What Is the Purpose of Dreaming?

Dreaming remains something that is at once both familiar and mysterious. The seeming reality, yet surreal unpredictability of their “plots” and the fragmentary memories upon wakening have no doubt intrigued humans for thousands of years. What can rightly be called modern science has been employed in trying to understand them for at least fifty years. As is so often the case, however, nature does not reveal its secrets quickly or easily.

A scientific explanation of dreaming’s purpose is hindered by a general lack of agreement on the necessity of sleep itself. Though it seems intuitively obvious that sleep allows for rest and restoration of the body, exactly how this is accomplished biochemically is not clear. Most dreams occur during the phases of sleep marked by rapid eye movement (REM), though they can also occur during non-REM sleep. Dreams occur in fairly regular intervals every 60 to 90 minutes during the night, becoming longer as the night progresses, up to about twenty minutes.

It has been estimated that a person may spend as much as six years’ time in dreaming over the course of their life, with about two hours spent on it each night. This seems like a lot of time that needs accounting for, and theories about the purpose of dreams have reliably come and gone over the decades. The ancients believed that dreams could foretell the future. Freud proposed that they represent the unconscious mind and placed much significance on them.

Psychologists have found, however, that most of peoples’ dreams deal with ideas also present when they are wide awake. In fact, researchers have found that people around the world in a variety of cultures have very similar dreams overall. Dealing with some type of problem in dreams is very common, as are resulting feelings of anxiety. However, dreams can also be happy in tone, matter-of-fact, angry or sad, and some small percentage of dreams have a sexual aspect to them. Other mammals also exhibit REM sleep, and brain tracings from electroencephalograms suggest that they also dream.

More recently, sleep doctors have proposed that dreams reflect brain activity involved in processing and ‘consolidating’ memories. The disjointed or bizarre aspects of dreaming may reflect the brain attempting to make a narrative story out of what is actually rather random brain activity, “tying up loose ends” of memories. The difficulty in testing this and other theories of dreaming is distinguishing between effects of preventing dreaming – for example, waking a sleeper at the beginnings of REM sleep – and the effects of broken, insufficient sleep. Clearly, sleep is important!

Many doctors and psychologists are beginning to suspect that, while sleep is critical, dreams may just be a side show. They ‘come along for the ride’ as part of highly evolved nervous systems capable of perceiving, interpreting and responding to stimuli in the real, waking world. They are problematic only to the extent they are connected with a medical diagnosis such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Counseling and possibly some medications can help in these cases. For the majority of people, it appears that dreams can be enjoyed – or not – and then safely forgotten. This is good to know, since it seems to be what happens naturally anyway!

Guest Article by SleepDisorders.com