How do we dream? And why?

The human brain is a mysterious little ball of gray 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. We do know that our dream cycle is typically most abundant and best remembered during the REM stage of sleep.

It's also pretty commonly accepted among the scientific community that we all dream, though the frequency in which dreams are remembered varies from person to person.
The question of whether dreams actually have a physiological, biological or psychological function has yet to be answered. But that hasn't stopped scientists from researching and speculating. There are several theories as to why we dream. One is that dreams work hand in hand with sleep to help the brain sort through everything it collects during the waking hours.

 Your brain is met with hundreds of thousands, if not millions of inputs each day. Some are minor sensory details like the color of a passing car, while others are far more complex, like the big presentation you're putting together for your job. During sleep, the brain works to plow through all of this information to decide what to hang on to and what to forget. Some researchers feel like dreams play a role in this process.
It's not just a stab in the dark though -- there is some research to back up the ideas that dreams are tied to how we form memories.

  • Studies indicate that as we're learning new things in our waking hours, dreams increase while we sleep. Participants in a dream study who were taking a language course showed more dream activity than those who were not. In light of such studies, the idea that we use our dreams to sort through and convert short-term memories into long-term memories has gained some momentum in recent years.
  • Another theory is that dreams typically reflect our emotions. During the day, our brains are working hard to make connections to achieve certain functions. When posed with a tough math problem, your brain is incredibly focused on that one thing. And the brain doesn't only serve mental functions. If you're building a bench, your brain is focused on making the right connections to allow your hands to work in concert with a saw and some wood to make an exact cut. The same goes for simple tasks like hitting a nail with a hammer. Have you ever lost focus and smashed your finger because your mind was elsewhere?
  • Some have proposed that at night everything slows down. We aren't required to focus on anything during sleep, so our brains make very loose connections. It's during sleep that the emotions of the day battle it out in our dream cycle. If something is weighing heavily on your mind during the day, chances are you might dream about it either specifically, or through obvious imagery. For instance, if you're worried about losing your job to company downsizing, you may dream you're a shrunken person living in a world of giants, or you're wandering aimlessly through a great desert abyss.
  • There's also a theory, definitely the least intriguing of the bunch, that dreams don't really serve any function at all, that they're just a pointless byproduct of the brain firing while we slumber. We know that the rear portion of our brain gets pretty active during REM sleep, when most dreaming occurs. Some think that it's just the brain winding down for the night and that dreams are random and meaningless firings of the brain that we don't have when we're awake.                                                                                                                                                                  The truth is, as long as the brain remains such a mystery, we probably won't be able to pinpoint with absolute certainty exactly why we dream.

What are dreams?

Dreams are stories and images that our minds create while we sleep. They can be entertaining, fun, romantic, disturbing, frightening and sometimes bizarre.

Let's come to the "why" first.

I don't pretend to be a master on the subject, but it is believed to be mostly the work of subconscious. When you see a detail in day to day life, you eye actually records a lot of information and you brain processes it too, but you generally focus on something particular and your brain is not interested in all the details the peripheral vision has to offer so it takes the details it wants to and leaves the rest. This ignored information goes into the subconscious mind, among other things.

The subconscious mind is the major cause for dreams according to many theories I have come across. It picks many stray details from your brain and the subconscious mind and visualizes its own scenario that will create the dream.

If much of the detail of the dream is from the subconscious mind you often tend to not remember its details as they will seem to vague. But there are times when you can figure out what you have dreamt about if its majorly not from subconscious mind.

Science has yet to provide an answer since we know so little about the human brain.There is a great deal of neuronal activity occurring while we sleep, especially in REM. The brain never ‘shuts off' and incorporates memories, solves problems and deals with emotions. It has been said that because of this dreams are essential to our emotional well being. But if your life is under stress the brain may interpret these bad events and therefore result in ‘nightmares'.

According to Jim Pagel, MD, Director of the Sleep Disorders Center of Southern Colorado, "If dreaming has an actual function, it really supports why we spend a third of our lives sleeping."

Considering what we have learned about the brain in the past 60–70 years, we are still at the tip of the iceberg on how or why the brain acts as it does. Working in a psychiatric hospital for some years really showed me how little we do know. Until the advent of medications, less than 100 years ago, we took patients and just tied them up or secluded them. We still do not know how these mental problems exist. Even today, medication just solves the symptoms and does not address the organic nature of mental illness.

Another curious side note: I spoke with a neurological specialist who told me that we have far less understanding on why we die rather than how we are alive.

With the brain, we are not even close to understanding the mechanics of it's functions.

The short answer is that no one knows. The long answer is that althought we do not know, we do have fragments of useful information to help better understand the subject.

I cannot tell you why we dream, but i can tell you what happens if you don't. I don't remember the name of the study but some scientists decided to see what happens when the REM (part of sleep cycle you dream the most in) part of the sleep cycle is interrupted. In short, the test subjects were drowsy and elevated blood pressure levels and other signs of unhealthiness.

I will now present my own hypothesis that is shared by others, but still could be wrong, so don't take it as fact.

When you are asleep you are rebuilding and "practicing" neuron connections. This is why if you sleep right after studying you will remember it better, and why if you don't sleep, your memory becomes horrific (How Sleep Helps Memory). Now, another tidbit to help understand my theory is this; REM is the most active part of the sleep cycle, and the part that dreams are most remembered from. Therefore, an assumption could be made that while you are paralyzed in sleep, these extremely high energy neuron connections are still being registered by your brain, and your brain is trying to map them together into comprehensible events. This is my belief as to why we dream. I hope this helped.

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