The Science Behind: Dreams and Sleeping

“Alexa, please define dreams.”

“Dreams are thoughts, stories and images that are created by our minds when we sleep. They can be entertaining, romantic, confusing or perfectly rational.”

Some common characteristics of dreaming are:

  • It is involuntary
  • It provokes strong emotions
  • It happens in a first-person perspective
  • It sometimes may be illogical and unclear

Not all dreams have these same, ordinary features but most of us experience it this way.

Why do we dream?

This seems like a very common question, but scientists don’t exactly have the right answer for it. Sleep experts have gone through continuous debates to get down to the bottom of why we do so.

Neuroscientists and psychologists have theorised several purposes of why we dream:

  1. Organization of knowledge and memories

In 1985, research by Professor B.J Reiser suggested that dreams are meant to sort out ideas and form brain connections to restore memories.

He claims that dreaming is a moment for the brain to figure out problems, make decisions and determine the right priorities.

2. Activation-synthesis theory

Research published by Harvard University psychiatrists suggests that dreams occur when stimulations in the brain brings thought to our awareness.

The basis of this hypothesis is the brainstem activation during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and limbic (emotional motor) system stimulation.

3. Threat-simulation theory

Antti Revonsuo, a Finnish cognitive neuroscientist and psychologist came up with this theory in 2000.

His research supports his statement that dreaming is a phase of preparation; we experience real-life situations and threats to “familiarise” us to what might possibly happen in the future.

Causes

Are dreams just a part of the sleep cycle or do they serve a greater purpose?

Some possible explanations are:

  • It represents unconscious desires and wishes
  • It works as a form of psychotherapy
  • It interprets random signals from the brain during sleep

Forgetting dreams

Studies of brain activity have shown that in a span of 7 days, people over 10 years old dream about 4–6x each night. However, most rarely remember what they’ve dreamt.

Neuroscientists have found out that after 5 minutes of waking up from their dream, people forget half of its content, with it increasing to 90% in the next 5 minutes. Despite great technological advancements, it is still not known precisely why dreams are so hard to remember.

However, there are a few steps that can help you recall your dreams!

  1. Wake up naturally [not with an alarm]
  2. As much as possible, focus on the dream upon waking up
  3. Write down as much as you know about the dream immediately
  4. Do this “dream recording” at a routine

Sources

Nichols, Hannah. “What Does It Mean When We Dream?” Medicalnewstoday.com, Medical News Today, 28 June 2018, www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/284378#forgetting-dreams.

Marks, Hedy. “Dreams.” WebMD, WebMD, 23 Aug. 2012, www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/dreaming-overview.

“Dreams: Why We Dream & How They Affect Sleep | Sleep Foundation.” Sleep Foundation, 30 Oct. 2020, www.sleepfoundation.org/dreams.

“What Causes Dreams When We Are Sleeping? | Piedmont Healthcare.” Piedmont.org, 2021, www.piedmont.org/living-better/why-do-we-dream-when-we-sleep.

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