There are several theories about why we dream. Are dreams merely part of the sleep cycle, or do they serve some other purpose? Although there is no concrete evidence of how and why dreams occur, there is a correlation developed between dreams and the REM cycle.
Some possible explanations of dreams may be the mind representing unconscious desires and wishes, interpreting random signals from the brain and body during sleep, or simply processing information gathered during the day.
From evidence and new research methodologies, researchers have speculated that dreaming serves the following functions:
- the brain consolidates learning and memory tasks and supports and records waking consciousness
- the brain might be preparing for possible future threats
- dreams may be a cognitive simulation of real life experiences, that brings visual reality to the part of the mind active during daydreaming
- a reflection of unconscious mental function in a psychoanalytic way
- a unique state of consciousness that incorporates experience of the present, processing of the past, and preparation for the future
- a psychological space where overwhelming, contradictory, or highly complex notions can be brought together by the dreaming ego, notions that would be unsettling while awake, serving the need for psychological balance and equilibrium.
There are five phases of sleep that one must be informed of to understand the process of dreaming:
Stage 1: Light sleep, slow eye movement, and reduced muscle activity
Stage 2: Eye movement stops and brain waves become slower, with occasional bursts of rapid waves called sleep spindles
Stage 3: Extremely slow brain waves called delta waves begin to appear
Stage 4: The brain produces delta waves almost exclusively. It is difficult to wake someone during stages 3 and 4, which together are called “deep sleep.” There is no eye movement or muscle activity. People awakened while in deep sleep do not adjust immediately and often feel disoriented for several minutes after waking up.
Stage 5: This stage is known as rapid eye movement (REM). Breathing becomes more rapid, irregular, and shallow, eyes jerk rapidly in various directions, and limb muscles become temporarily paralyzed. Heart rate increases, blood pressure rises. When people awaken during REM sleep, they often describe bizarre and illogical tales. These are what we call dreams.
REM phase of sleep is interpreted as the cause of dreaming. Dreams are a universal human experience that can be described as a state of consciousness characterized by sensory, cognitive and emotional occurrences during sleep. The dreamer has reduced control over the content, visual images and activation of the memory. Reports of dreams tend to be full of emotional and vivid experiences that contain themes, concerns, dream figures, and objects that correspond closely to waking life. These elements create a novel “reality” out of seemingly nothing, producing an experience with a lifelike timeframe and connections.
We typically spend more than 2 hours each night dreaming. Scientists don’t know much about how or why we dream. Some scientists believe dreams are an attempt to find meaning in the random signals that the brain receives during REM sleep.