Dreams can feel very mysterious, yet they could also have a hidden purpose. Here are a few explanations for why we dream — and tips for how to use them as self-discovery tools...
In 1845, an American inventor named Elias Howe decided to build the world’s first sewing machine. Yet try as he might, he couldn’t find a workable design. Then one night he had a strange dream — he had been captured by cannibals, who demanded that he invented a sewing machine within 24 hours or they would kill him. He didn’t succeed and the cannibals stabbed him to death with their spears. Yet the odd things about the spears were that they each had a hole in their tip.
When Elias woke up from the nightmare, he couldn’t get the image of the strange spears out of his head. Then suddenly, he had a flash of inspiration and knew just how to build his sewing machine — by putting the eye of the needle at the tip instead of the end.
If Elias Howe’s story indicates anything, it’s that dreams — no matter how scary or outlandish — have their own strange logic. Yet the fact is that most of us don’t create innovative, world changing inventions after forty winks. This being the case, what are some other reasons for dreaming? What purpose do our strange night visions have in our lives?
Believe it or not, scientists are still trying to work out the answer to that — and in fact, the field of dream science is one of ongoing debate. One thing is for sure though, dreaming seems to be a highly important process. In fact, some experts think that we do it at least four to six times per night, with the most vivid occurrences being during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep.
With this in mind, here are five key theories of why we dream...
We all go through emotional upsets, shocks and traumas in life. One theory is that our dreams give us a safe space to process those by replaying and integrating painful and confusing experiences in our sleep. It is thought that your mind reviews difficult experiences while you sleep, taking the edge off them and helping you to stay emotionally regulated in your day-to-day life. This is backed up by the fact that the amygdala — a part of the brain connected with processing emotions — is very active during our dreams.
A 2018 Swansea University study into dreams seems to confirm this, as it asked a group of students to keep a diary of their experiences for ten days. On the final day the students slept overnight in a sleep lab where their brain waves were monitored. Each person was then woken up during their main dreaming period (REM sleep) and asked to describe their dreams. It turned out that the most emotionally charged experiences that they’d had in the previous 10 days were more likely to show up in their dreaming experiences than more mundane events.
This research was backed up by another study the following year led by Dr. Serena Scarpelli at Sapienza University in Rome, which found that nightmares and bad dreams could be the mind’s attempt to work through traumatic and disturbing events. And during the first 2020 lockdown, Scarpelli also found that people reported having more bizarre, vivid and even lucid dreams than before the pandemic.
So in a sense, you could see your dreams as an overnight therapy session that is led by your brain and that allows you to work through the difficulties of your week.
Freud was perhaps the first person to make the connection between our dreams and our unconscious thoughts, fears and desires. In his 1899 book The Interpretation of Dreams, he argued that our nighttime visions represent our deepest unacknowledged wishes in symbolic disguise — in other words, that our waking life continues into our dream life. He also believed that when we dream, we are fulfilling these hidden wishes without even knowing it. For instance, Freud believed that trains were phallic symbols, so a dream of being on a train could have sexual connotations without us even being aware.
This is because our conscious self may see our deepest desires as impossible, unacceptable or even immoral. Yet in our dream space, we can play out the experience of having that wish in a safely symbolic way, while our conscious mind is shielded from the knowledge of what we really want (for instance, an affair with a forbidden person).
Freud also claimed that most sleep symbols only relate to a few key primal human experiences — mainly the body, sex, birth, death, parents, children and siblings. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he felt that most common symbols were sexual, for instance sticks, knives, guns, pencils, rockets, caves, pits, boxes, ships and fruits. And although many of his ideas have been criticised, they are still a source of fascination over a century later.
Whether completely accurate or not, Freud’s theory points to the possibility that there is a lot more going on in our dreams than just a random showreel of memories. In fact, our sleep images may mask themselves with metaphors as a way of giving secret life to our deepest desires.
The human brain can process 11 million bits of information every second — that’s a whole lot of data being thrown at us in our waking hours (although our conscious minds can only handle 40 to 50 bits a second). So another theory is that our dreams are a mechanism for processing this huge mass of information that we collect while awake.
Known as the ‘self-organisation theory’ of dreaming, it suggests that while sleeping our brain sorts out useful memories from ‘useless’ ones. The former are made stronger by a process of being stabilised and reorganised into long term memory storage, while the latter are downgraded or even dumped.
In fact, a 2010 study by the Harvard Medical School Team seems to back up the idea that our dreaming brain consolidates memories and learning. It found that students who had a nap after memorizing a 3D computerized maze were better at navigating the maze several hours later than those who didn’t. What’s more, the students who had actually dreamt of the maze were 10 times better at solving it than the other nappers. So if you’d like to be a sharper learner, make sure you’re getting a good night’s rest on the regular.
We all have a physiological fight-flight survival response that’s activated when we encounter threats or dangers.
