What Are Dreams and Why Do We Have Them?

Everyone dreams nearly every night of their lives. So, what are they all about?

What Are Dreams and Why Do We Have Them?

By Victoria Candland Published at December 3, 2014 Views 12,379 Comments 2 Likes 1

Almost every human being that has ever lived dreams every night of his life. And yet, dreaming seems to be one of the most elusive subjects to study—we can’t hold or measure dreams, and almost 95% of dreams are forgotten once an individual awakens.

We do know that dreaming is a key component of sleeping, and since humans spend one third of our lives sleeping, it ought to have a purpose.


Dreaming is a state of consciousness where sensory, cognitive, and emotional occurrences happen as we are sleeping. Dreams contain themes, objects, characters, and emotions. They may be fun, romantic, frightening, bizarre and other feelings. Some research suggests that dreams tend to be associated with negative feelings like abandonment, anger, and most of all, anxiety. Some say this could be a fighting mechanism to help us prepare for any possible threats we may encounter throughout our lives.


Dreams also often have characters, either known or unknown to the dreamer. Some studies claim there are often feelings of affection and joy attached to people known by the dreamer, even if those emotions aren’t felt in the waking state. A study of 320 adult dreamers reported that 44% of these known characters were identified by “just knowing” who they were, and 45% were identified by the face.


With characters and emotions come memories, even memories that the dreamer is trying to suppress in his waking state. Dreaming actually doesn’t help us forget memories, but rather replays them. For example, a mother who tragically sees her son get killed may stifle the memory in her waking thoughts, but constantly dreams of the incident.

The science of memories is a vital aspect of dreaming. Many prominent scientists believe that dreaming is a mechanism by which we sort out the day’s information, discarding the fluff and keeping the important data. Our minds absorb a host of images, impressions, conversations, and actions in a day and some believe that dreaming is the way we sift through these memories and hold what matters.

Dreams can contain memories from the day immediately preceding or from about seven days prior. A study conducted in 2004 and published in the journal JSR found that the incorporation of memories into dreams can take one or approximately seven days and can help with socio-emotional adaptation and memory consolidation. Often these memories are fragmented and meshed with other subconscious dreaming elements.

Purpose of dreams

Another theory is that dreams are simply a byproduct of physiological action. Some scientists believe that neuronal activity occurring while we sleep brings about dreams, but dreams don’t have a function in and of themselves.

Others reject this theory that dreams serve no purpose. In ancient times, Aristotle and Plato hypothesized that dreams were a setting where we could actualize unconscious or suppressed desires that would be taboo or dangerous in regular life. Freud later developed this theory in tandem with the concepts of the id, ego and superego.

A pivotal study conducted in 1960 by William C. Dement, MD, PhD, tested the importance of dreaming by waking the participants just as they began the REM stage of the sleep cycle (when dreaming occurs). The results showed that these participants experienced increased tension, anxiety, irritability, appetite, feeling of emptiness, and difficulty concentrating, among other emotional and physical differences. Dement connected dream deprivation to decreased health and sense of wellbeing, thus postulating that dreams have an essential purpose.

How dreams work

Dreams are most remembered and abundant during the REM stage of sleep. REM, or rapid eye movement, is when our eyes literally dart back and forth, and happens during the deepest part of a person’s sleep. REM typically begins 70 to 90 minutes after we fall asleep, and lasts about 90 to 110 minutes each cycle. Because of this timeline, we have dreams at numerous times during the night. According to the University of California, Santa Cruz, most people over the age of 10 dream 4 to 6 times a night as our minds cycle in and out of REM.

During REM, our brain is highly active and even matches the activity of the brain during wakefulness, according to research done by Michel Jouvet, MD, of Claude Bernard University in Lyon, France. We may dream that we are flying or fighting a battle or kissing someone, but we don’t carry out these actions because the brain chemicals norepinephrine, serotonin, and histamine are almost completely blocked, preventing our muscles from moving. In rare cases, a person can wake up and be conscious, but the body is still in the REM cycle and temporarily unable to move.

Lucid dreaming is another strange phenomenon where the dreamer knows he’s sleeping and can make conscious decisions within the dream.

In a lot of ways, dreaming is still an undiscovered territory, a foreign region we have yet to grasp scientifically. However, there are many studies that indicate its significance in our physical and emotional health, so dream away.

To learn more about sleep:

5 Sleep Mistakes You Are Making
How Sleep Disorders & Sleep Stages Are Related
Get the Right Amount of Sleep for Your Body

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