Why Do We Dream? 10 Theories To Explain This Phenomenon

The oneiric has always been surrounded by mystery, but that does not imply that it cannot be studied.

Everybody dreams. E l man spends a third of their life sleeping and that third party becomes the least another third of dreaming, and for much of our lives we live in a true dream world. 

Both the question of why we dream and the interpretation of dreams have been a fascinating topic for humanity since ancient times, and they have always been surrounded by an atmosphere of mystery, as a definitive theory on this process has not yet been reached. creative of our subconscious.

The first interpretations of dreams in history

In Mesopotamia, the Babylonians believed that dreams considered “good” were sent by the gods and the “bad” sent by demons. They had a goddess of dreams named Mamu whom the priests prayed and tried to please to prevent bad dreams from coming true.

The Assyrians also interpreted dreams as signs. They believed that bad dreams were a warning and required action to correct the problem that had appeared in the dream. They thought that the person who had a bad dream should follow whatever advice they interpreted from the dream.

On the other hand, the ancient Egyptians believed that the gods were revealed in their dreams. They thought that these visions cause real things that cannot be controlled or interpreted by the conscious. They wrote down their dreams on papyrus and differentiated between three types of dream experience: those in which the gods demand an act on the part of the dreamer, those that contain warnings or revelations, and the dreams in which they arrived through a ritual. The three types of dreams served as a way to know the messages of the gods, such as oracles. 

Since the best way to receive divine revelation was through the dream, the Egyptians induced sleep in people who asked for answers from the gods. They traveled to sanctuaries or holy places to lie down, sleep, and dream in hopes of receiving advice, healing, or consolation from the gods. 

Why we dream: approaches from psychology

Psychology is not alien to this interest and has approached the world of dreams from various disciplines (anthropology, neuroscience, psychology, literature …), although the reasons why we dream are still mysterious there are a number of hypotheses and theories interesting  and relevant that try to explain why we dream.

1. Satisfaction of wishes

One of the first and foremost dream scholars was Sigmund Freud, who analyzed various patients and even used his own dreams as examples to prove his theory. He proposed that dreams represent the realization of a wish on the part of the dreamer either in a real or symbolic way, even nightmares. 

According to Freud, dreams are considered a collection of images from our conscious lives that have symbolic meanings related to our subconscious desires.  

For  Sigmund Freud all dreams are interpretable and what is dreamed does not have to be a totally real desire, but rather a symbol of something that we want to happen, which is why he proposed that all dreams are interpretable.

2. Side effect

J. Allan Hobson and Robert McClarley in 1977 elaborated the activation-synthesis theory. According to this theory, in the  REM phase of sleep the brain circuits are activated causing the areas of  the limbic system (including the amygdala and hippocampus) involved in emotions, sensations and memories to be activated. 

The brain tries to interpret these signals and dreams are the subjective interpretation of the signal generated by the brain while we sleep. However, the theory does not imply that dreams are meaningless but rather suggests that it is our most creative state of consciousness.

3. Keep the brain active

The psychiatrist Jie Zhang proposed the theory of continuous activation of dreams, dreams being the result of the constant need for our brain to create and consolidate long-term memories for proper functioning.  

When we are asleep, our brain automatically triggers the generation of data from memory stores and this data is not shown in the form of feelings or thoughts but we experience them in our dreams. According to this theory, our dreams would be like a kind of random “screensaver” that our brain starts so as not to turn off completely.

4. Forget: mental cleansing

The neuroscientist Francis Crick, together with the mathematician Graeme Mitchiso in 1983 developed the theory of reverse learning. 

The theory indicates that we dream to get rid of the accumulated connections and associations in our brain that we do not need to store. Therefore, we dream to forget as a kind of mental escape route, as if dreaming were a method of garbage collection or mental cleansing.

5. Consolidation of learning

At the end of the 19th century, the German psychologist  Hermann Ebbinghaus after various experiments and observations indicated that dreams serve to consolidate what we have learned during the day. However, this theory was discarded by the scientific community since they considered that the brain is not active while we sleep.

In the fifties Aserinsky and Nathaniel Klietman found in several experiments that the brain continues to work while we sleep and is dedicated to processing everything it has acquired during the day. It reviews the recently formed memories, analyzes them and discards those that are irrelevant, enhancing and qualifying those that may be useful. However, how the brain performs this task remains a mystery.

6. Defense mechanism

The dream could be related to a defense mechanism. When we dream, the brain behaves in the same way as when we are awake, although the dopamine system associated with movement is not active. So this tonic immobility or playing dead could be considered as a defense mechanism.

7. Rehearse

Dreams commonly include threatening and dangerous situations. The Finnish philosopher and pseudoscientist Antti Revonusuo suggested the primitive instinct theory of rehearsal whereby the function of dreams would be to simulate threatening events or situations and rehearse the perception of these threats in order to avoid them.

This theory maintains that the content of the dream has a lot of meaning for its purpose. Also, not all dreams are threatening or unpleasant, they can also serve as practice or rehearsal for other situations.

8. Troubleshooting

Deirdre Barret suggests that dreams are a way to solve problems. Author John Steinbeck called this the “Sleep Committee.” As if it were a theater, lacking the rules of conventional logic and the restrictions of reality, the mind can create all kinds of scenarios in dreams, solving problems more effectively than when we are awake. That is why we tend to think that the best solution to a problem is achieved after sleeping.

9. Dream Darwinism

Psychologist Mark Blechner states that dreams function as a natural selection of ideas that would serve to generate new ideas. Some research suggests that in the various situations we dream about, we try to select the most useful reaction to successfully cope with those situations. 

Dreams introduce useful variations to psychic life and internal narratives, they would produce variations to generate new types of thought, imagination, self-consciousness and other psychic functions

10. Processing of painful emotions

Finally, dreams could be considered as a kind of evolutionary therapy in which in dreams we do not select the best emotion or behavior but rather serve as an outlet through the association of some emotions with symbols that appear in dreams.

Conclusion

These are just some of the most prominent explanations, as technology and research advance our ability to understand the brain increases and we may one day discover the ultimate reason why we dream. Today, despite everything we know about the physiology of sleep, dream thoughts remain an enigmatic and controversial field.

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