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What are Dreams?

It is an interesting concept to consider. What are dreams? Why do we dream when asleep? Dreams are ideas or emotions that take over your mind when you sleep. Dreaming is a normal and natural phenomenon.

People dream for almost two hours every night, yet most of those dreams are frequently forgotten. Dreams are supposed to assist with many aspects of our emotional lives, which may be important for our emotional and cognitive well-being.

However, much remains unknown about sleep and dreams. Even the most basic query—why we dream—generates considerable ongoing debate.

While everyone experiences dreams, their substance and influence on sleep can diverge extensively between individuals. Though dreams’ true intent and essence defy simple resolution, comprehending dreams’ fundamentals, nightmares’ potential impacts, and steps one can take to slumber soundly with pleasant dreams remains constructively insightful.

Why Do We Dream When Asleep?

Research says that dreams happen due to REM. REM typically starts about 90 minutes after falling asleep and becomes longer each sleep cycle. Babies spend 50% of their sleep in REM, while adults spend around 25% dreaming. This suggests dreams serve an important function, especially in development.

Hypotheses on the Purpose of Dreams

While the exact purpose of dreaming continues to be explored, here are some leading hypotheses from sleep experts:

Memory Consolidation

According to some specialists, dreams aid in the brain’s transition from short-term to long-term memory storage. Dreams are supposed to integrate and organize the information processed during the day as recollections are made.

Emotional Processing 

Dreams can help us process difficult events from the day before mentally and emotionally. They offer us a secure means of intentionally experiencing and comprehending feelings.

Threat Simulation

An influential theory is that dreaming evolved as a trait to let our ancestors rehearse survival skills through imaginary scenarios. This could improve the chances of dealing with potential threats.

Creativity & Problem-Solving

Loose dreaming logic may aid innovative thinking by combining memories and concepts in new ways. Some believe dreams reflect our subconscious processing solutions without inhibitions that arise in waking thought.

Neural Development

REM sleep and dreaming peak during critical development periods, hinting they impact brain growth and wiring. Dreaming could help form stronger neural connections crucial for emotional/social skills.

Lucid Dreaming Provides Direct Insights

When people become aware they’re dreaming—called lucid dreaming—they can make unique observations. Studies show REM sleep and dreaming originate in the pons region of the brainstem, which regulates things like breathing and heart rate. The amygdala activates more in REM, consistent with dreaming’s emotional focus.

Some lucid dreamers report consciously directing dreams to address specific memories or work through anxieties when asleep. This intriguing phenomenon hints that dreams may involve conscious problem-solving or intentional processing even without full awareness.

Content of Dreams Reflects Daily Life

Modern dream research provides compelling evidence that dreams directly relate to our daily lives and experiences. Some notable findings:

  • Common dream elements include people and locations from waking life. Our dreams integrate images and concerns we encounter while awake.
  • Major life changes, stressful events, and emotional upheavals influence dream content. Transitions, problems, and losses may be reflected in the symbolic reflection of nightly dreams.
  • Dreams revisit waking REM memories to a greater degree than non-REM ones. This suggests REM/dreaming helps strengthen memory formation of emotionally salient events.

So, in essence, the “movies” our brain generates while asleep directly pull from and reflect upon our waking reality—from faces to feelings. Dreaming provides an outlet to cognitively and emotionally process what we experience in each conscious moment.

Other Potential Dream Functions

While the above hypotheses dominate scientific theorizing, some other speculative dream functions have been proposed as well:

Immune system regulation

REM sleep impacts growth hormone and stress hormone release, which are important for immunity.

Intuition & insight

Dreams potentially pull from non-conscious problem-solving areas to yield unexpected connections.

Social bonding

Sharing dreams could reinforce relationship intimacy and group cohesion in ancestral hunter-gatherer tribes.

Restorative sleep

REM may aid healing and repair by inducing unique changes in neural activity compared to non-dream states.

Our best scientific understanding is that dreaming serves important functions in memory consolidation, emotional regulation, and adapting survival skills. However, further research may reveal additional purposes over time.

Integrating Theories on Dream Function

No single dream theory sufficiently explains such a complex phenomenon on its own. Emerging perspectives aim to integrate leading concepts:

  • Threat Simulation: Ancestors whose brains honed during REM were likelier to avoid real danger, passing on those genes.
  • Problem-Solving: Dreaming lets early humans mentally practice survival skills offline to enhance abilities like hunting.
  • Emotional Regulation: After stressful events, dreaming may have evolved to process threats without requiring a physical or psychological response.
  • Creativity: REM dreams presented evolutionary advantages by mentally exploring hypothetical situations to spark new adaptations.

Individual Variations in Dream Themes

While dreaming serves broad adaptive functions evolutionarily, dream content itself remains remarkably individualized:

  • Age: Children’s dreams focus on learning and social skills, whereas seniors report more emotional reflection dreams.
  • Gender: Some studies find women’s dreams contain more social themes while men report more physical challenges/threats.
  • Culture: Specific cultural narratives or legends are often incorporated symbolically into shared dreaming patterns within groups.
  • Personal Experiences: Major life events like unemployment and relationships routinely feature prominently in people’s subjective dream realities.


What is the purpose of dreaming?

A: Memory consolidation, emotional processing, problem-solving, creativity, and threat simulation.

How much do we dream?

A: Adults dream 3-5 times per night, lasting 5-20 minutes each. REM is 25% of sleep.

Why don’t we remember dreams?

A: Memory is disrupted when waking, and details fade from unrelated emotions/experiences.

What do dreams mean?

A: Often reflects emotions, relationships, and concerns from daily life. Context is important.

Can lucid dreaming be learned?

A: Yes, with reality checks, journals, meditation/visualization before sleep over time for most people. Genetics is also a factor.

dr vander heide

Psychoanalytic Perspective

This is a nice summary from a neurological, historical, and personal level on the value of dreaming. The article summarizes the multiple possible benefits of dreaming when it states that “our best scientific understanding is that dreaming serves important functions in memory consolidation, emotional regulation, and adapting survival skills.” I would be loathe to argue something else, but consider what it takes to grow up in a world where everyone around you is bigger and essential for your survival.

Almost every imagined pleasure must be contained or even “forgotten.”Even when you get to be ten, school demands that you obey orders and that you must obey teacher and various disciplinarians for social survival and acceptance. The dream world is your “playground” where no one else can say “no.” Some of your wishes are scary and perhaps even terrifying to represent (like pushing your pain in the neck aunt off a cliff) but it is yours and yours alone. Freud would say, and I would agree, dreams represent the truest part of ourselves and real mental health means making peace with all the parts of who you are and what you feel.


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