Why Do We Dream, Really?

Have you ever wondered why you dream? The search for an answer is as old as humanity itself

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When we close our eyes and fall asleep, vivid visions and hallucinations fill our minds, bringing the impossible to life. Time doesn’t seem to exist, and people and places perpetually shift and change. All the while, you experience wildly fluctuating emotions of joy, confusion, or complete terror. Although people dream for two hours each night on average, many wake up and can’t remember a thing!

Have you ever wondered why you dream? For as long as we could experience dreams, we have looked for the meaning behind them. Ancient peoples in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome thought that dreams carried divine messages and considered dream interpretation a sacred art and honored profession.

In the age of science, psychologists and philosophers have taken more practical approaches. Sigmund Freud proposed that dreams revealed repressed desires. Carl Jung rejected Freud’s theory, believing that dreams integrate our conscious and unconscious lives. Today, scientists still haven’t fully answered the questions behind why we dream. However, technology has brought us closer than ever before.

Dr. Matthew Walker is a Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California in Berkeley and founder of the Center for Human Sleep Science. In his book, Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, Dr. Walker gives a new understanding of two important reasons for dreaming.

Memory Pinball

Through his work in studying the brain during sleep, Dr. Walker discovered how dreaming occurs as our brains try to store new knowledge and associate that information with what we already know.

In other words, during deep sleep, our brains cement, or press the save button on, new memories. Later, in REM sleep, our brains take those freshly minted memories and collide them with the back catalog of information already stored in the brain. With all the memories of the past and present mixing together, no wonder dreams can seem so strange and random!

Dr. Walker explains, “It’s almost like memory pinball... like group therapy for memories. During dream sleep, all of these memories get to speak with each other. They all find these new connections so that when you wake up the next day you have a revised mind-wide web of associations. It’s a new associated network that is capable of divining remarkable insights of previously impenetrable problems.”

Dreaming results from our brain as it undergoes associative memory processing. This allows us to come up with novel solutions and creative connection building. Hence, the reason behind the phrase “to sleep on a problem.” In fact, this phrase exists in many languages all over the world, showing how the creative benefit of sleep transcends cultural boundaries.

Emotional First Aid

Dr. Walker’s studies also revealed how dreaming helps to heal from painful memories. While observing a brain under an MRI, neuroscientists noticed that dream sleep represents the only time during a 24-hour cycle in which the brain shuts off a powerful stress-related chemical called noradrenaline, or norepinephrine.

At the same time, the brain’s emotional and memory sensors reignite. In fact, the sensors become 30 percent more active than when people are awake. This suggests that dream sleep gives the brain a chance to recover from the day. The brain strips away the painful sting of emotional memories so that when you wake up, you remember the painful memories, but you divorce some of the emotion from that memory. Call it free, overnight therapy.

While scientists still have a lot to learn about the brain during sleep, clearly, dreaming plays an important role in creative problem solving, memory, and emotional healing. So make sure to get enough Z’s and keep dreaming in order to wake up each day feeling refreshed.

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