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Why do we dream? 12 Dream Theories and everything else you need to know

Why do we dream? 12 Dream Theories and everything else you need to know

Updated on Nov 27, 2022 | Published on Aug 20, 2021

Reviewed by Katina Tarver, MA (Mental Health and Wellness Counseling) , Life Coach

Why do we dream - 10+ Dream Theories & everything You Need to Know

Why do we dream while sleeping?

Has this thought ever crossed your mind? Yes, I thought about it too.

While there’s no definite answer, there are various dream researches and theories that explain the purpose of dreams. It can be because of our emotional feelings, traumatic experiences, or our desires too.

However, it is very important to remember your dreams if you want to find out their true meaning. With the details of your dream, you will finally be able to interpret the message your dream is passing onto you.

Even though you can find your dream interpretation, the basic question remains the same…

That is,

Why Do De Dream - 10 Dream Theories & Everything You Need to Know
Why Do De Dream – 10 Dream Theories & Everything You Need to Know

Why do we dream? (Why do people dream?)

While there’s no concrete research that determines the reason behind dreaming, some studies reveal that it helps process information and confront emotions.

If you ask someone the definition of a dream, most will tell you that they are mere hallucinations or imaginations. These dreams occur at the REM stage of the sleep cycle. 

We are in our deepest sleep during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. That’s why it’s difficult to recall all the details of our deep sleep dreams.

We already know that dreams play an important role in our blood pressure, brain activation, regulation of metabolism, and certain other aspects. But still, it is difficult for the researchers to explain its role.

Our thoughts have certain logic attached to them when we’re awake. But when we’re asleep, although our brain is active, your dreams sometimes make no sense at all. This may be because, in our brain, the emotion centers trigger dreams, rather than logical reasons.

Even though no dreams research backs it up, it is seen that dreams are usually based on your daily-life activities, thoughts, or other issues in real life. Still, there are several popular theories that make an attempt to interpret the role of your dreams.

So, without further ado, let’s dive straight into it.

What is the purpose of dreams? (What is the role of dreams?

Like I said above, there’s no concrete scientific study to help determine the reason behind why humans dream.

In fact, while some studies suggest that dreams benefit your mental, emotional, or even physical well-being, some scientists believe that dreams serve no purpose at all.

But here are a few theories that throw light on the function of dreams.

1. It represents unconscious feelings

– Dream Rebound Theory

The dream rebound theory has been coined by Sigmund Freud. He said that dreams are a representation of one’s own unconscious desires, wishes, motivations, and thought processes.

Freud believed that people are managed by their aggressive and sexual instincts that have been repressed for a long time.

Even though several theories by Freud have been dismissed in the past, Dream Rebound Theory has been backed by research according to which suppression of thoughts may result in dreaming.   

2. Helps Process Information

– Activation-synthesis theory

This dream theory was derived by J.Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley. It says that during our REM sleep, the amygdala and hippocampus in our brains are triggered. 

These parts of the brain send electrical impulses which help in the compilation of random thoughts, memories, visuals, incidences that you see in your dreams.

After this, when we wake up, the active brain gathers this information to form a cohesive narrative. This makes it easy for us to comprehend the information.

In brief, dreams compile the random thoughts that appear in our dreams and then are analyzed in a logical manner by our waking mind. 

This way, dreams force the dreamer to make new connections, take inspiration from the images to form new ones, and also enhance their creativity and problem-solving skills.

3. Aids in Memory

– Information-processing or Self-organization theory

The information-processing theory states that sleep helps us process the data and memories from the previous day. A few dream experts also call dreaming – a byproduct of experience processing.

This dream theory suggests that dreams increase your memory power. It helps you filter the important and unimportant memories. 

You can store the important ones whereas it becomes easy to discard the unnecessary ones. Dreams also help you to simplify your complex thoughts and process emotional troubles.

Studies show that during the dreaming phase or in REM sleep, we can find the low-frequency theta waves that are active in the frontal lobe. 

This is usually found when people are learning, memorizing, or preserving some information in their waking life. So, we can conclude that dreams also help us in processing information.

Dream research suggests that if you learn new information before sleeping, then it will have more recall value. How the memory and recall value is linked to dreams is still not understood. But one thing’s for sure, dreams prevent the unnecessary information that interferes with memory and learning.

4. Facilitates Creativity

– Creativity theory of dreaming

Dreams solve your problems and enhance your creativity. If you’re an artist, you might have often woken up with a brilliant idea for your artwork. 

