Dreams form a central yet amorphous and often hidden part of our lives. We all dream, even if many do not remember them. During that third of our lives we spend asleep, we will go through REM sleep where our brains suddenly light up and we go into an intense state of dreaming. But it is not just when we sleep that dreams have an impact. Their influence they have can be seen in our language. Martin Luther King famously said ‘I have a dream’. People talk of having their ‘dream job’. When we are not paying attention we are ‘daydreaming’. The list goes on, dreams are right at the heart of who we are... or are they? Because while we may use the term as a figure of speech, we really do not know that much about them and while they seem to be important they very well could just be the random firing of synapses while we sleep with no more meaning than the static of a dead TV channel.
What are dreams?
Right, so despite the fact that there is no 100 per cent proven understanding of dreams, there are many theories and suppositions, beliefs and hypothesis. Here we will look at these, exploring them and considering their validity. We will try to gain an understanding of what dreams might be, whether they serve any particular purpose or not, by looking at all the different explanations that humans have thought up over the many thousands of years that we have been wondering about this. We will bring together some of the most cutting edge research alongside some of the oldest understandings, we will collate some of the most widely accepted and some of the more bizarre theories on dreaming. We will try to penetrate the veil of this mysterious yet ubiquitous phenomenon, so sit back and relax, you are feeling sleepy, very sleepy.
Ok, one of the oldest theories about dreaming is that it is a way of processing the day’s memories. If you think about your brain like a computer, during the day you have a huge amount of raw data inputted. It comes gushing in and the brain has little time to make sense of it all as it is a non-stop process while we are awake. If you think about the amount of information it takes in during a single day it is quite astounding. What is even more amazing though is that generally you are able to recollect the day’s events later on in a coherent and nuanced manner. So how do you do this? Well, many think that it is during our sleep that the brain sorts these memories, placing them in order and cross referencing them for later. Dreams, in this theory, are the by product of this process, with the randomness coming from the process of connecting the new memories with old ones.
Another venerable theory is that dreams are a way for our brains to train without any risk. The world is a dangerous place, and it was even more dangerous for our early ancestors. A mistake in real life could cost you your life. That is where dreams come into play. Many cultures have seen dreams as a place where the mind is free to make as many mistakes with no repercussions. It is a place where our brains can become more proficient at many things, where it can try out lots of different things without any consequences. From learning how to cope with shocking events through to geospatial understanding, there are a vast array of different tests and challenges that could be seen to be occurring in dreams.
Closely linked to the brain training is the problem solving theory. If you have ever gone to bed at night with a problem and woken with a solution then you will have experienced the main piece of evidence that people use to back this theory up. The gist of this is basic, it argues that if you go to bed with something that you are unable to solve then you will have dreams that enable you to solve it. The dreams are the brain’s way of making the random and illogical connections needed for you to solve an otherwise intractable issue.
Dreams are often emotional, in some cases you may even wake with the residue of the emotion from the dream and some people even report having their whole day affected by a dream. The theory that dreams reflect your emotions is yet another of the older theories. Basically it argues that depending on the type of day you have had, the sort of mood you were in when you went to bed plus your underlying general emotional state, you will have particular types of dreams. If this theory is true it means that you would be more likely to have a nightmare when you have had a bad day or are scared about something and you would be more likely to have a fun dream when you have had a good day.
Another theory, one that comes from the famous psychologist Sigmund Freud and can be seen as an outcome of the emotional reflection theory, is that dreams are the time when your id, or the primitive and primal part of your brain, takes over. Freud believed that there are three parts to the brain, the id, the ego, and the superego. The id is the unconscious and impulsive part of the psyche that seeks to satisfy our primitive drives and emotions. The ego is the reality conscious aspect of the mind that balances the id’s animalistic tendencies and the morality of the superego. The superego, therefore, is the internalized social norms that keeps us on a straight and narrow path. During the day the ego and superego are in control, but when we sleep, according to Freud, the id takes over. Our dreams are the product of the id’s expression of internal conflict, when repressed emotions and memories are brought to awareness in rather distorted forms. The impulses and desires of the dreams are normally suppressed by the superego when the individuals awaken, causing people to forget a substantial amount of their nightly dreams. Freud believed that dream analysis could tell us a lot about who we were and what our underlying urges were.
One of the newer theories is that dreams are a way of keeping you entertained while you are asleep. The theory supposes that sleep is somewhat boring for the brain and that after several hours people might wake because their brain requires stimulation. Therefore, we dream as a way of entertaining the brain so that the body can get rest. Just as you would have in flight entertainment on the plane when you are flying, your dreams serve the same purpose when you are asleep.
The last theory is the newest and it is one of the least exciting. Rather than seeing dreams as having a purpose, it suggests that actually dreams are nothing more than the random firing of synapses. That there is no meaning to your dreams, that they do nothing at all and that all of the above theories are just rubbish that we have read into the random patterns that our brains generate during sleep. Back to the static analogy, at least for those who remember it, your dreams are really just stray memories being triggered by the brain for absolutely no purpose and with no underlying reason.
Ok, so which theory is right?
After a long list of theories like that you no doubt want to know which one is the correct one... but sadly there is no right answer as yet. However, we do have an even more interesting proposition for you, one that more and more dream experts are coming around to. What if all of them are right? How, you may well ask, could that be so? Well, imagine that early on in our evolutionary past, dreams were really nothing but random synapses firing but that as time went on the the mind made use of these as a means of storing memories and of training the brain and it could be that your emotions play a fundamental role in that training. That not only does it allow us to train and store memories, but to solve problems as well and keep us asleep. Think on that, as it could well be true. We may have taken the random firing of synapses and turned it into one of the most important parts of our lives.
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