Why We Dream
“Dreaming itself is the workshop of evolution” - Sandor Ferenczi
Sleep often gets overlooked as a waste of time, some type of evolutionary flaw, or an enigma not worthy of consideration. But to ignore what happens in your mind during approximately 1/3 of your life would be a mistake.
Beyond getting a good night of rest, we can also learn from our sleep in the form of dream recall. The contents of your dreams can give important insights into your subconscious mental mechanics. There’s a reason that Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and other notable psychologists have made dreaming the object of whole books.
The average person has 3-5 dreams per night occurring during the typically two hours of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. (Increased REM, allowed by fire, allowed our species’ brain to grow in size. Shows how important dreams are!) If you’re someone who thinks they don’t dream, it’s likely that your dream recall hasn’t developed yet. This skill can be easily acquired with consistent practice writing down any remaining fragments of dreams immediately upon waking.
But what is the purpose of dreams?
From an evolutionary perspective, it’s likely that dreams serve two primary purposes. One is “emotional processing” wherein REM sleep decouples your memories from the emotions attached to them, the only time that your brain is devoid of anxiety-triggering noradrenaline (except for PTSD patients). In this way, dreams soothe the emotional impact of trauma, allowing you to process pieces of your life better.
Dreams also enable you to come up with creative solutions. During dreaming, different regions of the brain are able to communicate and connect. Your subconscious mind, activated in dreaming, is better at problem-solving because it can combine concepts in novel ways, without the rational control center filtering them. With your “CEO” or “logic guard” turned down, dreaming allows you to think outside the box, forming valuable insights by finding associations among webs of interconnected memories. That’s why your dreams may send you flying, talking to odd-looking people or situated in alien landscapes. Interestingly enough, your brain is actually 30% more active during REM sleep than in waking consciousness.
There is still a great deal of mystery that surrounds dreaming. It seems that it may play a major role in memory consolidation as well as event rehearsal, but the jury’s still out on the exact mechanisms at play here.
You may have heard the term “lucid dreaming,” the ability to recognize when you are in a dream and even control what happens next. For those skeptical of such claims, lucid dreaming has in fact been proven in the lab, as subjects were able to deliberately communicate with researchers while in a dream in a predetermined manner. In my own personal exploration of this space, I’ve become lucid in dreams and experienced flight in a way that felt completely realistic. Practiced meditators tend to become conscious in their dreams more often. Why? The increase of metacognitive awareness throughout waking life carries over into sleep, which is just another form of consciousness.
I’m not suggesting anything woo-woo here. Dreams are quite simply your subconscious mind laid bare, often in symbolic form. They can reveal deep desires, fears, and pieces of yourself of which you might otherwise be entirely unaware. Writing down your dreams and thinking about what they might tell you is a form of introspection that can lead to important self-transformation.
I’d venture two pieces of advice based on the importance of dreaming:
First, guard your REM sleep at all costs, following proper sleep hygiene habits.
And second, pay attention to your dreams, as they are giving you valuable information about how your mind works. Dream journaling has proven mental health benefits - give it a try!
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 Payne, Jessica D., and Lynn Nadel. "Sleep, dreams, and memory consolidation: the role of the stress hormone cortisol." Learning & Memory 11.6 (2004): 671-678.
 Valli, Katja, et al. "The threat simulation theory of the evolutionary function of dreaming: Evidence from dreams of traumatized children." Consciousness and Cognition 14.1 (2005): 188-218.
 La Berge, Stephen P., et al. "Lucid dreaming verified by volitional communication during REM sleep." Perceptual and motor skills 52.3 (1981): 727-732.