Why Do We Dream (Scientific View)?

Our minds are powerful tools of creation that helped us survive since the very dawn of our existence. Our dreams represent the universal state of consciousness that can be characterized by sensory, cognitive and emotional occurrences during REM sleep states.

These dreams serve as down-time for our minds to unload and process all the information that we gather in our real lives and transform it into what can be described as a blank canvas for creativity.

In modern day culture, there are many examples where popular personalities, such as Salvador Dali, John Lennon and so many others have used the information and imagery from their dreams and transformed them into pieces of art.

But why do we dream after all?

What are Dreams – an Overview

Dreams are essentially helpful processes that our subconscious needs in order to process emotional and sensory information and encoding them into memories.

What we see, hear, feel or experience in our dreams may feel as real actual sensations in our real world and can produce emotional triggers that can have a lasting effect. For some of us, dreams may not be as intense and we might not even be able to recall them at all, while for others they can be incredibly vivid and realistic.

This is due to a deeper connection our dreams have with our survival instinct called the threat simulation theory, which stands for dreaming, as a way for our minds to create a safe environment in which to develop and simulate a response to real danger.

Dreams and Their Link to the Real World

In some cases, our dreams can serve as simulations of possible situations we can prevent by actually applying the wisdom found in the dream to our real world. One possible example could be seeing someone close to you drowning in a dream and then proceeding to talk them into taking swimming classes in the real world to prevent it.

Although it is still challenging to define all the ramifications our dreams have in connection with our real lives, to study dreams, scientists needed to come up with a measure unit for dreaming – the MRI.

Dreams can range from mostly visual, surreal experiences to complete snapshots of real-life events. This fact, however, does not equal sleeping with “daydreaming”

One study shows that if a person writes down their dream experience as soon as they wake up, they are more likely to remember a larger part of the dreams they’ve had over the course of a month. Dreams are also most likely to be vividly recalled by a person woken out of the REM (rapid eye movement) sleep stage.

What is REM and How Does it Relate to Threat Simulation

Rapid eye movement sleep stage is the phase in which our eyes rapidly shift side to side and we experience no muscle activity. Some theories suggest that the REM phase serve as a virtual simulation of our waking lives, in which the simulation of a real threat may occur.

When we have a threat simulation experience during Rem, our consciousness taps into the primordial biological defense mechanism that is the result of our natural evolution.

This essentially enables our brains to rehearse and improve new survival techniques without actually putting us in danger in reality. These types of dreams that take place during REM phase can be measured and observed and tend to happen less common in the remainder of sleep phases.

Dreams in History

For centuries people have pondered upon the meaning and practical uses of dreams. Some early civilizations considered dreams as mediums between our world and their own heavenly realms.

Although interpretations of why we experience dreams have been adapted to their own respective belief systems, figures in dreams were often connected to gods and their messages to mankind.

The ancient Greeks, for instance, used dreams as prophetic means of anticipating the outcome of important events in their lives. The Romans were also convinced that dreams contained messages from worlds beyond ours and that the purpose of us experiencing them was to help fulfill certain assignments in life.

The Egyptians used dreams as a different form of seeing, often to interpret happenings in life and form decisions or to reach out to those who have passed away.

In later times, Carl Jung (who was a student of Freud) added that dreams carried important psychological messages purposed for goals vastly more complex than we are capable to explain.

Dream Studies in Modern Day Science

A 2007 study that took place at the Max Planck Medical Institute in Heidelberg, Germany helped confirm Jung’s theory. By using anesthetized mice as test subjects, researchers discovered that once the neocortex starts firing during sleep, it begins sending signals to various regions of the hippocampus.

This process served as a way to download all the information stored in their short-term memory centers into the neocortex. Once the process was complete, the hippocampus was then cleared out and the neocortex began the selection of what information gets transferred to the long-term memory and what information gets discarded.

As the information gets processed during the sleep phases, some random strings of data get scrambled up in dreams that may not resemble the actual content of the real information at all.

Other recent studies also concluded that we use our dreams much like the mice, as forms of “data dumping” mechanisms, making space for valuable memories that we accumulate through our daily life experiences.

Freudian Interpretation of Dreams

While we have always been fascinated about the dream phenomena, it wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that Sigmund Freud put forth the foundation of how we see dreams today.

Freud’s theory centered around the idea that we dream as a result of a repressed longing or an unresolved issue in the real world. Sigmund Freud considered dreaming to be an expression of unfulfilled desires, emotions or thoughts released by our subconscious during sleep and transformed into visual experiences by the higher regions of the brain.

Present-day scientists are now using Pet scans and MRIs to take a deeper, more technical look into the idea that we dream, in fact, as a way to filter out information, resolve inner emotional conflicts and keep ourselves alert in the face of potential dangers.

Self-awareness and Lucid Dreaming

Beyond the typical dream our mind conceives as a form of nighttime entertainment, there is also the question of what lucid dreams are and why we have them.

Over the years, numerous theories have emerged, in an attempt to shed light on the mystery of lucid dreams and until recently factual evidence has remained largely elusive.

In one lucid dream study, burn victims were being monitored during their hospitalization in an attempt to demystify the realism of pain we experience in our dreams. While most participants did not experience any pain, some that did appear to have painful sensations were able to consciously stop it while in dream state.

This result has shown that through direct incorporation or memory of pain the subject can be able to lower or stop the pain completely.  This conscious awareness found in the lower gamma band, around 20 –40Hz during REM sleep influences the ongoing brain activity and induces self-awareness during our dreams.

Takeaway

To summarize, we can conclude that dreams are common occurrences that are deeply connected with our memories and survival instincts.

While some dreams may be purely visual experiences, others may help us develop our responses to dangers in the real world or prevent them altogether.

Recent studies have shown that dreams are used as our brain’s natural way of moving temporary information from the hippocampus into the neocortex and filter out the unnecessary clutter.

Dreams are used by our brains are creative environments and problem-solving mechanisms, offering us insight into the five stages of sleep as observed under the four types of electrical brain waves (delta, theta, alpha and beta).

Out of all sleep stages, REM stage is where most of our dreams take place. Our brains use both left and right hemispheres to shape our dreams, both equally contributing to the vividness, figurativeness and effectiveness of our nighttime visions.

As a bottom line, while there is a plethora of dream theories out there, no single one has the definite answer of why dream, however each one of they may provide us with valuable information on the brain’s activity while we sleep.