Bruce Christiansen / Unsplash
We often wake up from our bizarre and surreal dreams dismissive of the fact that the arbitrary sequence of scenes we witnessed in our sleep last night could ever add meaning to our waking lives. Dreams tend to leave us puzzled about whether they are completely random or actually trying to tell us something.
However, recent research in the fields of sleep and dreaming has uncovered some interesting insights about the stories that visit us at night and how they might serve specific and highly specialized functions to aid our well-being and day-to-day functioning.
If a dream you have had lately left you scratching your head in confusion, here are some fascinating theories about why we dream to give you more clarity.
1. Dreams Try to Predict the Future
“Episodic future thinking,” as the phrase suggests, refers to our brain’s capacity to imagine or simulate experiences that might occur in one’s future, which has been linked to enhanced decision-making, emotional regulation, intention formation, planning, prospective memory, and even spatial navigation.
A 2021 study applied the “episodic future simulation hypothesis” to dream research, which highlighted how our mind combines various fragments of past experiences into imagined simulations of future events. Given our brains’ advanced capacity to predict patterns and probabilities, dreams can give us important emotional and situational cues that could inform our responses if any version of them were to be realized in our waking life.
The researchers found that dreams were most commonly traced back to past memories or related to specific impending future events. The future-oriented dreams would draw from multiple different “waking sources” or events that were either currently happening in their lives or had happened in the past.
Such memory fragments and future simulations are combined into the novel scenarios that we see in our dreams.
You could think of these simulations as rehearsals for an upcoming show, where you’re the director as well as the lead performer. You are planning and organizing the event, preparing for anything that might go wrong, and using your past experiences to ensure that “the main show” is a success.
When viewed through this lens, dreams seem to be just another attempt by our brain to serve its primary purpose of making sure that we are safe and well-equipped to handle difficult situations.
2. Dreams Are Not Random
A 2011 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found intriguing evidence that our brain selectively enhances memories that are expected to be of future relevance, explaining why dreams might also select fragments from daytime experiences that were more emotionally intense.
The content of our dreams also seems to suggest that the nature of an event matters more than its duration. For example, daily, mundane experiences that we spend most of our time on, such as reading or working on a computer, would get less “screen time” in our dreams as compared to more meaningful events, such as social interactions and other experiences that are personally significant, novel, or concerning for the dreamer.
Interestingly, the time of night is also relevant to what we dream about. A 2022 study found that earlier in the night, our dreams use more recent memories, whereas late-night dreams involve relatively earlier memories from over a week prior to the dream, no matter what stage of sleep you’re in.
We also experience more future-oriented dreams later in the night, and this could be designed to ensure that they appear closer to waking hours to prepare us for the events of the following day.
Finally, researchers found that dreams tend to repeat similar themes across the night and in the different sleep stages. This can give us a sense of what we are unconsciously trying to process or prepare for.
3. Dreams Enhance Your Cognitive Functioning
A study published in PLOS ONE found that memory performance improved after a night’s sleep, which could be due to the repeated reactivation and strengthening of recently-formed memory networks in the sleeping brain. For example, recent experiences were better remembered by participants after even a fragment of them showed up in a dream. Thus, sleep strengthens our memory while simultaneously reorganizing information to solve future problems for us.
Dreams also influence our ability to learn and perform tasks. In a 2018 study, participants reporting task-related dreams showed greater improvements in performance after sleeping than those who did not dream of a task.
Thus, your brain is gently conspiring in your favor as you sleep. If you would like to learn more about your dreams, consider keeping a dream journal at your bedside. Upon waking, you can note down anything you remember from your dreams. Notice the recurring themes and underlying emotions that come up and try connecting them with past memories or anticipated future events to gain insight into what your dreams are trying to tell you.
The world of dreams is infinitely fascinating, and dreams are not as random as scientists once thought. They not only heighten your cognitive abilities but could also serve an adaptive function by utilizing your memories to simulate potential futures that are meaningful to you as a dreamer. Dreams can be valuable sources of information about your inner world. Tools such as dream journaling could allow you to explore them more deeply.