Dreams: What’s Their Purpose?
How do you respond when your client asks in distress: “Why am I having all these wild dreams?”? Do you know what purpose the client’s dreams may be serving? If your honest answer is “no”, you are not alone. While theories on why we dream abound, it’s hard to get at dreams directly. The main thing that dream theorists agree on is that there is little agreement (Cherry, 2017; Lewis, n.d.)! Thus, in this post we review what the main purposes of dreams seem to be based on current theories and the research that has come out.
Dreams and REM sleep in a nutshell
We can define a dream as “a collection of images and ideas that occur involuntarily during certain periods of repose” (Lewis, n.d.). Our “repose” – that is, stages of sleep – generally consists of periods of light (Level 2) sleep, deep (Level 4) sleep, and REM (Level 3) sleep. While we are said to dream during most of these stages, the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage, starting to occur after about 90 minutes, is where dreams are most vivid. It is here that the amygdala, the area of the brain which processes emotions, and the hippocampus, the centre of memory, are both active.
Experts suggest that this is why our REM dreams have a story-like quality and why we tend to remember them more the next day. Those of us who get six to eight hours of sleep are likely to have four to five REM periods of various lengths, all of which are typically dream-filled (though often not remembered) (Lewis, n.d.). Fitbit’s explanation of the REM stage notes that REM stages typically occur more in the later periods of the night; during this stage our heartrate is elevated and our breathing faster (Fitbit, n.d.).
Though we can measure directly what the body and eyes are doing during REM sleep, we have a greater challenge understanding the function or purpose of dreams generally or the REM stage specifically. Here are some of the proposed theories.
The role of dreams
A normal sleeper getting good-quality sleep and living to be 90 years old will spend about six or seven years in the REM stage of sleep; thus it is baffling that we still know so little about the roles dreams fulfill for us, after decades of research. Ernest Hartmann, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, suggests that a possible function of a dream may be “weaving new material into the memory system in a way that both reduces emotional arousal and is adaptive in helping us cope with further trauma or stressful events” (Cherry, 2017). Similarly, Rosalind Cartwright, psychologist and founder of the Sleep Disorder Service and Research Center at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, proposes that dreams “help us process new emotionally important information and add it to our conceptual memory system” (Lewis, n.d.). Let’s break that down into individual purposes.
Psychoanalytic Theory of Dreams
Freud kicked off the interest in understanding dreams at the beginning of the last century, suggesting that dreams represent unconscious desires, thought, and motivations. According to Freud, we are driven by aggressive and sexual instincts that are repressed from our conscious awareness. Unexpressed in waking life, they find their way into our dreams, said Freud (Cherry, 2017). While dream interpretation remains popular today, especially in psychodynamic modalities, it’s safe to say that most therapists long ago abandoned a heavily sex-and-aggression orientation. More recent theories centre on the help that dreams can give with learning, memory, creativity, and as our personal, built-in therapist.
Aide to memory
One popular theory is that dreams help us to store important memories and things we’ve learned, get rid of “junk material” that we’ve decided we don’t need (such as your telephone number from three residences ago, or the procedure for baking a roast after you have gone vegetarian). Dreams help us sort through complicated thoughts and feelings. Some research has shown that sleep helps store memories, so if we learn new information and sleep on it, we are better able to recall it than if asked to remember the same information without the benefit of sleep. Perhaps our dreams help us to block out stimuli that would interfere with memory and learning (Roland, 2017).
To help us understand new experiences
REM dreams seem to link new events to old ones, putting them into the overall context of our life. So, for example, if you are feeling uncertain about whether a current intimate partner actually cares for you, you may dream about another time when acceptance seemed uncertain: perhaps when a good friend starting hanging out with a third party more than yourself. Like pre-electronic card catalogues in the library, dreams seem to consolidate recent memories and cross-reference them with older ones so that we can better understand what’s happening to us. This explains why dreams often incorporate elements from our past. Supporting this notion is research from fMRI scans showing that, when subjects are scanned during sleep, the visual centre of the brain, which processes all the new information we get while awake, is shut down. The visual memory centre, however – the part that stores images from the past – is in overdrive. This suggests that images we see in our dreams are being pulled from memories: kind of like our brains taking a new experience and flicking through the “photo albums” of our mind to see where the new experience fits (Lewis, n.d.).
Obviously, we as mental health helpers would be out of a job if everyone processed all their emotional traumas perfectly. They don’t, but the built-in therapist within, in the form of our dreams, seems to try to play a role here as our dreams find ways to confront emotional dramas in our life, helping us cope with trauma or loss. Cartwright found, in studying people going through a divorce, that those who were the most depressed in their waking lives had the flattest, least emotional dreams. Those who were managing the divorce process well had highly expressive dreams in which the subjects lived out the full fury of their emotions.
Cartwright suggests that those with dull dreams weren’t facing up to their feelings, while those who were coping well were working out their feelings in their dreams. In a similar vein, people who had lost loved ones dreamed earlier in their mourning process of the appearance of the loved one (often upsetting the dreamer), while later in the grieving process, the appearance of loved ones was more reassuring and comforting, seeming to indicate that they had made progress in adjusting to the loss (Lewis, n.d.).
