10 Fascinating Reasons Why You Might Dream During Sleep
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The study of dreaming is called oneirology, and it's a field of inquiry that spans neuroscience, psychology, and even literature. Still, the plain fact is that the reasons why we dream are still mysterious. But that hasn't stopped scientists from coming up with some pretty fascinating hypotheses. Here are ten of them.
1. Wish fulfillment
One of the first sustained efforts to study dreams scientifically was spearheaded by the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, in the early twentieth century. After analyzing the dreams of hundreds of his patients, he came up with a theory that still resonates with a lot of researchers today: dreams are wish-fulfillments. Any dream, no matter how terrifying, can be looked at as a way of getting something that you want, either literally or symbolically. For example, say you have a terrifying and sad dream about your mother dying. Why would that be a wish-fulfillment? Maybe, Freud would say, you are having a conflict with your mother that would be easily resolved if she were out of the picture. So you don't want your mother to die, but you do want to deal with that conflict. By thinking of dreams in this light, Freud was able to help many of his patients unbury hidden emotions that they hadn't dealt with.
2. An accidental side-effect of random neural impulses
If you buy into Freud's idea about dreams, their subject matter is deeply meaningful. They can reveal wishes or emotions you didn't realize you had. But another popular school of thought holds that dreams are actually just a kind of brain fart, an accidental side-effect of activated circuits in the brain stem and stimulation of the limbic system that's involved with emotions, sensations and memories. J. Allan Hobson, the psychiatrist who popularized this idea, calls it the "activation-synthesis theory." In a nutshell, the brain tries to interpret these random signals, resulting in dreams.
What's particularly interesting about this theory is that it could also help to explain why humans use storytelling as a way to make sense of an often random, chaotic universe. If dreams are the meanings our brains supply to random neural firing in our limbic system, then stories are like waking dreams, meanings we use to paper over the fundamentally disorganized signals we receive from the world around us.
3. Encoding short-term memories into long-term storage
Maybe dreams are just randomly-generated stories caused by neural impulses, but perhaps there's also a reason for them, too. To explore this idea, psychiatrist Jie Zhang, proposed the continual-activation theory of dreaming, which refers to the idea that our brains are always storing memories regardless of whether we're awake or asleep. But dreams are a kind of "temporary storage" area of consciousness, a spot where we hold memories before we move them from short-term to long-term storage. They flash through our minds as dreams before we secret them away in the files of our memory.
4. Garbage collection
Dubbed the "reverse learning" theory, this idea suggests that we dream to get rid of undesirable connections and associations that build up in our brains throughout the day. Basically, dreams are garbage collection mechanisms, clearing our minds of useless thoughts and making way for better ones. Essentially, we dream in order to forget. Dreams help us eliminate the information overload of daily life and retain only the most important data.
5. Consolidating what we've learned
This theory flies in the face of the reverse learning theory, by suggesting that we actually dream to remember rather than forget. It's based on a number of studies that show people remember what they've learned better if they dream after learning it. Like Zhang's theory about long-term memory storage, this theory suggests that dreams help us retain what we've learned.