This is because when you’re dreaming, you’re allowed to wander wherever you want. There’s no limit. So, you can explore your limitless potential.

In real life, you think with your mind and try to find out the logic in everything. This restricts your creativity. But when you mine your “creative” dreams, you create something the world has never seen before… and finally, find your “aha” moment.

In fact, scientific research has also claimed “dreaming” to be an effective promoter of creative thinking. 

5. Reflection of person’s real life

– Continuity Hypothesis

You might have heard people saying that dreams are a reflection of your real life. This is backed up by the continuity hypothesis. It says that dreams do not show a straightforward replay of the incidents in your life but divides it into different fragments.

When studied deeper, it is found that non-REM sleep largely involves your routine stuff. But REM sleep deals more with your emotions and memories. That is the reason why the dream recalling the process of REM sleep is easier than non-REM sleep.

These real-life incidents are purposefully fragmented so that we can learn new things and store them in long-term memory. However, we still don’t know why some memories appear more often than others in our dreams.

6. Trains for Fight-and-flight

– Threat-simulation theory

Amygdala is a part of our brain. This amygdala is responsible for the fight-or-flight response. A theory states that this part of the brain is more active while we’re sleeping. This way, while dreaming the brain trains us to deal with fearful situations.

It can be a normal fear of falling off from a height or using the washroom in public. If you fear exams, the dream can be related to your exams. 

Depending on your fear, you can either be dreaming of running away from somebody or entering a public place naked, or failing an exam.

Luckily, the brainstem sends signals for the relaxation of muscles in REM sleep so that you don’t run away or punch anybody while sleeping. 

Hence, dreams make us practice survival skills so that when the actual scenario takes place, our mind is already prepared.

7. Confronts emotional dramas

– Emotional regulation theory

Dreams help you confront your emotional troubles in real life. There might be so much going on in your waking life that you didn’t get time to process. 

When we suppress our emotions, they tend to get heavy on us because we haven’t processed them yet. Hence, dreams help us process them in our REM sleep.

Research says that the more REM sleep you get, the more emotions you process. 

This is because in dreams, your brain deals with critical emotions and makes connections that you wouldn’t be able to make in waking life.

As I said, the amygdala and the hippocampus are the parts of our brain that get active in sleep. They help to condense and process information alongside transferring it from the short-term memory to the long-term memory.

When you share these dreams with others, you start feeling empathetic towards others and support them during tough times.

Other Scientific Theories on Why Humans Dream

Apart from the theories mentioned above, there are a few others that also comment on “why we dream”.

1. Dreams clean-up clutter from the mind

A theory uses the computer metaphor of “clean-up” for our mind. As dreams help process information and filter important material from the unimportant ones, the theory suggests that it removes the extra clutter from the mind and refreshes it for the new day.

2. Dreams are responses to external stimuli in sleep

Another theory states that we dream in an attempt to interpret the external stimuli around us. This can be anything like a dog barking, some music playing, or random noise from the streets. 

Your brain needs time to interpret all the information and dreams help you do exactly that.  

3. Reverse-learning Theory

This theory tells us that we dream so that we can forget things. Unless we process all the information, our minds cannot delete them. So, we dream and analyze that information to find out if it is useful for us or not. 

Our mind tries to build connections between different memories and dreams to help eliminate the unimportant ones.

4. Continual-Activation Theory

This theory is pretty simple. It only focuses on the fact that dreams help our brains to remain active while we are sleeping so that it keeps functioning well. It results in brain activation. 

The focal point of this theory is that when we are in our REM sleep, our brain is processing memory.

5. Biological response to life circumstances

A researcher tried to study why the dream content is negative at times. For example, dreams involving enemies or violence. But the results showed that it can be evolutionary or as a form of biological response to your day-to-day life circumstances.

Why do we have nightmares?

Nightmares or bad dreams are manifestations of stress, anxiety, or other medical conditions from real life.

So far, we understand that dreams help us to process our emotions, thoughts, memories and help us to store them for a longer period of time. But we don’t always dream well.

There can be occasional nightmares or what we know as bad dreams. These nightmares are the dreams that can upset or terrify us. They are caused because of stress, anxiety, or medical conditions.

