What is the current scientific view of dreams? Why do we have them? What is their purpose?

I know Freud called them the “royal road to the subconscious mind”. But views have changed since then.

Personally I find the subject still fascinating. I know my dreams can be lucid or non-lucid. Then sometimes they are what I can best describe as “semi-lucid”. I.e., I know it’s a dream. But some element of it I only realize is part of the dream when I wake up. Strange, no?

But I am mainly asking what the modern scientific explanation is for dreams.


There is no “scientific explanation” for why we dream, though there are a lot of speculation that sometimes reaches the media and creates a general impression that the riddle is scientifically answered (for instance, to sort our memory), but there simply is no scientific consensus of why we dream.

Personally I think we dream for several reasons, just like we think for several reasons, and that is the problem when people more or less scientifically tries to prove why we dream. We do not dream for one particular reason. Our consciousness has an image producing capability, and we use it to solve problems, remember something from our childhood, write a piece on an internet forum, tell a story for our children, and so forth. In the same way, our unconsciousness has an image producing capability, and it is used to, say sort the impressions from the day’s waking life, ventilate sexual frustrations, and at times it is only unintelligibly forms that our conscious interprets as images as it is waking up, and so on and so forth.

You cannot say: We think to solve problems, because everyone who has an awareness of what is going on inside of him or her while awake, knows that that is not the conclusive reason. And you cannot say: We dream to sort our memory, because everyone who has an awareness of what is going on inside of him or her during sleep knows that that is not the conclusive reason.

For instance, I’ve been writing down my dreams since 1992, it is about two thousand dreams, and I could show you that dreams definitely bear a psychological meaning; for instance, in the nineties I lived in a bad relationship, and this is quite obviously reflected in the dreams in such a clear language that it is incomprehensive that I did not see that at the time. This is only an example, in the material there are numerous examples like this, not occasional dreams, but dream series that without doubt is “discussing” a particular psychological issue with recurring figures, places, themes and so on; and when that issue is not current anymore, for one reason or another, the particular dream series cease. So there is an obvious psychological meaning to dreams, which has been shown numerous times during the 20th century; however not scientifically proven because dreams are spontaneous and you cannot in any show what a person will dream next.

What I can show convincingly is that dreams are psychologically meaningful, but I don’t think that that is the only function of dreams. With my experience there is no doubt that that is a function, but dreams may also have a, let’ say more biological function. Like our consciousness is a container for all sorts of activity with different purposes, the unconsciousness is too. So we are like the blind people in a village with an elephant; one says its hard and smooth, another argue that it is more like a tree trunk, the third can’t understand why the other two won’t recognize an ordinary tail. It seems difficult to understand that an elephant be be this-and-that; natural phenomena like elephants and dreams mustn’t necessarily be either-or.

So while one psychologist studied tusks all his life and wrote books on its characteristics, the latest speculation from a contemporary university somewhere about tree trunks does not mean that the psychologist’s theories was nonsense all the time, nor that there’s a tree in the village.

**Wakinyan **is mostly right - there isn’t a scientific consensus yet.

However, I disagree that implies that all studies are reporting quackery or hopeful thinking or wild-assed-guessing.

The American Psychological Association has an entire journaldevoted to the subject, and studies are published there regularly.

Several basic studies have been done and repeated, and we know some things about the state of dreaming, and we’ve found some things that are strongly associated with that state.

  1. Through long-term studies of the contents of peoples’ dreams (sometimes recorded in journals kept by the participants, sometimes elicited by waking them from their REM sleep directly) **we know that people overwhelmingly dream about the normal occurances of daily life. ** It takes between two days and a week for something that happened to you awake to show back up in your dreams.

  2. When you are stressed or anxious (PTSD included) the stressors or anxiety-inducing experiences will show up as entirely separate dreams, often in vivid or very personalized imagery. Over time, as the stress/anxiety lessens, the topics then slowly incorporate themselves into normal “everyday” dreams.

  3. When deprived of REM sleep (and therefore dreams) people become forgetful and anxious when awake, and when allowed to fall asleep, fall directly into REM sleep(which is NOT normal), and dream vividly and for much longer than normal.

  4. People reporting dream content and ALSO reporting the issues and difficulties in their waking lives show a strong coorelation between issues they are worried about when awake, and what they dream about at night. Whatever is most worrisome/overwhelming/paramount will show up most frequently and most intensely.
    Now - from what we KNOW, we can make all sorts of guesses about what it all MEANS:

  5. is usually interpreted to “mean” that your dreams help you *process *or *store *your memories (which is partially supported by brain scans showing active brain regions during REM, and also partially by study #3 on this list).

  6. is usually quoted to “mean” that your dreams allow you work out your traumas and anxiety in a safe mental workout room so that the event/stressor eventually becomes less traumatic.

  7. is very often used to show that dreams are “necessary” to normal mental function, but when you think about it, that’s a circular statement - we don’t know what dreams accomplish, but we dream, and our minds screw up when we don’t dream.

  8. generally gets tossed out along with 2, but this one more often gets the term “subconscious” thrown at it - implying that our internal processes are helping us solve problems or work out frustrations when we’re sleeping, to the betterment of our waking life.
    BUT what I think **Wakinyan ** was getting at is that we can’t say that ANY of those guesses are right or wrong. We don’t have the ability to see what causes what, or what dreams actually DO - we can only see coorelations and associations.

It’s frustrating for people who enjoy their dreams and their dream content, but at least the topic is beginning to gain some traction and be accepted as valid scientific study. I’m hopeful that more reputable institutions and scientists will take up the challenge and try to find out more interesting things about the phenomenon.

In the meantime - just enjoy the show!

I went through a period in my early adulthood where my dreams seemed to be rehearsing scenarios that I would need to deal with. Things like meeting women, of being attacked or challenged in fight dreams. Also career dreaming in my twenties and early thirties was pretty common and I often felt I solved problems in my sleep. A primitive man was likely under a lot of life challenging stresses and I suspect his dreams helped him find a way to deal with it.

Here [PDF] is a fairly recent, brief (but dense) review article, from the prestigious journal Nature: Neuroscience, by leading dream researcher Allan Hobson. Hobson’s theories are controversial, but he is highly respected.

William Domhoff and Adam Schneider maintain the website The Quantitative Study of Dreams with many of their own articles, including review articles, and a very informative FAQ about the science of dreams. Domhoff is also a leading dream researcher, who has been in the field a long time (I do not know about Schneider). Their FAQ will probably answer many of your questions.

As others in the thread have said, there is not one settled and comprehensive theory of dreams, but there is much good science, and much is known.

Thunder only happens when it’s raining.
Players only love you when they’re playing.

I have been reading Gifts of the Crow in which they look at corvids’ language learning abilities from a behavioral, physiological and neurological perspective. From it, I glean a specific view on dreaming, which would I expand thus:

During consciousness, one is exposed to absorbing an enormous amount of sensory data. Just walk around your block one time, being fully aware of everything little you are sensing, it will be exhausting. When one goes to sleep and the sensory array goes offline, your brain takes that opportunity to sort, distill and organize the data it has accumulated throughout the day. In the distillation process, it boils off the cruft, which dissipates through your neurons, creating the strange firing patterns we know as dreams.

There may well be some psychological relevance to this mental smoke, as it reflects the effects of organizing the data, a process which includes correlating it with existing data (which might be why week-old experiences appear).

Just try looking at your hands.

They can touch anything but themselves… Oh, wait.