Can Psychology Answer The Question: Why Do We Dream?

Medically reviewed by April Brewer
Updated December 4, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

As you lay your head on your pillow and slowly drift off to sleep, your heart rate tends to gradually slow and your temperature usually drops. Approximately 90 minutes later, you will likely fall into the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep, which is when our most vivid dreams tend to occur, although dreams can be experienced during any stage of sleep.

All humans and many mammals dream, although not everybody remembers their dreams when they wake up. If you sleep for six to eight hours per night, you will most likely experience four to six separate REM periods. You may have found yourself wondering if your dreams mean anything, and you might even have wondered why we dream at all. Psychologists have been trying to answer these questions for years, with several theories proposed yet no definite conclusions reached.

Our Dreams Are Fascinating, Yet Often Inexplicable Phenomena

What Is A Dream?

A dream is a series of images and thoughts that occur involuntarily in a person's mind during sleep. Dreams can be intensely vivid or vague. They can be eerily realistic and relevant or incredibly abstract, ranging from joyful to terrifying. 

After years of in-depth research, we still do not have a clear answer to why we dream or whether dreams mean anything. What we do know is that during REM (when most dreams occur), the amygdala, the area of the brain responsible for processing emotions, and the hippocampus, the area of the brain relating to memory, are both active. This could explain why REM dreams tend to have a story-like quality and why they are often emotional. 

We also know that when a person is woken up immediately before they enter REM, they may experience tension, anxiety, and depression. The years of studying sleep and dreams have led to many theories about why we dream. The following are the three most popular theories.

Psychoanalytic Theory (Sigmund Freud)

Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud was among the first psychologists to study dreams scientifically in the early 20th century. Freud theorized that people are driven by hidden impulses that represent unconscious wishes. After analyzing the dreams of hundreds of his patients, he suggested that dreams represent unconscious desires, thoughts, and motivations.

Freud describes two different components of dreams: manifest content and latent content. Manifest content describes the actual images and thoughts experienced in the dream, while latent content describes the hidden psychological meaning. Freud believed that even bad dreams represent our hidden wishes in some way, and using his theory, he helped many of his patients uncover hidden emotions that they had not previously expressed or processed. 

Although Freud contributed to the popularity of dream interpretation, his theory was based on speculation and the experiences his patients recalled rather than scientific testing. Research has failed to demonstrate that the manifest content of a dream disguises its true psychological significance.

Activation-Synthesis Model

While Freud theorized that dreams are deeply meaningful, other psychologists have suggested that dreams are a product of processes in the brain. For example, the activation-synthesis model of dreaming was proposed by J. Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley in 1977. This theory suggests that during REM sleep, circuits in the brain become active, which activates the limbic system (including the hippocampus and the amygdala), which is involved in learning, memory, emotions, hunger, aggression, and sex.

This leads the brain to synthesize and attempt to make sense of these signals. Therefore, according to this theory, dreaming is simply the result of the brain interpreting internally generated signals occurring during sleep. However, Hobson did not believe that dreams were meaningless. He suggested that dreams were creative and could provide us with new ideas, of which a few may even be useful.

Information-Processing Theory

The final of the three most used dream theories is an information-processing theory. This theory suggests that dreams occur because as we sleep our brains are processing all the information we have accumulated from the previous day. As we process memories and information, our minds create images and stories to manage all the activity occurring inside the brain.

Continual-Activation Theory (Jie Zhang)

Although the above are the three most used theories of dreaming, many other theories have been proposed. For example, psychiatrist Jie Zhang suggested the continual-activation theory, which proposes that our brains are always transferring short-term memories to long-term memory whether we are awake or asleep. According to this theory, when we are asleep, dreams are a temporary storage area between short-term and long-term memory. They flash through our minds for just a short period before we file them away in long-term memory.

Reverse-Learning Theory

According to reverse-learning theory (also known as the Crick and Mitchison theory), dreams serve a function of decluttering our minds by clearing useless thoughts that have built up during the day, allowing us to refresh and prepare for the next day.

