Why Do Humans Dream?

a caveman is dreaming or having a nightmare
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Theories abound about the purpose of dreaming, and they all seem to point to one common instigating factor.

Whether it is a dream about dinner, falling, or that hot neighbor in 3B, the most-asked question about dreams is “What do they mean?” But perhaps a more important question is “Why do we dream at all?”

It would be difficult to get a room full of sleep specialists to agree to one solid answer as to why this pervasive nocturnal process exists. But the general consensus seems to be that dreaming somehow helps us reduce, cope or deal with stress.

Beyond that, even the brightest minds don’t really know how dreams serve that purpose. Nor can they readily identify what constitutes effective dreaming versus seemingly random brainwave activity.

According to the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), “A dream is invariably an attempt to get rid of a disturbance of sleep by means of a wish-fulfillment, so that the dream is a guardian of sleep.”

Subsequent tests of his premise—that we dream in order to keep ourselves asleep—have been made using light and audio tone stimulation below the waking threshold. They indicate that the famed Austrian neurologist was on to something, as arousal during non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep can be shown to stimulate dreaming to fend off the disturbance.

Freud, of course, was an innovator in delving into the mystery of dreams. His conjecture that dreams represent repressed wishes is less easily researched, and indeed a counter-theory has been promoted by some scientists that dreams are nothing more than responses to “background noise” heard right before falling asleep.

Though a few researchers say dreams serve no real purpose, others believe dreaming is a virtual “reset” of the mind. Ernest Hoffman, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Newton Wesley Hospital in Boston, sees dreams as a coping mechanism, “weaving new material into the memory system … helping us cope with further trauma or stressful events.”

Reportedly, there are happy, healthy tribes in the Amazon that have perfected the act of “conscious dreaming” so that waking activities only serve to promote sleep and hallucinations, which have become their primary reality. And for those who want to dream more lucidly, there now exists a pill called Galantamine that supposedly enhances dreams.

What cannot be denied is the therapeutic value of dreaming with regard to mental and physical stress. Those who dream tend to sleep well and wake rested, without being disturbed, while those who fail to dream miss out on one of the most prized aspects of everyday living—a good night’s sleep.

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Lex Cavemen

LEX is the scientist. He is obsessed with understanding why and how the world around him works the way it does.

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