If you are like most people, you will spend approximately six years of your life dreaming. We don’t mean gazing out the window daydreaming about your next holiday; we’re actually talking about the time you spend fast asleep, experiencing all manner of weird and wonderful adventures as you slumber.
Perhaps you’re one of the people who regularly remember very c and how you could have such realistic experiences even when the corporeal part of you is lying still in bed? You might wonder how your brain could weave such extraordinary story lines even when your physical senses are at rest.
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The nature of our dreams, the way they are connected to waking life, has intrigued people for thousands of years, and theories abound about the reasons for this amazing phenomenon. Here are a few of the most popular reasons why we dream:
- We dream to strengthen our memories. One theory is that dreaming helps us cement waking memories and store them for long-term use. A recent study cited in Neuroscience News suggests sleep facilitates memory retention by enhancing memory stability, or what is now described as consolidation. With this in mind, it’s a good idea to get plenty of sleep after studying to maximize your ability to retain the information you need.
- But perhaps we also dream to forget. In stark contrast with the theory above, another hypothesis contests that we dream to dump information which is unlikely to be useful to us again—such as where the car is in the mall’s parking lot. This idea revolves around the concept of “reverse learning,” which compares the brain to a computer that is reviewing information acquired during the day, and deleting what is considered useless.
- Dreaming might be a form of wish fulfillment. Sigmund Freud, an Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, theorized that in order to live in a civilized society, we have a tendency to hold back our urges and repress our impulses. Because these urges and impulses can’t remain hidden forever, they come to our consciousness disguised as dreams—which means dreaming is a way for us to fulfill our forbidden wishes.
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- Your brain uses dreams as part of an important housekeeping process. According to the continual-activation theory, both the conscious and subconscious aspects of memory must be constantly active to ensure proper brain functioning. If we revisit our model of the human brain as a computer, dreams act a little like a screensaver that keeps the whole system ticking over while internal processes are moving short-term memories into long-term archives.
- Dreaming is our safe “virtual reality training ground.” Have you ever been intensely nervous about something in waking life, and then dreamed about it later that night? This could be your body rehearsing your reaction to relieve your anxiety and stress. Primitive Instinct Rehearsal Theory postulates that dreaming allows us to simulate threatening events and rehearse how we respond to or avoid them, without actually putting our lives at risk.
- Dreams may help us process painful experiences. Some theorists believe that dreaming about devastating tragic events and sadness may be the brain’s way of coping with difficulties in daily life. In a resting state, your brain can review traumatic events with less anxiety, giving you space and time to process them more manageable.
Modern medicine and science can tell you a lot about what is going on in your body and brain while you dream. However, the question of what causes dreams is much more difficult to answer. As neural imaging technology continues to become more advanced, researchers are getting closer to discovering universally valid reasons for the fantasy world you visit when your head hits the pillow.
Considering that dreams have an undeniable impact on our daily lives, and take place during a very crucial time—while we’re sleeping—perhaps we should allocate a bit more thought to this fascinating experience. Dismissing our nocturnal adventures by describing them collectively as “just a dream” makes it is all too easy to forget how important that dream might actually be.