March 31, 2016

What Is The Purpose Of Our Dreams

The purpose of our dreams has always been a hotly contested topic, but the leading position holds that dreams help us process new, emotionally important information and add it to our conceptual memory system. Once the information is in your memory, it influences your waking behaviour and decisions.


Dreams help you understand new experiences. REM dreams link new events to old ones, thereby putting them in context. For example, if you’re feeling anxious about your job, you may dream about another anxious time, like when you were taking an exam at school. Dreams consolidate our recent memories and cross-reference them with older ones so that we can better understand what’s going on, this explains why dreams so often incorporate elements from our past.

When scientists do brain scans on subjects during REM sleep, they find that the visual center of the brain which is the dominant area that processes all the new information people encounter while awake, is shut down. The visual memory center, though, the part of the brain that stores images from the past, like childhood memories goes into overdrive. This indicates that all the images we see during our dreams are being pulled from our memories. Imagine your brain is taking in a new experience, it flips through the old photo albums in your memory to find out where the new experience fits, which ultimately may help you to understand it better.

Dreams prepare you for change. Dreams can be a rehearsal for new challenges. When a person in love dreams about weddings or an athlete dreams about competitions, this helps the dreamer mentally prepare for the future. In helping you to process it in your dream state, you can better deal with it when you’re awake.

Dreams can help you cope with trauma or loss. Scientific studies have shown that people going through divorce, or other trauma’s and those who were the most depressed in their waking lives also had the flattest, least emotional dreams, while those who were managing the distress better,  had highly expressive and graphic dreams. It appears that the people who were having a harder time adjusting, were having the dullest dreams because they weren’t facing up to their emotions, while those who coped the best were working out their feelings in their dreams, allowing them to practise dealing with the situation. Dreams can also change as you adjust to loss, for instance people who lost loved ones, in the early stages often have back-to-life dreams, with the dreamer being confused or upset by the deceased person’s appearance, whereas dreams months or years later were more pleasant and reassuring with the deceased person often telling the dreamer they were ok and maybe giving advice.

Dreams can facilitate learning. Non-REM dreams, which tend to reflect the day’s events, may help us consolidate new information. In a series of studies, sleep-lab subjects were asked to play a video game. Later, when woken during the first stage of sleep, of those who could recall their dreams, three-quarters were dreaming about the game. With the ones that were most involved while playing the game being the ones most apt to dream about it. This suggests that while they slept, their brains were processing the information that seemed the most important.


By Zoe Vanderbilt   B.Sc