What is the purpose of dreaming? This is a question that a lot of people ask and very few (if anyone) know the answer to. Some people claim that dreams are a window to the soul—showing us messages from our subconscious—some people claim that dreams exist so that we can process information from our childhoods or from the past day; some people claim that dreaming has no purpose at all! While science has not yet discovered a single unique answer to the question “why do we dream?” there’s enough opinions out there to last us a while.
Vivid dreaming (and indeed the dreaming that most of us are able to recall easily) occurs during REM sleep. REM (or Rapid Eye Movement) sleep is the deepest stage of the sleep cycle and the most important and restorative sleep stage. A normal sleeper will spend about 25% of total sleep time in REM sleep (or around 6 years for a person who lives to be 90 years old)!
Window to the Unconscious
If you’re a Freudian scholar or fan, you may believe that dreams are the body and the brain’s way of accessing the unconscious. The unconscious is a part of the mind that lives just beneath the surface of our waking life. It is the place where we put our phobias, our fears, our deepest desires, our most well-kept secrets. The unconscious is a place incredible near to all of us yet inexplicably difficult to penetrate and know. Freud and his followers believed that dreaming was a gateway to this part of the person—that through the use of dreams analysis and symbology, one could come to understand all these hidden personal traits, desires, and fears. Freud used dreams analysis as a way to understand the whole person and his hidden urges and impulses better.
Memory Processing and Solidification
More recent research has focused on the ability that dreaming and REM sleep have on processing and reinforcing the prior day’s experiences and lessons. A group of test-subjects were asked to complete a “virtual maze task” for a given period of time; half the test-subjects were then asked to nap for a short period while the other half were asked to otherwise relax but remain awake. These subjects were then tested on the same task. This study yielded some surprising results! The nappers were better able to complete the task than the non-nappers (even when previous scores were accounted for). Scientists believe that the process of sleep and dreaming relates to the ability to learn, process important information, and create new connections between new and past information in the brain.
Emotional Clearing House
Another recent study has looked at the connection between heightened emotional states and their affect on the brain before and after sleeping. These scientists suggest that dreaming helps the brain processes highly emotional memories and acts as a coping mechanism for experiences that we may be unprepared to deal with consciously. Researchers have even used ‘dream therapy’ as a way to help people suffering from PTSD.
These are just a few of the theories for why we dream. What do you think?