And one theory — known as ‘threat-simulation’ — is that our brains prefer to ‘practice’ this crucial threat response while we’re asleep, simply because this is the safest time to do so. Why? Because our muscles are deeply relaxed while sleeping, meaning we can’t actually leap from our bed to fight off invisible foes (however, some people do have a sleep condition known as ‘night terrors’ which causes them to do this). Also, some scientists think that the reason people with PTSD can suffer from nightmares is because of this ‘threat-simulation’ response being overactive. In other words, their brains are trying to work through the trauma in a way that ends up causing them more distress.
Evidence of the threat-simulation theory is that the amygdala — the fight-flight part of the brain — is actually the part that’s most active in dreaming. So this may explain those exhausting dreams you have of being chased by dinosaurs and the like, as it’s really just your mind’s way of making you ready to deal with threatening situations in waking hours (although hopefully you won’t encounter a T-Rex in Tesco anytime soon).
Sewing machine inventor Elias Howe wasn’t the only person to connect with his deeper creative self while sleeping. For instance, one morning in 1964, Paul McCartney woke up from a dream with a hauntingly beautiful melody in his head. He didn’t know what it was but was sure it must be an old song from somewhere and even hummed it to a few people, yet no one recognised it. Finally, he accepted that it must have come to him in his sleep, that he must have somehow ‘wrote’ an incredible piece of music while dreaming. And it’s just as well that he didn’t forget it as nearly sixty years later, Yesterday is one of the most globally adored songs of all time.
What’s more, 150 years earlier, 19-year-old Mary Shelly based her groundbreaking novel, Frankenstein, on a terrifying dream she had of a corpse being reanimated. And in 1953, when scientists were scratching their heads trying to figure out the elusive structure of DNA, Dr. James Watson got his wave of inspiration when he dreamt of a spiral staircase and realised that the double helix structure was the answer.
Okay, so maybe all dreams don’t bring the gift of a classic pop song, famous gothic novel or major scientific discovery. But that’s no reason not to tap into their problem solving and creativity boosting powers. In fact, research seems to indicate that the reason we make novel associations when we dream is because the prefrontal cortex (that part of our brain associated with higher-level reasoning) isn’t active. This means that it’s not there to censor thoughts, ideas or connections or label them as ‘impossible’, which explains that dream you had where you were flying.
So start paying attention to the symbols, images, ideas — and even catchy tunes — that come to you when you sleep, as you never know what gems you’ll find. After all, what if Paul McCartney had ignored that haunting song in his head and let it disappear forever?
Hopefully you’re convinced by now that dreaming is important. But with this in mind, how can you tap into the unconscious wisdom of the Land of Nod? Here are a few ways:
Why do we so often struggle to recall our dreams? Why do they fade away like vapour the minute that we wake? It is actually because our brain’s long term memory processes are at their lowest levels while dreaming, meaning that around 95% of dreams are forgotten by the time we get out of bed.
So just before you go to sleep, tell yourself that you want to remember your dreams. This means that when you wake up, you’re likely to hold onto the thread of them. And if possible, don’t set an alarm — it’s much harder to remember a dream that is interrupted abruptly than one that you slowly wake up from.
Writing down your dreams as soon as you awake can be really useful, it’s all just a matter of getting into the habit. So why not keep a notebook and pen beside your bed, then write down what you remember each morning? You could also experiment with writing down a question or problem before going to sleep, then seeing if your dreams give you the answer.
In fact, there is a bit of a method to dream journalling that can really help you to make sense of your sleep images. Essentially, aim to write down your dreams sequentially as soon as you wake and in as much detail as you can. Then, next to each symbol, person or event, write down any random associations that you have with it. You might start to see a pattern emerge and realise that your dream is highlighting a problem, emotional state or unresolved situation in your life. What’s more, it may even be pointing to a solution.
Some therapists have a strong focus on the unconscious, with discussion and interpretation of dreams being a key part of their process.
For instance, psychodynamic therapy (unsurprisingly, pioneered by Freud), aims to bring the unconscious into the conscious by analysing your dreams, as well as exploring your past experiences and practising free association. And by shining a light on the hidden parts of yourself, you can gain a deeper understanding of what might be holding you back and let go of old patterns that are no longer serving you. As a result, psychodynamic therapy has been shown to be helpful with issues like depression, stress, anxiety, identity issues, relationship issues and self-esteem.
Also, if you are having trouble sleeping in the first place, then mindfulness therapy can teach you relaxation techniques such as breathwork to help turn off any mental chatter. Or if you’re having nightmares and think that your sleep issues might be connected to upsetting experiences you’ve had, then EMDR can help you to process traumatic events safely.
Of course, we are still learning about dreaming and why it happens. But one thing is clear — it seems to really matter to our wellbeing. So make sure that you’re prioritising sleep because in doing so, you will be prioritising your mental, physical and emotional health (and who knows, maybe even coming up with some world changing lightbulb moments in the process).
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