February 26, 2024 3 min read

Many believe dreams are nothing but nonsensical hallucinations experienced while we’re asleep. Scientists have a similar view, often describing dreams as a byproduct of electrical brain impulses that pull random thoughts and imagery from memory [1]. Still, others believe dreams have deeper spiritual or psychological meaning. 


But no matter your stance on dreams, one thing is for sure: they serve some kind of purpose for our health and well-being. Researchers have discovered that dreams occur at certain stages of sleep and that these stages confer unique health benefits. Dream content itself also has therapeutic potential.

Why Do We Dream?

Dreams have fascinated philosophers and scientists since the dawn of civilization. But despite advances in medical research and technology, they’re as mysterious to us as ever. However, there are theories that may offer some explanation:

Freudian 

The father of psychoanalysis proposed that dreams have hidden meanings that our conscious mind has difficulty grasping. He also suggested that the purpose of many dreams is wish fulfillment — i.e. all those thoughts, emotions, and desires that are forbidden become manifest in dreams.


Information processing

According to this theory, our brains organize our memories while we sleep, and dreams are a byproduct of this process. Much of this activity happens during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep when dreams usually occur. 


Activation-synthesis model

This neurobiological theory proposes that dreams are simply the brain’s way of making sense of random neural activity that takes place while we sleep. The brain is quite active during sleep, with circuits in the brain stem being most active in the REM stages. This activity results in random images, emotions, memories, and sensations that the brain then tries to interpret.

How Dreaming Affects Health

While we may still not know much about the purpose of dreams, we do know that they play some part in our health.

Sleep involves 5 distinct phases, with REM being the last phase with heightened brain activity and vivid dreaming. Adults spend about 20% of their sleep in REM, while newborns spend half of the time they’re sleeping in this stage [2]. So, both REM and dreaming must have some importance given how much of our sleep they take up. 


The primary health benefits of REM sleep are improved memory recall, emotional processing, and overall cognitive functioning. As explained, it’s during this stage of sleep that the brain reorganizes information from the previous day.

We also know that REM sleep suppresses norepinephrine production, which is a hormone involved in the fight-or-flight response. This means your body takes a break from stress during this stage of sleep [3], which is helpful for healthy emotional processing. And because you’re less stressed while dreaming, the content of your dreams may be easier for your mind to process and integrate. This may explain why dreams can sometimes feel therapeutic.


Getting enough REM sleep also seems to regulate the stress response, as studies show that people who get enough REM sleep have better regulation of negative emotions, particularly fear [4]. 

Takeaways

While we don’t know much about dreams, we do know that they happen while the brain is quite active during sleep. Dreams are either a byproduct of brain activity or serve a purpose to boost our emotional, cognitive, and overall health. So, the next time you wake up after a dream, know that it’s your brain working what it’s supposed to for your health. 


References:


  1. Van Der Lindern S. The Science Behind Dreaming

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-science-behind-dreaming/


  1. Sandyk R. Melatonin and maturation of REM sleep.Int J Neurosci. 1992;63(1-2):105-114.doi:10.3109/00207459208986660

  1. Mallick BN, Majumdar S, Faisal M, Yadav V, Madan V, Pal D. Role of norepinephrine in the regulation of rapid eye movement sleep.J Biosci. 2002;27(5):539-551.doi:10.1007/BF02705052

  1. Lerner I, Lupkin SM, Tsai A, Khawaja A, Gluck MA. Sleep to remember, sleep to forget: Rapid eye movement sleep can have inverse effects on recall and generalization of fear memories.Neurobiol Learn Mem. 2021;180:107413.doi:10.1016/j.nlm.2021.107413



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