But if you get frequent nightmares, it can be a sign of a sleeping disorder. If you’re dreaming regularly about something that makes you anxious or disturbs your sleep, then it is possible that you are experiencing a sleeping disorder. These nightmares also invite other psychological problems.

Remember, that it is normal to experience occasional nightmares so only if they have been consistent, you need to seek medical help. The American Sleep Association predicts that only 5% of the population gets continuous nightmares as a part of a sleeping disorder.

Why do we have stress dreams?

Stress dreams are triggered by great stress from real life or medical conditions like PTSD, depression, bipolar disorder, etc.

If you’re experiencing stress in your waking life, then you are likely to experience stress in your dreams too. You can also call these stressful dreams your nightmares or bad, scary, and disturbing dreams.

We still don’t have enough evidence to prove how the dream content becomes scary. But there are many theories that support it like the continuity hypothesis, emotional regulation theory, or the adaptive strategy. 

Studies also show that if you’re having poor mental health, then these dreams are pretty common.

People experiencing great stress or tensions in their waking life tend to get more nightmares. Also, people suffering from PTSD i.e., post-traumatic stress disorder also experience more bad dreams than those who don’t

Further, people going through mental health disorders like anxiety, stress, depression, bipolar disorder have difficulty in sleeping. This is why they often find themselves experiencing distressing dreams.

If you have been anxious for a while in your real life, then you’ll certainly experience stressful dreams. This is your brain’s way of telling you how to cope up with difficult situations and learn lessons from them.

What factors influence dreams?

Dreams are often manifestations of your own activities and emotions in waking life. Thus, changes in your real life are bound to impact your dream themes as well.

So, here are some factors that may influence your dreams.

1. Your health condition

The number of hours you sleep also impacts your dreams and dreaming patterns. If you haven’t slept for a night or two, then you can easily slip into REM sleep and experience more vivid dreams. Plus, dreams that we see in our REM sleep have greater recall value too.

If you’re pregnant, you’re likely to have some vivid dreams. This is because hormone production has an impact on the thought processing activity of the brain.

Hence, you’re likely to have some intense dreams during pregnancy.

Some mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, mood swings, bipolar disorder, etc. lead to bad dreams or nightmares. When the frequency of these nightmares increases, it can result in sleeping disorders.

Not only this but, if you’re consuming medicines for such mental health problems, then also you are more prone to experiencing nightmare disorders.

This is because these medicines have antidepressants and antipsychotics as a part of their content.

2. The food that you eat

You cannot argue over the fact that some foods get you better or wilder dreams whereas some help you to remember your dreams better.

For instance, food rich in carbohydrates provides you quick energy. But after some time, you’ll start feeling low. 

Whatever affects your real life is believed to lay an impact on your unconscious life too. So, if you feel dull during the day, then it is likely that you’ll feel the same in your sleep too.

Alternately, if you’re consuming food that keeps you awake throughout the night, then this will also impact your sleep.

Consuming such food items will keep you awake in your REM stage of sleep when you are dreaming. If this happens, you’ll remember more of your dreams.

3. Your daily life

It goes without saying that dreams are affected by our daily life. A study concluded that if you want to sleep peacefully at night, then you must exercise in the early morning. 

You can jog, run or hit the gym in the morning to fall asleep faster. This way you’ll be able to get enough deep sleep than exercising late or not exercising at all.

Additionally, if you keep yourself relaxed during the day, then you wouldn’t be carrying the anxiety to the bed.

This way if you minimize the stress from your waking life, it can also help you to avoid nightmares and enjoy uninterrupted sleep each night.

Why do we forget dreams?

As dreams occur in the REM phase of sleep where most parts of the brain are shut down, it is difficult for humans to remember them.

‘Why can’t I remember my dream?’ You might have asked this question to yourself many times. Well, remembering dreams has always been difficult. 

Maybe it is because we are designed to do so because if we could recall it all, we wouldn’t be able to differentiate between dreams and real memories.

Additionally, it is difficult to recall dreams from your REM sleep since parts of the brain are shut down. We remember the parts of dreams right before we wake up because at that time the brain activity restarts.

This is why there is hardly anybody who remembers their dreams accurately.

A few people also say that we never forget dreams but we don’t have easy access to them since they’re stored in our memory. 

This is why in the latter part of the day if some incidents take place that are relatable to our dreams, we can easily recall them. This is because our memory has been triggered that something similar has already taken place.

Why do dreams seem so bizarre?

