“Why do people dream?” It sounds like the inquisitive question of a curious three year old, but many of us are curious about what exactly causes dreams. People have been proposing ideas ranging from religious to magical about why people dream for as long as there have been people. With modern science, though, we have a better window into why people dream and what causes dreaming. Here’s an overview of what’s going on inside your brain when you’re dreaming.
Why We Dream: REM Sleep
Rapid Eye Movement, or REM sleep, is the period of sleep during which our eyes move back and forth rapidly under our eyelids. This phase happens approximately every ninety minutes in normal sleep, but the amount of time spent in REM sleep varies from person to person and night to night. The rapid eye movement stimulates the sensory cortex of the brain, which in turn creates the images in our dreams.
Why We Dream: Brain Development
Recent research indicates that dreams play a vital role in the development of our brain, particularly during childhood. Dreams help to keep the neurons in our brain activated and excited, which in turn helps our brains to develop more neural connections and remain functional. New research also points toward dreams as an important tool of problem solving. We are able to test solutions in our dreams and also to think more critically after having already experienced one particular outcome of an action in our dreams.
Why We Dream: Memory
Memory is a complex thing, and what you remember today may be different from what you remember tomorrow. There’s some evidence that dreaming helps our brains in the process of transferring information from short term to long term memory. You can take advantage of this function! Study important information or read right before bed and you’re more likely to dream in a way that will help you remember what you’ve processed on a long term basis.
Why We Dream: Sensory Processing
Dream dictionaries specialize in telling us the meaning of the symbols in our dreams, but much of it may have little meaning. Dreaming is a way for your brain to process all of the sensory input it has received in a day, so random elements of your day that you don’t even remember may make their way into your dreams.
Why We Dream: Psychological Well-Being
While correlation does not equal causation, there is a correlation between poor mental health and lack of dreams. Some psychologists speculate that the mental health problems experienced by people with insomnia may actually be a result of their lack of dreams rather than exhaustion. Our dreams help us process through our emotions in a safe way, and this may be vital for our health and psychological well-being. Other mammals, including dogs and dolphins dream; it’s not just a human idiosyncracy of the human psyche, which means that there is very likely some benefit to a variety of animals of dreaming.
Much of dreaming is still a mystery to scientists, and our dreams are often a puzzle in terms of what we can learn from them. However, we do know that dreams serve several vital functions, so make sure you’re getting enough quality REM sleep every night!