Why do we dream while sleeping?
Has this thought ever crossed your mind? Of Course yes. That is why you’re here.
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.
Why Do People Dream?
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 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.
What is the Purpose of Dreams?
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.
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.
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.
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.
– 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
Dreams are responses to external stimuli in sleep
Your brain needs time to interpret all the information and dreams help you do exactly that.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.