Dreaming is one of the most mysterious states of being and has spawned much speculation throughout the years.
As our technology becomes more advanced, scientists have been able to probe into these unconscious states in order to better understand what is happening in the body. Yet, it is still ultimately unclear what the function of dreams are.
In this article, we discuss three theories that researchers have proposed regarding the role of dreams in our lives, first offering a basic overview of what dreams are
What are Dreams?
Dreams are the various sensations that animals experience when they sleep. Humans are known to have the richest kinds of dreams when compared to other animals, though, of course, we can never know for sure.
All mammals experience REM sleep, which is when dreams are most intense and vivid. Reptiles are also thought to be dreamers, though insects and fish are thought to be dreamless organisms.
REM sleep is a part of the sleep cycle in which our eyes move quickly in various directions. Researchers have come to associate this period of sleep with dreaming, though it’s unclear if dreams can also occur outside of REM sleep.
Why Do We Dream? The Biological Theory
Some theories posit that dreams are mere epiphenomenon of sleeping and have very little practical function. These theories think that dreams are secondary processes that represent the firing of neurons in the brain.
Such theories also tend to claim that consciousness is a secondary feature of existence and that our thoughts, feelings, and emotions stem from physical processes that have evolved over many years.
These theories claim that dreams are often mysterious and ambiguous precisely because they have no meaning, which is why we rarely remember them during the day. As a result, dreams are just the random byproducts of biology.
Some people think that dreams represent mental excretions that result from our biology cleansing and restoring itself during sleep. In this sense, dreams represent our brains dumping unnecessary data that has accumulated. Researchers think that the two main areas of the brain involved in this dump are the hippocampus, which controls memory, and the neocortex, which controls more complex thought formation.
Why Do We Dream? The Cognitive Theory
The cognitive theory also sees dreams as potentially serving a biological need but a more primary one. In particular, these theories posit that dreams are not just meaningless byproducts but instead rich tapestries of meaning that the brain creates in anticipation of the future. As such, dreams serve a cognitive need, allowing the brain to work through various problems that the body might experience.
Dreams, in this sense, are like riddles that the brain poses to itself in order to become stronger and more efficient.
Many of these theories think that dreams are critical parts of our biological systems, and that our definition of them is too narrow-minded and overly determined by our memory of them. Dreams are thus not merely the sensations we experience but are also the underlying changes that occur throughout the body. Without these changes, we would not wake up feeling refreshed and energized to take on the day.
Many cognitive theories posit that dreams are a representation of thoughts and allow us to remember important thoughts that occur when we sleep. Thus, they are a deeper part of our organism trying to communicate with a more superficial part of our organism. Dreams are the medium that allow our brains to communicate with our conscious awareness.
Why Do We Dream? The Psychological Theory
The psychological theory also valorizes dreams as full of meaning, but the emphasis here is on their underlying benefit when it comes to our emotions, feelings, moods, and drive for wholeness. These theories are often based on Jungian Psychology and view the psyche as constantly seeking a state of wholeness which can only be achieved when certain unconscious material is sufficiently integrated. Dreams are one way of facilitating this integration.
What is Lucid Dreaming?
In particular, one of the most powerful ways that the unconscious mind can be integrated is via lucid dreaming, which allows the ego of the dreamer to become aware that it is dreaming. This is truly a kind of supernatural state in which we can take control of the course of our dreams, perhaps to explore parts of our unconscious mind.
However, lucid dreaming also poses certain risks, and amateurs can experience terrifying dreams and nightmares that are difficult to recover from.
Our Final Thoughts on Why We Dream
We think that dreaming is one of the most fascinating parts of the human condition, yet also the least understood. The variety of theories that have been proposed to explain the function of dreaming is a testament to how mysterious this realm is.
We think that as technology improves in the future, researchers will be able to better determine what is happening in the body when we dream. Ultimately, dreams might serve a biological, cognitive, and psychological function. We don’t think these are mutually exclusive functions, but instead complementary functions of a complex organism.
Feature image via Verywell Mind