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Why Do We Dream?

Why Do We Dream? 7 Theories Backed by Science

Everyone has wondered, at some point, about the origin and purpose of dreams. This is a vast topic, but read on to know more about the most prominent factors in it...
PsycholoGenie Staff
Last Updated: Jun 3, 2018
Dreams have always fascinated mankind. These mysterious phenomena, seemingly verging on the supernatural, have elicited numerous theories and explanations regarding their origin.

Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology, was the first one to point out the importance of dreams. He propounded many a theory to explain the meaning, need, and interpretation of dreams.

Psychoanalytic Theory
The psychoanalytic theory of dreams was propounded by Sigmund Freud. The Austrian psychologist propounded that dreams are repressed versions of unconscious desires. The unconscious mind holds all those aspects of memory and desires that the person has repressed and pushed deeper away from the conscious to the sub-conscious mind. The desires and memories in this mind cannot be retrieved simply by recalling them. As such, on occurrence of relevant stimuli, these desires may surface during REM sleep, in the form of dreams. However, Freud has also stated that most of these desires are sexual in nature. Even if the dreams are not sexual, their interpretation would have psychosexual implications. For this reason, the psychoanalytic theory has faced criticism.

Activation - Synthesis Model
The activation-synthesis model of dreaming, as propounded by J. Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley in 1977, explains the reasoning behind dreams. In accordance to this theory, REM sleep activates the dormant circuits in the brain. This causes areas of the limbic system involved in emotions, sensations, and memories, including the amygdala and hippocampus, to become active. Now, the brain tries to analyze this activity and find a meaning in the signals produced as a result of that. According to this theory, this phenomenon of the brain trying to match memories and knowledge with basal signals, results in dreaming. Hobson, when discussing the meaning of dreams, states that "[dreaming is] our most creative conscious state, one in which the chaotic, spontaneous recombination of cognitive elements produces novel configurations of information: new ideas. While many or even most of these ideas may be nonsensical, if even a few of its fanciful products are truly useful, our dream time will not have been wasted."

While this theory gives a lot of justifiable explanation about dreams, it fails to give specific information about its interpretation.

Other Theories
There are many more theories that have been inspired by mainly the two theories stated above. These theories have their own inferences about the reasoning behind dreams.
  • According to one group of theorists, dreams are a response to the external stimuli present at the time. For instance, if one has the radio on while sleeping, the music may be incorporated into the dream as well.
  • Another school of thought considers the brain as a computer. According to this theory, the brain needs to clear up junk information and restructure existing knowledge according to new stimuli, the way a computer's hard drive needs to be formatted and segmented. As such, the dreams are simply stray visuals created during this fragmentation procedure of the thoughts in the person's mind.
  • Another theory about the psychology of dreams, suggests the dreams are like a laboratory, i.e., a dreamer connects his thoughts and emotions during his sleep in the safe environment of his own dreams.
  • Another contemporary theory states that the activation of brain that occurs during the REM sleep causes certain loose ends to be created between thoughts and ideas. These thoughts and ideas are then guided by the emotions and personal experiences of the dreamer―this is what causes dreams.
Neither of these theories is widely accepted, due to the lack of empirical explanation and information.

Just Like That
There are many psychologists and researchers who would disagree with theories propounding meanings and inferences of dreams. These theorists suggest that dreams have no meaning. Since the brain is very much active even during the REM stage of sleep, random 'firing' of neurons may seem like dreams. These random firings create a film-like presence and order. This causes the person to want to find a "deeper meaning" behind the meaningless process. This theory can be really helpful when trying to figure out why we have nightmares and what causes bad dreams, in a positive and "non-scary" manner!

While I am a thorough follower of Sigmund Freud, I leave the answer to you. Each person can decide which theory to follow and what to believe. Despite being one of the most common occurrences in the world, dreams still succeed at amazing everyone!

This is where I sign off! Dream on!