Problem-Solving (Deirdre Barrett)

Harvard medical researcher Deirdre Barrett suggests that dreams can help us solve problems. Her theory is that the dreaming mind can sometimes bypass conventional wisdom. Therefore, we can sometimes solve problems more effectively when we are dreaming compared to when we are awake. The theory is partially based on the experiments Barrett conducted in which participants were asked to solve problems while “sleeping on them.” The problem-solving outcomes were better for those who had more dreams.

Dreams And Mental Health

Changes in dreaming patterns can sometimes be linked to mental health conditions. For example, an increase in nightmares may occur in those experiencing mental illnesses like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), schizophrenia, and a personality disorder. Also, depression has been linked to an increase in dreams involving negative emotions.

Individuals living with a personality disorder may experience more dreams relating to distress and wake up feeling more distressed than they were before they went to bed. They may also experience more nightmares than others, and their dreams may fluctuate between good and bad more rapidly. Individuals with a diagnosed mental illness who experience suicidal thoughts may have more dreams with death-related themes.* 

*If you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for help immediately. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline can be reached at 988 and is available 24/7.

If you are experiencing these types of dreams or other concerning symptoms, it may be beneficial to seek professional help. If you decide to speak with a therapist, consider mentioning any noticeable dream patterns to your therapist, as talking about them could help you, and any changes in your dreams may help the therapist monitor your progress. Even in the absence of other symptoms, it may be beneficial to seek professional help for disturbing dream patterns.

Dream Anxiety Disorder

Although nightmares are common, nightmare disorder (formerly known as dream anxiety disorder) is relatively rare. With nightmare disorder, nightmares often become so problematic that they cause distress to the individual, disrupt sleep, initiate problems with daytime functioning, or lead to a fear of going to sleep. These symptoms can result from another psychological condition or other triggers, such as medication, substance use, sleep deprivation, stress, or trauma. The disorder can lead some people to avoid sleep as the nightmares feel so real that they are too scared to fall asleep.

However, avoiding sleep can lead to other concerns, including daytime sleepiness, which can affect work and other commitments, and mood problems, such as depression and anxiety. In severe cases, nightmare disorder can lead to suicidal thoughts or even suicide attempts. If you or somebody you know may be experiencing challenges from nightmare disorder, there is help available through licensed therapists, whether in person or online.

Our Dreams Are Fascinating, Yet Often Inexplicable Phenomena

Professional Help

If you are experiencing persistent nightmares, a psychiatrist may be able to prescribe medication to help restore your sleep cycle. Also, a mental health professional may also be able to help you work through mental health challenges and teach you techniques to improve sleep. They may also assess the content of your dreams to better understand what you’re experiencing. 

As mentioned above, counseling can be beneficial for individuals experiencing abnormal sleep patterns, disturbing dreams, and nightmare disorders. If you feel hesitant to visit a therapist’s office to discuss your dreams or other concerns, you might consider trying online therapy, which numerous studies have demonstrated to be effective.

Online therapists may utilize various treatment methods to assist you in overcoming sleep- or dream-related challenges. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be effectively administered online, and in a systematic review of studies using internet-based CBT (iCBT) to assist patients with insomnia and associated challenges, researchers came to promising conclusions. Not only was iCBT effective in improving sleep efficiency, but it also helped decrease symptoms of depression.

With online therapy at BetterHelp, you can discuss dreams, sleep disturbances, or any other matters with a licensed therapist who has experience in your specific areas of concern. You can connect with them via phone, live chat, or videoconferencing from the comfort of your own home. Also, you can contact them at any time through in-app messaging, and they’ll respond as soon as they can. This may be especially useful if you have questions or concerns in between sessions, as you can write to your therapist about any dreams or sleep concerns you experience during the night.

Takeaway

While psychology may not be able to answer definitively the question of why we dream, researchers believe that psychology can play a significant role in dreams, particularly in the case of mental health disorders. If you are experiencing disturbing dreams or other concerns, you don’t have to face them alone. With BetterHelp, you can be matched with a licensed therapist who has experience helping people with concerning dreams and/or sleep disturbances. Take the first step to improving your sleep quality by reaching out to BetterHelp today.

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