The Science of Dreams and its Psychology



Dreams may be amusing, disturbing, or plain strange. Even if we don’t remember our dreams the next day, everyone dreams. Why, therefore, do we dream?

Imagine the first person in an ancient cave who had a dream of his dead father talking to him. He woke up surprised! How could he talk to his father who is no more? He woke every other member of the community and shared his experience.

This was unbelievable for them. He thought that maybe even after the death of a person, there is some part of that person still alive somewhere. This interpretation of dream led to the belief in the soul inside a human body.

Finding out why we dream is still a mystery, and scientists try to make sense of it. Srinivasan Ramanujan, one of the greatest mathematicians, often talked about dreaming mathematical equations, and that his family goddess Namagiri of Namakkal was putting these equations into his thoughts.

Were all these just thoughts of Ramanujan, and his brain was summing up everything during his sleep, or there really is some mystical connection? The question is why do we dream in the first place? And what exactly are dreams?

Why do we Dream and What are Dreams?

Let us understand a few approaches to solve this mystery. Harvard University psychologist, Deirdre Barrett once said “I often think of dreaming as simply thinking in a different biochemical state. We’re sorting things into categories, comparing them to other events, considering information that we would suppress during the day.”

Activation Synthesis Hypothesis

Most intellectuals make sense of dreams this way. Dreams are nothing but shuffling and reshuffling of memories stored in the brain, categorizing them and making a story out of them. Some think of dreams as just random brain activity that has no ultimate meaning. This hypothesis is called the “Activation Synthesis Hypothesis” which tells us that dreams do not have any meaning in the real purpose of life.

The brain processes random thoughts and put together images that are stored in memory storage. Even the events happening in dreams are not very well coordinated but humans when waking up, form a story of those desynchronized events to make sense of it. Now, let’s talk a little bit about your sleep.


Sleeping, awakening, and dreaming are three states of the human brain in which it functions. There is a fourth state too known as the Ultimate State but this state is particularly associated with metaphysics and is defined as a state of complete consciousness like that of Shamans or Buddha.

Dreams that we see are generally associated with a particular stage of the sleeping state known as the Rapid Eye Movement i.e REM stage. We sleep in a cycle of 90 minutes alternating between REM and Non-REM sleep. REM sleep is associated with rapid movement of the eyes when we are sleeping.

This is also called Paradoxical Sleep because the brain activity as recorded in the ECG studies, shows similar data as of waking state. Dreams can occur during other stages of sleep too, but most of the dreams which we remember happen only during the REM stage. Everybody dreams, even blind people according to various studies.

Children pass most of their time dreaming but as we grow up into adults, we begin to dream less! Before Neuroscience, the interpretation of dreams was more a quest for psychologists. One of them was Sigmund Freud, a great German psychologist whose theories are widely discussed, studied, and even criticized.

According to Freud, dreams reveal our deepest hidden desires and emotions stored in some part of the brain. Events unfolding during dreams are manifestations of one’s hidden desire or anxiety. Happy dreams release the tension while bad dreams are replays of some horrific incident from the past.

Threat Simulation Theory

Similar to Freudian interpretation, there is another theory known as “Threat Simulation Theory”, according to which dreams are the result of evolutionary advantage. It is a defense mechanism that our brain plays every time we sleep. The brain performs simulations of some potential threatening events so that we can be better prepared for them, thereby enhancing the neuro-cognitive mechanism.

But dreams are happy too and not all people have nightmares frequently. Here’s where this theory fails. If we take note of the Activation Synthesis Hypothesis again, we make sense of dreams by making stories when we wake up but scientific studies have revealed that animals too have dreams and their brain functions in nearly the same way as that of humans.

Simply someone can say that when we are asleep, our brain replays the memories stored in the permanent storage of the hippocampus. It makes us remember things for a longer time. It causes the brain to perform efficiently.

Carl Jung described dreams as a play of deep emotional thoughts released from our subconscious. These emotions are later incorporated into a narrative or story through the higher region of the brain. During dreaming, there are many things different from what happens in reality. Like, you must have experienced difficulty in running when some ghost is trying to catch you in your dream, or falling from a building that suddenly wakes you up in the middle of the night.

Also Read: History and Evolution of Computers

In dreams, time also feels differently. A long span passes between the events but in reality, only a few minutes have passed. There is simply no relation between brain time and experiences we have in real life. We may see a full lifetime inside a dream but in reality, it is only a minute.

Similar kind of situation we face when we are in some kind of hallucination. Some intellectuals think that consciousness is not an epiphenomenon of the brain but actually is objective, and is the matrix of matter. Many great scientists like Roger Penrose,  Max Planck,  and Eugene Wigner have proposed supporting theories like this. Penrose was particularly sympathetic to the Platonic view of objective reality being the source of all subjective experiences.

If this is true then all our thoughts are not just chemical reactions happening inside the brain but the brain is just a mechanism to project the thoughts existing in objective or universal consciousness. The dream is a topic where almost all fields of science meet, and yet are incompetent to answer the questions.

Researchers from different fields are doing experiments, ECG studies on volunteers, and juggling with existing theories to find the exact cause of dreams, and to find out if dreams do have a purpose after all. Throughout different interpretations of it, the dream is really a mystery to unfold. Maybe, somewhere, someone could be dreaming to solve the mystery of the dreams!

So, what are your thoughts about dreams? Let us know in the comments. If you found this article interesting, please share it with your friends.

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