Why do we dream?
It’s a simple question. Everyone has them. Around 2 hours’ worth of them every night in fact, totalling well over 50,000 hours of dreaming over the average life! Dreams have inspired some of the greatest scientific breakthroughs, technologies and works of art. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, Google, the concept of DNA, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, the structure of the Atom, and The Terminator were all inspired by dreams! There have been entire cultures which placed major significance on dreams and their interpretations throughout history, including Indigenous Australians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Ancient Egyptians and Babylonians and yet… what are they? And what’s the point of having dreams if 90% of the details get forgotten within 10 minutes of them ending?
Why do we have them?
While these are simple questions to ask, the answers are anything but. So, join us at Zeek as we deep dive into dreamlife!
WHAT ARE DREAMS?
Interestingly, there’s no universally accepted definition for what a dream "is", despite everyone intuitively knowing what they are. For the sake of this post, let’s say dreams are a collection of images, thoughts, feelings or perceptions that occur during sleep. They can vary wildly in content and experience but tend to be full of visual imagery and, at least in my case, often make very little sense.
People tend to have 3 to 7 dreams per night, yet less than 50% of people can remember one or more dreams per week! That’s dozens of forgotten dreams for every remembered one! Crazy. This can vary a lot from person to person, and certain factors like age, sex, and the quality and quantity of sleep you get can all have an impact on your ability to recall dreams. Women, for instance, on average, are more likely to remember their dreams and experience nightmares!
WHY DO WE HAVE THEM?
This is where things get tricky. The simple fact is no-one knows for sure. Studying something that’s almost always forgotten and only occurs when you’re fast asleep (and snuggled up on our Award Winning Hybrid Mattress, perhaps?) does pose quite the challenge, but there have been a number of prominent theories over the years.
The Language of Dreams – Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud
Starting with the works of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and the ‘Language of Dreams’. Sigmund Freud believed that dreams were a way for the unconscious mind to express its desires. That dreams were a form of wish fulfillment and a way to resolve inner conflicts. That through dreams one could better understand themselves. Carl Jung further expanded upon these ideas and believed that dreams were interpretable, that they had a language of sorts that when cracked could offer deep insight into a person’s mind! According to Jung, dreams had two primary functions: They compensated for things that the dreamer ignored or repressed, and they looked forward, giving the dreamer hints about what might happen in their future.
But hey, maybe they’re not that deep or complicated. Maybe dreams are just our brain trying to make sense of the various signals and neural activity throughout the rest of the body during sleep, weaving together a narrative to distract the conscious mind from the less advanced portions of the brain going haywire. This is the Activation-Synthesis Theory, put forth in 1977 by Harvard psychiatrists John Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley. While a neat theory, further research eventually concluded that dreams aren’t random, often favouring recent events and themes from our daily lives.
Threat Simulation Theory
The Threat Simulation Theory states that dreaming evolved to serve as a simulation of dangerous situations so that early Humans could better survive out in the wilderness. They could replay close encounters with bears, steep cliff sides and other various near-death experiences again and again to better prepare themselves for similar situations in the future. This is backed by strong evidence that traumatic dreams are more easily recalled and tend to be replayed more often, and that children living in safe environments remember less dreams overall than children in hostile environments.
Social Simulation Theory
Like Threat Simulation Theory, Social Simulation Theory suggests that dreaming serves as a kind of rehearsal for daily life. Though, in this case instead of fighting off cougars with a pointy stick it’s flirting with cougars at a bar, preparing you for asking out your crush, dealing with an argument with a friend, or trying not to stutter infront of your peers while giving an important presentation.
Scientists noticed our dreams are heavy on social situations so whether this is dreaming’s original purpose or it’s just a repurposing of threat simulation for the modern world now that we’re (generally) not fighting for our lives remains to be seen. It is certainly true that humans are a very social species and that mentally practicing social situations would have been an evolutionary advantage!
Building Memory & Streamlining Your Brain
Another potential reason for dreaming is to allow the brain time to do some mental housekeeping whilst your mind is distracted—much like a busy parent distracting their toddler with an iPad whilst they try to do the housework. Clearing away unnecessary or incomplete information, strengthening neural pathways, and processing the days notable events into long-term memory. All that good stuff!
IS MY DOG DREAMING?
Asking the truly important questions here! Have you ever looked at your dog or cat, deep in sleep, twitching and making funny noises? They must be having a great dream, surely? Maybe they're even dreaming about our ultra-comfy Pillows and Snug Pods. Research is once again a little inconclusive on this, but it does suggest that mammals might dream, since they experience REM sleep like humans and that’s when most dreaming happens in us. So, in other words, kinda? Maybe? It's certainly not a no!
Dreaming, ultimately, remains a mystery. While there are many theories, it’s likely that dreaming serves a number of purposes and any combination of them could be correct. Perhaps, someday, someone will dream up the answer and add it to the growing tally of dream-inspired discoveries.