The REAL Reason Humans Dream | Unveiled
VOICE OVER: Peter DeGiglio
WRITTEN BY: Dylan Musselman
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In this video, Unveiled takes a closer look at the strange and unpredictable science of DREAMING! Why do we dream, and what do our dreams mean? Have humans always dreamt? And will we soon be able to CONTROL our dreams, like we do the waking world??
The Real Reason Humans Dream
The dream world is a mysterious place. A completely subjective realm known only to the dreamer. And yet, the study of dreams is an ever-growing, evermore intriguing field. Analyzing dreams is difficult - for both the outsider looking in, and for the one who dreams thinking back - partly because there’s no clear consensus as to what dreams really are. But, nevertheless, research has gotten closer to explaining why dreaming is such an important part of our lives.
This is Unveiled, and today we’re looking at the real reason why humans dream.
To dream, first we need to sleep. And our bodies and brains need sleep in order to function. Without enough of it, we begin to break down, and think more slowly. A lack of sleep has been linked to other health complications, too, like diabetes, heart attacks, and strokes... while sleep deprivation can sometimes induce hallucinations in a person’s waking life, for what’s known as Sleep Deprivation Psychosis.
Sleep is essentially a recharge function for life and brains in general, and most animals show patterns that can be recognized as sleep. However, whether all animals sleep is actually a harder question to answer because there’s no standard definition for what “being asleep” entails. It becomes a gray area when we consider creatures like dolphins, for example. Dolphins are never fully asleep akin to humans because they only let half of their brain shut off at once. Known as unihemispheric sleep, it’s essential for them because they have to consciously breathe, so they can’t totally switch off. But if only half of their brain is ever offline at any one time, are they really sleeping?
Still, if understanding the true science of sleep is difficult, the nature of dreaming is on another level. No one can agree on exactly what it means to dream. The dream state is another big gray area, and often it’s hard (or impossible) for an outside observer to tell if someone’s dreaming. Brain scanning technology hasn’t yet quite gotten to the point where it can recognize what someone is thinking or dreaming about during sleep. We can’t track them as we can some waking thoughts. Some researchers consider dreams to be emotive narratives… stories that we respond to. While others consider any cognitive firing while asleep to be a dream, whether its effects last or are felt at all.
Step outside the brain of the dreamer, and studying dreams in-depth is so difficult, then, because all analysis relies upon the dreamer’s recollection and initial interpretation. There’s no scientific way to confirm or deny dream reports. Only the individual can know what’s going on in their own mind, so the details of dreams rely solely on testimony and memory. What’s more, dreams are often autobiographical - recalling certain events from your daily life, and featuring people and places you’ve seen or been to while awake - which means they’re deeply personal, and to some degree entirely unpredictable to anyone else.
It was the famous psychologist, Sigmund Freud, who popularized dreams as landscapes where our apparently repressed wishes and desires can be fulfilled. But much of Freud’s work remains hotly debated. Critics claim that his theories and studies weren’t very scientific in their execution, and that evidence for the Freudian approach is thin… while supporters see Freud as having truly broken into the most unknowable layers of our minds. In either case, Freud certainly succeeded in bringing the concept of the “unconscious mind” to the public eye, and variously more substantial theories have since been put forward.
One of the leading theories today about the purpose of dreaming is based around the idea of rehearsal. It’s known as Primitive Instinct Rehearsal Theory and argues that dreams serve the purpose of preparing us for certain situations… or, in other words, they grant us the opportunity to practice our innate abilities. It can be taken in a literal or figurative sense. If you dreamt of being attacked by a lion, for instance, you’d try your best to either fight or run away, giving you an idea of what to do (or not do) if that situation should occur in real life. Even if it’s a more obscure scenario that could never happen, though - such as escaping a lion that’s also able to fly and is also wielding a machine gun - your mind is still practicing how to handle stressful and life-threatening situations in a completely safe environment. So the theory goes.
It isn’t only limited to life or death situations, either. Primitive Instinct Rehearsal Theory says that dreams can also serve to test the water for other potentially tricky or important situations, such as job interviews, exams, upcoming deadlines, or romantic encounters. All in all, Primitive Instinct Rehearsal Theory views dreams as effective training sessions focussed on our survival functions and natural responses. And, although this perhaps isn’t quite such a necessity in the modern world, it’s thought that it was a big advantage for early humans… with ancient hominids using dreams to gain a leg up on potential predators. Dreams - involuntary cognitive experiences - promoted planning and thinking about something before acting. In the earliest days of human life, they may even have been vital to ensuring that we didn’t die out.
Back in the here and now, and although directly measuring a dream’s contents remains an elusive, well, dream… scientists can measure the capabilities of human subjects after a dream to look for correlations. In 2010, researchers at Harvard Medical School ran an experiment where they had human participants navigate through a maze. Afterwards, the participants were either instructed to think about the maze while awake or to take a nap. The results of the study showed that those who had napped performed better in the maze on subsequent attempts to complete it, rather than those who had stayed awake thinking specifically about it. But also, perhaps surprisingly, that those who reported dreaming about the maze during their nap performed better even than those who had simply slept. The “dreamers” were up to ten times faster than anybody else, when navigating the maze.
Various theories have arisen following studies such as this one. For one, it’s thought the brain probably uses dreams to encode information and sort out memories. To slimline our thinking, and increase efficiency. It’s also thought that the bizarreness of dreams can be explained by our neurons making unusual connections during them. Concepts that in real life would have no business being associated often do become associated in the dream world… perhaps because the “dream brain” is processing and understanding life in ways not possible when awake. There’s evidence, too, that dreams replay important scenarios (such as the maze, for some participants) to help filter what we retain about them, including sometimes forgetting information, as well. This forgetting of information could again be linked to efficiency, or even be linked to protecting the brain and person while awake. Similarly, the broader theory of Reverse Learning states that our brains use dreams as a way of selectively choosing which memories and connections to keep and which to get rid of. Here, dreams are again a landscape where our brains are free to determine what’s important and what’s not. They offer a window of opportunity that’s not accessible in the waking world, but is still vital to our cognitive growth.
The writer John Steinbeck is widely quoted as saying, “It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it”. Steinbeck’s “committee of sleep” might well be understood to be dreams… and many notable thinkers, artists, scientists and more have been known to “tap into” dreams for inspiration, from Salvador Dali to Mary Shelley. Thomas Edison famously implemented a trick to achieve the imaginative freedom that sleep and dreams provide. It’s said he would fall asleep holding a steel ball so that when he drifted off, the ball would drop to the floor and wake him, at which point he could use his delirius state to find a creative solution. Similarly, writers and musicians often say that they keep notepads by their beds, ready for the inspiration that strikes in the middle of the night. Dreams open new pathways in our brains, and sometimes entire, fully-formed concepts can dance into our minds while sleeping. Not every dream is a masterpiece in the real world, but every dream at least has the potential to be.
But what about you? Ever had a dream so profound that it shaped your waking life? Ever worked something out while dreaming that you couldn’t while not? Let us know in the comments. For now, as unlimited creative outlets and ingrained sources for waking survival… that’s the real reason why humans dream.