Why We Dream

Why We Dream

Human psychology experts generally agree about one aspect on the subject of why we dream: they don’t know. Sure, a multitude of theories exists, but no scientific evidence or expert consensus as to the probable reason humans dreams. Unlike the topic of why humans cry, dreams are not the exclusive property of human beings…no luck at explaining why animals dream either. (Refer to previous post, Crying Is Telling, if interested in the topic of why we cry.)

why we dream

This post will resolve the mystery about why we dream, but first enlighten readers with the theories that exist about why we dream. There does not appear to be agreement on the number of theories about dreams, but this is my attempt at consolidating competing viewpoints in brief summaries:

Theories on Dreams

why we dream


  • Psychoanalytical—Probably the most notable theory on dreams was fostered by Sigmund Freud. He believed people are driven by aggression and sexual instincts and that dreams allow those desires and wishes to manifest themselves, unconstrained by the conscious mind. Dreams expose your repressed thoughts and desires. His research and discussions about hidden meanings of dreams can be found in his famous, classic book, The Interpretation of Dreams.

Sigmund Freud

  • Activation-Synthesis—Psychologists, Allan Hobson and Robert McCalarley advanced this theory in 1977. They suggested that dreams are the result of the brain interpreting internal memory, sensation, and emotion circuit activity during REM sleep and trying to find meaning in those signals. Although the majority of dreams make no sense, they believed this incidental and disorganized combination of thoughts could occasionally produce extraordinary creativity, and thereby serve an important function.

Allan Hobson

  • Stimulus response—This proposes our brain attempts to decode external stimulus while we sleep. Although asleep, our senses can pick up signals, such as a pan dropping in another room, and our brain modifies the path of a dream with a translation of that audible input.
  • Information-Processing or physiological—No psychological significance to dreaming other than to process information and memories from the previous day by creating images and stories which helps sort out all the information in our brain.
  • Contemporary—Ernest Hartmann suggested that connections made in the brain during sleep are guided by emotion, combining new material with memories. The brain represents emotions in a dream with images. He proposed that dreams help us deal with trauma. “Someone who has just escaped from a fire may dream about the actual fire a few times, then may dream about being swept away by a tidal wave. Then over the next weeks the dreams gradually connect the fire and tidal wave image with other traumatic or difficult experiences the person may have had in the past. The dreams then gradually return to their more ordinary state.” Hartman felt the function of dreaming reduces emotional reaction and thereby adaptive to help cope with future stressful events which would have been even more important to our ancestors who experienced trauma more frequently.

Ernest Hartmann

  • Supernatural—And finally there is the supernatural theory, popular in the ancient world and still exists today. Subscribers to this conviction believe dreams can predict future events or be interpreted to guide the dreamer for life paths to choose. In some ancient civilizations, people of knowledge suggested that gods and goddesses visit in dreams to foretell future opportunities or pitfalls.

If interested in delving into any of these theories on why we dream further, some links are provided. The International Association for the Study of Dreams is another resource.If your interests lie in both dreams and sleeping, I recommend you take a look at the Michael J Breus website. Known as “The Sleep Doctor,” his views on dreams and sleep are fascinating.

why we dream

The What Do I Do Now Principle of Dreaming

why we dream

While I have always been intrigued by psychology and human evolution, I have no credentials worthy of scientifically judging the validity of any of the theories on dreams. I am a writer. I write fiction. Since I am not qualified to judge existing theories on dreams, I have developed one of my own. I dream and listen to other people tell me about their dreams. I am an expert. Here it is:

Systems in the human body do not stop when you sleep. For example, you do not stop breathing while you sleep. That would be a bad thing. Your heart doesn’t stop pumping blood while you sleep…also bad. These systems change during sleep, but don’t stop. Like other systems, your brain doesn’t stop, and parts of the brain with higher functions don’t stop. Without the conscious mind to work on problems, think about the meaning of life, decide what sitcom to watch, look at birds, or listen to talk radio, what can you do to kill time until you wake up? The sheer boredom of it all would be excruciatingly painful unless you had some type of entertainment to pass time. The entertainment is dreaming. Without the conscious mind to organize thoughts, the entertainment can get quite bizarre and disjointed. But there are many genres for the mind to choose: horror, drama, documentary, romance, and many others. And you can occasionally get a series running, where you return to the same story line. Episodes can be at various frequencies, depending on what other shows the brain wants to put on for you.

Without the external stimulus you get while awake, the brain needs to rummage through your memories to get material for the dream programming. It may take a bit of this and a bit of that and create some new stuff. The brain probably prioritizes the pieces of memory to use by what has been significant during your waking period. If you’re worried about your job, your dreams will probably reflect that in some creative manner. But as in daily life where thoughts of an old friend can pop into your head, dreams can draw on old memories to spark a show for entertainment if something more compelling isn’t in your head. Everyone has a unique personality and character, and your dreams are no different since they are composed by the same mind. The type of dreams based on fears, worries, wishes, places, and reruns result from your individual traits. Your dream system is unlike anyone else’s. It’s a personal entertainment system so you don’t wake out of boredom. I suspect most people would actually know why they dream what they do if only time some is spent on introspection.


I am a fiction writer, but research topics and provide posts like the one above for enlightenment and entertainment. If you liked it, please take a look at some of my other posts and my home page, R. A. Andrade. This post on dreams prompted by the following lines in my upcoming novel, Three Remain:

Glen awoke, immediately glancing at the digital clock. The face remained blank. As his mind cleared, he struggled to recount the events of the previous day. Recollections of a difficult young woman popped into his head. Thinking her to be the remnant of a vivid dream, he rolled to the edge of the bed. Seeing a human form covered in the blanket on the floor, he froze, giving his brain time to absorb the new information. He heard easy and even breathing thereby eliminating the hopeful, vivid-dream hypothesis. The no-name woman really existed.

One Reply to “Why We Dream”

  1. Allan Hopson (Activation-Synthesis Theory) was kind enough to contact me after this post and provided this quote: “The brain is a fiction writer whose dreams are works of art aimed at understanding our selves”.

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