When it comes to the dream state, it is one that we humans share with other creatures. This altered state of consciousness is also a point of contention in the field of human psychology. This is owing to the fact that a fundamental, but unresolved, question remains: Why do we dream? Surprisingly, even though there are a number of different scientific theories to explain dreaming, there, however, is no single right answer.
Sigmund Freud’s Theory on Dreams
On average we spend about two hours a night dreaming. These dreams are most vivid during REM sleep, but dreams can occur during any stage of the sleep cycle. Some people tend to remember their dreams more than others, but everyone dreams.
One of the earliest, most controversial, and least scientific theories to explain dreaming was created by Sigmund Freud. His wish-fulfillment theory proposed that dreams represent our unconscious wishes and thoughts that could be threatening if considered during conscious awareness.
Manifest and Latent Content
Freud wrote in his book, The Interpretation of Dreams, that dreams are, ‘Disguised fulfillments of repressed wishes’. Freud believed dreams have two different components. Manifest content is basically the storyline of our dreams: the images, thoughts, and experiences. Latent content refers to hidden aggressive and sexual instincts that we repress from our conscious awareness.
Going by this theory, if one dreams that they are running while being chased by someone or something, that would be the manifest content. But the latent content might be that they are worried about an upcoming event in their daily life and are running from away from it.
Dream Rebound Effect
However, as with much of Freud’s work, there’s just not much empirical support for most of his ideas, with one important exception.
In 2004, a study was published showing that at least one part of Freud’s theory was correct: We ironically are more likely to dream of things we are trying our best to ignore. Researchers describe this phenomenon as the ‘dream rebound effect’.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to Psychology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Role of the Unconscious
Freud’s larger importance for psychology was to point to the powerful role of the unconscious. He proposed that the unconscious plays a pivotal role virtually in all aspects of our lives, including our perceptions, emotions, and behavior.
His explanations however were, unfortunately, often wrong. And yet, considerable research supports his general view that we’re not aware of how subtle factors (including unconscious processes) influence us in a variety of ways.
Neural-level Activation and Synthesis
Intriguingly, two newer theories have contrasting views of the role of dreams also offer explanations as to why do we dream. The first theory emphasizes neural-level activation and synthesis. It proposes that dreams are a by-product of random, spontaneous stimulation of brain cells during sleep.
The brain then combines or synthesizes these very random, spontaneous stimulation into coherent patterns, known as dreams. It is interesting to note that, according to this theory, although dreams begin with essentially random brain activity, it is our personalities, motivations, memories, and life experiences that guide how our brains make sense of and interprets these stimulations.
Furthermore, the random brain stimulation of brain cells during sleep, is also thought to play an important role in developing the brain’s neural pathways.
This theory, therefore, helps explain why infants, whose neural networks are just developing, spend a great deal of time in REM sleep. They need this time to help develop important connections in the brain.
Cognitive Theory of Dreams
A contrasting theory to explain why we dream emphasizes cognition. According to this, dreams actually help us organize and interpret our everyday life experiences. It focuses on the fact that most dreams seem to reflect pretty ordinary daily life experiences.
It points to our experience of dreaming about something that we were struggling with in our daily life at that point in time. It could something mundane such as anxiety about an upcoming move or a job interview.
This view was supported by a survey conducted by the researchers at Stanford University and the University of Arizona. Following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in Northern California, researchers near the earthquake, at Stanford University, partnered with researchers with no earthquake, at the University of Arizona. They asked college students to report on their dreams over the next three weeks. About 40% of those attending Stanford reported one or more nightmares about an earthquake, compared to only about 5% of those attending the University of Arizona.
Fascinatingly, another research also shows that babies, who are learning many new things every day, spend about half of their sleep time in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. This is in contrary to the adults who spend only about 20% to 25% of their sleep time in REM.
Importantly, research shows that the amount of time we spend in REM sleep increases following stressful life experiences. This clearly supports the view that we do need more time dreaming after undergoing difficult, stressful situations in our daily lives and conversely, that our waking life does have a direct impact on our dream state.
Common Questions about Why We Dream
One of the earliest theories to explain dreaming was created by Sigmund Freud. His wish-fulfillment theory proposed that dreams represent our unconscious wishes and thoughts that could be threatening if considered during conscious awareness.
The random brain stimulation of brain cells during sleep plays an important role in developing the brain’s neural pathways. This theory explain why infants, whose neural networks are just developing, spend a great deal of time in REM sleep. They need this time to help develop important connections in the brain.
According to the cognitive theory of dreams, dreams actually help us organize and interpret our everyday life experiences. It focuses on the fact that most dreams seem to reflect pretty ordinary daily life experiences, basically things that that are on our minds during waking life.