Why do we dream? - Amy Adkins | Summary and Q&A

December 10, 2015
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Why do we dream? - Amy Adkins


We dream for various reasons, including wish fulfillment, memory consolidation, forgetting unnecessary information, keeping our brains active, practicing instincts, healing, and problem-solving.

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Key Insights

  • 🙈 Dreams can be seen as a collection of images from daily conscious life with symbolic meanings relating to subconscious desires.
  • ❓ Memory processes, problem-solving abilities, and healing may be enhanced during dreaming.
  • 💭 Dreams serve a purpose in forgetting unnecessary neural connections and thoughts.
  • 🧠 Dreaming keeps the brain active and helps consolidate long-term memories.
  • ❓ Dreams provide a platform for rehearsing instincts and facilitate problem-solving.
  • đŸĻģ Dreams may aid in psychological healing by reducing mental stress during the review of traumatic experiences.
  • 🖤 Lack of dreaming may contribute to mood disorders and PTSD.

Questions & Answers

Q: What did Sigmund Freud propose about dreams?

Freud believed that dreams have symbolic meanings related to the fulfillment of our subconscious wishes, and analyzing dream content can reveal unconscious thoughts and address psychological issues.

Q: How do dreams improve memory and cognitive performance?

Research has shown that dreaming about a task, such as navigating a maze, prior to attempting it can significantly improve performance, suggesting that memory processes are enhanced during dreaming.

Q: Why is forgetting necessary for dreaming?

Dreams are a result of the brain's review and elimination of unnecessary neural connections, known as reverse learning. This unlearning process prevents useless connections from overwhelming the brain and disrupting thinking while awake.

Q: How does dreaming keep our brains active?

The continual activation theory suggests that dreaming is the brain's way of generating data from memory storages when external input falls below a certain level, enabling the consolidation of long-term memories.

Q: Why do we have dreams involving dangerous situations?

The primitive instinct rehearsal theory suggests that dreams involving threats and challenges allow us to practice fight or flight instincts, keeping them sharp and dependable in real-life situations.

Q: Can dreaming facilitate healing from traumatic experiences?

During dreams, stress neurotransmitters are less active, potentially enabling psychological healing by providing a clearer perspective and enhanced ability to process traumatic events with reduced mental stress.

Q: How do dreams help in problem-solving?

Dreams provide an unconstrained environment for the mind to create limitless scenarios, allowing for problem exploration and the formulation of solutions that may not be considered while awake.

Q: Is lack of dreaming associated with mood disorders and PTSD?

Some scientists believe that individuals with mood disorders and PTSD may struggle with sleeping and lack of dreaming, suggesting that dreaming plays a role in psychological well-being.


Throughout history, humans have been fascinated with understanding the purpose of dreams. Despite significant scientific research and technological advancements, we still don't have definite answers. However, there are several interesting theories that attempt to explain why we dream. Some of these theories suggest that we dream to fulfill our wishes, remember important information, forget unnecessary connections in the brain, keep our brains functioning, rehearse survival instincts, heal psychological wounds, and solve problems. These theories provide insight into the potential reasons for dreaming, but further research is needed to uncover the definitive purpose of dreams.

Questions & Answers

Q: What was Sigmund Freud's theory about the purpose of dreams?

Sigmund Freud theorized that dreams are a manifestation of our subconscious wishes. He believed that the content of dreams represents a symbolic representation of our unconscious thoughts, urges, and desires. Freud proposed that by analyzing the elements of a dream, we can gain insight into our unconscious mind and address psychological issues stemming from repressed desires.

Q: How did researchers discover the significance of dreaming for memory consolidation?

In 2010, researchers conducted a study where subjects attempted a complex 3-D maze. They found that participants who had napped and dreamed about the maze performed significantly better in their second attempt compared to those who only thought of the maze while awake or napped without dreaming about it. This research suggests that certain memory processes necessary for better performance can occur during sleep and are signaled by dreams.

Q: What is the reverse learning theory of dreaming?

The reverse learning theory, proposed in 1983, suggests that during REM sleep cycles, the neocortex reviews neural connections within the brain and eliminates unnecessary ones. This unlearning process, which manifests as dreams, prevents the brain from being overwhelmed by useless connections. It ensures that parasitic thoughts do not disrupt the necessary thinking required while awake.

Q: What is the continual activation theory of dreaming?

The continual activation theory suggests that dreaming is a result of the brain's need to constantly consolidate and create long-term memories. When external input falls below a certain level, such as during sleep, the brain generates data from its memory storages, which are experienced as thoughts and feelings in dreams. It is believed that dreams serve as a way to maintain brain efficiency and prevent a complete shut down during periods of low external stimulation.

Q: What does the primitive instinct rehearsal theory propose?

The primitive instinct rehearsal theory suggests that dreams, often involving dangerous or threatening situations, allow individuals to practice their fight or flight instincts. Dreams provide an opportunity to keep these instincts sharp and dependable in case they are needed in real-life scenarios. This theory implies that dreams serve as a form of practice for primitive survival mechanisms.

Q: How do dreams contribute to psychological healing?

Some researchers believe that dreams play a role in healing psychological wounds, particularly traumatic experiences. During the REM stage of sleep, stress neurotransmitters in the brain are less active, even during dreams that involve trauma. This reduced mental stress may allow individuals to gain a clearer perspective on traumatic events and process them in healthier ways. Lack of dreaming may also be linked to certain mood disorders and PTSD.

Q: How are dreams connected to problem-solving?

Dreams offer a unique platform for problem-solving because they are unconstrained by reality and conventional logic. In dreams, the mind can create limitless scenarios that help individuals grasp problems and formulate solutions that may not occur to them while awake. Dreams have been credited with aiding in problem-solving throughout history, and research has demonstrated their effectiveness in this regard. For example, chemist August Kekule discovered the structure of the benzene molecule through a dream.

Q: Are these theories the definitive explanations for why we dream?

These theories are among the prominent explanations for why we dream, but they are not definitive. As technology advances and our understanding of the brain improves, it is possible that we will eventually discover the definitive purpose of dreaming. Further research is needed to fully unravel the mysteries of dreams.


The purpose of dreams remains elusive, with various theories attempting to explain their significance. Sigmund Freud's theory suggests that dreams fulfill our subconscious wishes, while other theories propose that dreams serve functions such as memory consolidation, forgetting unnecessary connections, keeping our brains active, rehearsing survival instincts, healing psychological wounds, and problem-solving. Dreams offer a realm of unrestrained thinking and may contribute to various aspects of human functioning. However, further research is necessary to uncover the definitive reason for why we dream.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • Sigmund Freud proposed that dreams are symbolic representations of our unconscious desires and wishes.

  • Dreams help improve memory and cognitive performance on certain tasks.

  • Dreams serve as a mechanism for forgetting unnecessary neural connections and thoughts.

  • Dreams are essential for brain activity, memory consolidation, practice of instincts, healing, and problem-solving.

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