So, why do we dream?
This is a somewhat controversial question, with no straight forward answer. There are many theories put forward by scientists and psychologists, but no black and white answer.
The human brain is a mysterious little ball of grey matter. After all these years, researchers are still baffled by many aspects of how and why it operates like it does. Scientists have been performing sleep and dream studies for decades now, and we still aren’t 100 percent sure about the function of sleep, or exactly how and why we dream… The question of whether dreams actually have a physiological, biological or psychological function has yet to be answered. (1)
Its quite spooky how much is still largely unknown about the brain, and is something which people don’t always consider. Not even the brain can figure the brain out…
Some current theories suggest that dreaming is:
- A component and form of memory processing, aiding in the consolidation of learning and short-term memory to long-term memory storage.
- An extension of waking consciousness, reflecting the experiences of waking life.
- A means by which the mind works through difficult, complicated, unsettling thoughts, emotions, and experiences, to achieve psychological and emotional balance.
- The brain responding to biochemical changes and electrical impulses that occur during sleep.
- A form of consciousness that unites past, present and future in processing information from the first two, and preparing for the third.
- A protective act by the brain to prepare itself to face threats, dangers and challenges.
There is not likely ever to be a simple answer, or a single theory that explains the full role of dreaming to human life. (2)
I am consistently fascinated by theories on dreaming, as well as dream analysis/interpretation, popularised by psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud. He presents by far my favourite theory:
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), also known as the father of dream research, gave psychoanalysis as one explanation for why we dream. But Freud had little understanding of the REM and NREM sleep cycles – and modern day dream research has pointed us to a number of other theories of dreaming.
Freud is best known for his theories of the unconscious mind. The controversial psychoanalyst said that our brain protects us from disturbing thoughts and memories by repressing them. Freud also believed that we are almost entirely driven by unconscious sexual desire.
If you asked Sigmund Freud “why do we dream?” he would say our dreams are a secret outlet for these repressed desires. In therapy, he used dream analysis to interpret the underlying language of dreams, which is very different from normal conscious thinking.
Every night when we sleep, we disconnect from our conscious thought processes. The lights go off and we’re protected from external stimuli (like noise, temperature and pain). But our internal stimuli (like emotions and fears) are still rumbling around, seeking a way to be heard. And so dreams form.
Freud said dreams are a way to express unconscious emotions while we’re asleep – otherwise we’d be constantly disturbed by them in our sleep and wake up. (3)
My interests in dreams spans back to my interests in Surrealism. They used dreams as an outlet of creativity, a way of tapping into the unconscious mind. They also used theories and psychoanalytical techniques such as Free Association as a source of inspiration.
Influenced by the writings of psychologist Sigmund Freud, the literary, intellectual, and artistic movement called Surrealism sought a revolution against the constraints of the rational mind; and by extension, the rules of a society they saw as oppressive. Freud and other psychoanalysts used a variety of techniques to bring to the surface the subconscious thoughts of their patients. The Surrealists borrowed many of the same techniques to stimulate their writing and art, with the belief that the creativity that came from deep within a person’s subconscious could be more powerful and authentic than any product of conscious thought. (4)
The Birth of the World, Joan Miró, 1925. Oil on canvas.
To visually explain the question ‘Why do we dream?’ I am using elements from both Surrealism and Dadaism (5), to create my own theory, my own answer to the question.