As preparation for change or threat
The amygdala – the part of the brain that is associated with survival and is active during dreaming – may give an indication that our brains are getting us ready to deal with an imminent threat in waking life. We can be grateful that our brainstem sends out signals to relax our muscles during this time; otherwise we might wake up to assault charges, finding that we had punched someone in our sleep! (Roland, 2017) In a similar vein, dreams can be our rehearsal for upcoming challenges. The job seeker dreaming about career glory or the soon-to-travel young person having dreams of adventures in exotic places may both have brains preparing them for the future. Such material is “hot” emotionally, and dreaming about it helps us to deal with it better when we are awake (Lewis, n.d.).
As our creative muse
When the “Phantom” of the opera in the musical by that name implores the opera star to help him “make the music of the night”, it could be interpreted symbolically as her creative muse calling out to her to allow her subconscious (the part that is operative at night when we dream) to engage a more profound creativity. Some dream experts propose that that is a significant function of dreams (particularly REM dreams). A 2009 study by P.F. Pagel, at the University of Colorado Medical School, with the Filmmaking and Screenwriter Labs in Sundance found a much higher recall and use of dreams among actors, writers, and directors than among participants from his sleep centre. He concluded that dream use increases in proportion to a person’s interest in the creative process or product (Greene, 2010). As with most of the theories herein named, this one does not go down well with everyone, but it is intriguing to think of our dreams as helping us expand our creative horizons. Moreover, it is congruent with some scientists’ insistence that the brain is fundamentally creative, and that dreams allow this creativity to be expressed in the absence of the myriad constraints – moral, emotional, physical, cognitive – to which we are subject in a waking state (How Sleep Works, n.d.)
Activation-Synthesis Model of Dreaming
In terms of older theories, we should not forget the activation-synthesis model of dreaming first proposed by Allan Hobson and Robert McClarley in 1977. This theory proposes that circuits in the brain become activated during REM sleep, which causes areas of the limbic system involved in emotions, sensations, and memories (including the aforementioned amygdala and hippocampus) to become active. The brain synthesises and interprets this internal activity and tries to find meaning in the signals, which results in dreaming. Thus in this model, dreams are a subjective interpretation of signals generated by the brain during sleep. This does not mean that Hobson views dreams as meaningless, however. Rather, he suggests that dreaming is our most creative conscious state, one in which “the chaotic, spontaneous recombination of cognitive elements produces novel configurations of information: new ideas. . . . If even a few of its fanciful products are . . . useful, our dream time will not have been wasted” (Cherry, 2017).
Contemporary Theory of Dreaming
Ernest Hartmann, a professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School, proposes that activation patterns are shifting and connections being made and unmade constantly in our brains, and that this forms the physical basis of our minds (2003). We have a continuum of mental functioning, at one end of which is focused mental activity, such as doing a maths problem; we are focused, linear, and well-bounded. As we move down the continuum, we come to looser waking thought, such as found in contemplation or daydreaming, and then finally dreaming: the least focused, loosest, most global and imagistic form of mental activity.
Yet these loose connections are not random (which would mean that our dreams are meaningless). Rather, the connections are guided by the emotions of the dreamer. With a clear-cut emotion present, such as terror or overwhelm resulting from trauma, the dreams are often simple. When more emotions are present, the dreams may be more complex. The contemporary theory would posit that dreams are more intense after, say, a traumatic experience, gradually being connected to other traumatic or difficult experiences the person may have had in the past. The dream then appears to weave in or connect up the new material in the mind, suggesting a possible function for dreams.
By making such connections, emotional arousal is diminished. Over time, the traumatic material is connected with other parts of the memory system so that it no longer is experienced as unique or extreme. Hopefully, then, similar future events will not be as traumatic for the person. Thus we come back to Hartmann’s comment (above) that our “dream weaving” works new material into our memory system in a way that reduces emotional arousal and is adaptive in helping us cope with future stressful events (Hartmann, 2003).
Neither you nor your distressed client may ever know exactly the role dreams are playing. But if clients are willing to do the proverbial “pen and pad by the bedside” to record the dreams, their waking hours in session with you can fruitfully go the heart of matters that are disturbing them but which may not yet have been given full (conscious) voice.
- Cherry, K. (2017). 7 Theories on why we dream. Very Well Mind. Retrieved on 24 July, 2018, from: Website
- Fitbit. (n.d.). REM. Explanatory note on the Fitbit Alta HR tracker.
- Greene, G. (2010). The power and purpose of dreams. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 24, July, 2018, from: Website
- Hartmann, E. (2003). Why do we dream? Scientific American. Retrieved on 31 October, 2018, from: Website
- How Sleep Works. (n.d.). Dreams – The function of dreams. How Sleep Works. Retrieved on 24 July, 2018, from: Website
- Lewis, K.K. (n.d.). The facts about dreams. Realsimple. Retrieved on 24 July, 2018, from: Website
- Roland, J. (2017). Why do we dream? Healthline. Retrieved on 31 October, 2018, from: Website