Prefrontal cortex in the brain which is also responsible for logical reasoning isn’t activated in our dreams. This triggers strange dreams or dreams without any specific meaning.

This has something to do with the brain chemicals or neurotransmitters. The brain activation is maintained by the brain chemical acetylcholine whereas dopamine is related to hallucinations.

While we dream, the relation between space and time also changes massively. You’ll either find the time to be lasting forever or being spent very quickly.

Another important point to note here is that REM sleep suppresses the brain chemicals responsible for keeping us awake like histamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. This is why we are unaware of our surroundings.

Research studies also mention that sometimes we experience strange dreams because our prefrontal cortex isn’t activated during dreaming. 

This part of the brain is responsible for our logical reasoning. Hence, when logical reasoning isn’t active, you’re going to experience dreams that might seem bizarre or without any specific meaning.

Why do we dream on some nights but not others?

Science says that you dream every night but, on some nights, you remember them while on others you don’t.

This is because humans experience two kinds of sleep: REM sleep and non-REM sleep. You tend to remember the maximum content of your dreams only when you are interrupted from REM sleep.

Other than that, dream researchers suggest that dreams with negative content are remembered more than the ones with pleasant content.

FAQs about why do we dream

1. Do we learn in our dreams?

To put it simply, it’s less of learning and more of practicing. Dreaming helps you to focus on more important information.

For instance, in a Maths classroom, when you’re trying to pay attention to your professor’s teaching, there might be few noises of your classmates talking. Their voices fall in your ears and so you comprehend that information too.

But in dreams, you can easily eliminate the less important information and process the more important ones to remember it for a longer time. 

Thus, we cannot say that we actually learn in our dreams but we decide what is more important for us so that the leftovers can be discarded.

2. Why do different people have the same dream themes?

This has a very simple answer: different people have different experiences. But there are also a few similarities between different individuals.

You and your friend might like the same book or movie because you’re able to relate to it.

Similarly, different people can share the same dream themes too. A few of the most common dreams are teeth falling out, dancing naked in public, or fearing your exam. 

These dreams are common because they are horrifying for all of us or we share similar experiences.

3. Can dreams affect our mood?

Undoubtedly, the answer to this is ‘YES’. There are many evidences that claims that if you’re depressed, you’re more likely to have violent or vivid dreams. The theories also state that our dreams reflect our emotional state.

Similarly, the opposite is also true, i.e., your dreams can have a significant impact on your moods also. This is why the concept of lucid dreaming emerged.

Lucid dreaming occurs when you try to control your dreams so that you can be in a pleasant mood. There are many techniques to do this but it hasn’t been completely understood yet.

Further, there are many scientific experiments going on to research further on this. In one study, the prefrontal cortex was stimulated with the help of electrodes to understand if it gets more energized while dreaming.

The reason behind this is that this cortex is where the planning and decision-making process takes place. So, if this part of brain activation is successfully done, then it is easy to control our dreams.

4. Does this mean we should take lessons at bedtime?

There are a few pieces of evidence that support the thought of learning at bedtime. It is believed that when you learn things before bedtime, it stays in your memory for a longer period of time as things get stored in your long-term memory.

Similarly, exercising before bedtime can make it difficult for you to sleep. So, you must prioritize appropriate sleeping hours for better learning.

5. Does dreaming have any health benefits?

The biggest health benefit of dreaming is that it prepares us for stressful situations. For instance, when you see someone kidnapping you in your dream and remember what followed, you will be more prepared if it ever happens in real life.

You cannot sit horrified if you’re kidnapped because they may even kill you. So, your brain prepares you beforehand so that you can react quickly to stressful situations.

Processing emotions is another major health benefit of dreaming. If there’s something traumatic that has happened to you, dreams help you cope with these emotions in your sleep so that you don’t have to give much emotional response in your waking life.

Final Thoughts!

Dreams are different for everybody and it is difficult to understand them individually. Few dreams often leave us puzzled. 

But there’s not much we can do here since dreams are a result of individual thought processes. Hence, it gets very difficult to conclude a generalized approach to these dreams.

Many dream researchers have discussed theories related to REM dreams, lucid dreams, remembering the dreams, and many more concepts. But all these theories haven’t been backed up by scientific evidence.

While the researchers are doing their part, it is advisable for us to be carefree and enjoy dreaming. However, if you are consuming any sleep medicine or are facing some nightmare disorder, it is recommended to consult a sleep specialist.