If you’ve ever woken up in a panic, or if you keep a regular dream journal, you’re probably pretty aware of how little sense dreams make.
While tiny bits of reality might sneak in here and there, most dreams, at least the memorable ones, are filled with nonsense. To understand why dreams are so odd and sometimes unsettling, it helps to know exactly what’s happening, why it happens, and how it happens.
What are dreams? We’ve asked this question often over the centuries, and while medical advances have helped give us a little clarity around why we dream, we still aren’t anywhere near experts on the topic. To boil it down, dreams are stories or images created by our own minds while we sleep. Though everyone is thought to dream between 3-6 different dreams a night, 95% of those are forgotten upon waking. There’s no theory that’s 100% agreed upon when it comes to why we dream, but a few of them are pretty well-researched and backed.
Why we probably dream:
Processing Some studies suggest that dreaming is a cognitive function that allows our brains to process events from the day, consolidating information and lessons into memories. Because we’re storytellers by nature, it makes sense that our brains would weave narratives out of sensory input throughout the day so that we can better access the information when we wake. We see this narrative structure reflected in other cultures, where sharing dreams is often told as if experienced in a parallel life—Amazonian tribes like the Ese Eja and the Mehinaku believe that your spirit is fluid and can take other forms while you sleep, leaving you with the memories in the morning.
Psychoanalysis Some of the more well-known theories when it comes to dreaming have to do with the brain creating a way to reflect and analyze itself (Try not to spiral into an existential crisis after reading that.) to provide insight about innermost desires and fears. Psychotherapy makes use of our dreams as our own personal guide to self—from what we actually want out of life to what might be our biggest downfall. Interpreting your dreams and making associations between real life and your dream ego can lead you to some profound discoveries—or just tell you about your weird sex stuff, according to Freud.
Threat Assessment An interesting group of theories assert that dreaming is really a biological evolution that helps us avoid danger at the most basic instinctual level. Threat Simulation Theory (TST) assumes dreaming is a defense mechanism. A study of dream content compared the dreams of three groups of children—kids who experienced severe trauma, kids who experienced mild trauma, and kids who experienced no trauma—found that severely traumatized children dreamt of threatening and disturbing scenarios far more often than the other groups. This study convinced those involved that our dreams and nightmares exist to train us in a way, ingraining within us the proper response to real-life threats.
Modern day threats aren’t quite the same as our ancestors, so it makes sense that instead of dreaming about bears chasing us all the time, we dream about fighting with our bosses, or a loved one passing away.
But why are dreams so weird? Okay, we know a few theories about why we dream, but why do we dream of such insane things? If it’s a biological evolution to protect us from threats, process information from the day, or provide a window into our deepest secrets, why can’t they at least follow a somewhat logical plot line?
Again, we’re faced with a theory. Armando D'Agostino at the University of Milan designed a study to better understand the content of dreams. In order to gather data, his team had twelve volunteers keep a detailed dream journal, write down the events of that day, and come up with a completely unrelated fantasy based on an image they were given for a week. The dreams were almost always far more bizarre than the fantasies participants concocted—during waking hours, the volunteers constructed narratives within logical restraints. A month later, the participants listened to their recorded dreams and fantasies and their brain activity was monitored. The areas associated with word processing, meaning, and reason were active for stories considered non-bizarre by the researchers, but the stranger dreams became, the lower the activity was.
The study concluded that our brains don’t try to reason when dreaming, which is why dreams have little logic behind them. This study, controversially, linked the way we dream to psychotic thoughts give our disassociation with reality.
Other researchers have contested this line of thinking—dreams aren’t psychotic in nature, but driven by emotion without the logic to sort through the mess. When we dream in crazy dramatic plot lines, we’re often experiencing big feelings without any rationale to temper the content.
What you get out of your dreams ultimately comes down to your own personal beliefs about the purpose behind them. Many people choose to shake off their odd memories when they wake up, but looking into potential threats or fears just might tell you something.