Why do we dream?

Ever woken up and felt like you’re still in the grip of a particularly vivid dream? Did you wonder where in the world it came from?

Why do they happen and what do they mean? Though some aspects around dreams are still a mystery, there are some basic things we know about them:

  • People have their most vivid dreams during the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) phase of sleep
  • On a typical night, we might have between 3 and 6 dreams
  • We’ve forgotten 95% of our dreams by the time we get out of bed
  • Dreams are thought to help you learn and may support long-term memory

What are dreams?

For years, scientists and psychologists have researched dreams. Many believe they’re just a result of ‘random brain activity’. Others are convinced that dreams are a window into the unconscious mind.

One of the most famous interpreters of dreams was psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. According to Freud: “Dreams...are not meaningless...they are a completely valid psychological phenomenon, the fulfilment of wishes... constructed through highly complicated intellectual activity.”

Freud described dreams as ‘picture puzzles’ that are influenced by significant thoughts or experiences. His book The Interpretation of Dreams written in 1899, is still an important reference for people looking for insights into their dreams.


Does dreaming help creativity?

There’s some evidence that dreams help to stimulate creativity. Deirdre Barrett, a Harvard Medical School psychologist and dream researcher, believes dreams help us work through our worries and hopes. According to Dr Barrett, they’re just “thinking in a different biological state” and can help us visualise situations and solve real problems.

We may not need to remember our dreams for them to accomplish this problem-solving role. She cites at least two Nobel prizes where dreams have directly contributed.

English psychologist Nicholas Humphrey thinks dreams give us a chance to explore our creativity and to help us understand and learn how we can deal with different scenarios. "Dreams are a form of play and serve the same functions as ordinary play in waking life," he explained.

Boston University neuroscientist Patrick McNamara believes we still don’t have all the answers to why we dream, but he agrees that there is a strong link to creativity. “Dreams themselves are creative. They take some basic elements and recombine them in very unusual ways, and you get a whole different counterfactual view of the world.”

What’s the best way to remember your dreams?

Sometimes your dreams can be better than Netflix, but unless they’re particularly vivid, it’s often impossible to remember the details.

Here are a few tips on how you might better remember your dreams:

  1. Write them down. Place a pen and notebook beside your bed. As soon as you wake up in the morning, write down any details you remember from your dreams. The more you do this, the more details you’ll remember.
  2. Make a conscious decision to remember. Just before you go to sleep, make an intention to remember your dreams.
  3. Playback your dreams. As soon as you wake up, go over the details of your dreams in your head. This ‘replay’ of dreams can help you remember.
  4. Wake up without an alarm. To avoid your brain being distracted by the noise of your alarm, wake up naturally.

What do your dreams mean?

Whether they’re symbolic and reflect what we’re thinking and feeling, or they actually mean nothing at all, it’s interesting to try and interpret our dreams. For an authoritative reference, you could check out Freud’s book or you could do a quick search of this online dream dictionary.

Sweet dreams!