outs of dream meanings.

Listen here on Spotify:

Which dream theory is best?

Whilst several theories have been posited, each examining dreams from different perspectives from evolution to neurology, a holistic theory on the meaning of dreams has not yet been agreed upon.

Rather than seeing each theory as competing or right or wrong, it is best to see them as different lenses through which we can better understand dreams and their meanings. Although it’s impossible to pinpoint one theory, Loewenberg states:

“In my experience, people are beginning to be more open to the fact that dreams are more than random misfirings of the brain, and that they are telling us something about ourselves.”

A woman sleeping on white sheets, with a clock in the foreground.

How do I interpret dream symbolism?

Dream interpretation allows you to understand if your dreams are revealing something to you. There are certain things you can do to decipher your dream meanings.  Loewenberg says:

“In a nutshell, you want to do a comparative analysis between the imagery and actions in the dream to the events of your previous day. Therefore, you should pay attention to the content of your dreams in waking life.

If you start keeping a day journal in tandem with a dream journal, you will absolutely start noticing connections between your dream imagery and your daily struggles and achievements. For example, you may notice that when your mother-in-law came over for dinner, you dreamed of being attacked by a bear that night. When you landed an account at work you’d been trying for, you may dream you won the lottery that night. Or when something you were super excited about didn’t work out, you may find that you dream of a plane crash or of falling that night.”

You may even have certain types of dreams, such as recurring dreams or vivid dreams, that are common when you sleep, or perhaps you are having nightmares. Trying to interpret these types of dreams can help you decipher the causes of these dreams, which can be helpful, especially if you want to avoid having nightmares.

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