Good question. And the truth is no-one really has the answer as to why we dream. We've been finding out the latest theories as to what the purpose of dreaming is and when during our night's sleep dreams tend to happen.
WHAT IS A DREAM? A dream is a shorthand name given to the images, thoughts and emotions that are experienced involuntarily during sleep. Some dreams can be very clear and easily recalled while others go unnoticed. They might be pleasant or scary, clear or confusing. Some dreams may feel like you can influence the storyline and start or stop events at will, while others can feel like they have a mind of their own. There's no easy way to track dreams so there's lots still to learn about them. However people have been fascinated by dreams since records began and scientist today are still enthralled by them. No wonder then that theories abound as to their true purpose. Here's what we know so far...
WHEN DO DREAMS HAPPEN? Research has shown that dreams usually happen in the deeper REM phases of sleep. This is also when our muscles are at their most relaxed and unresponsive (muscle atonia). "The majority of dreams - certainly the most memorable and vivid dreams - occur during REM sleep, and it is thought that the muscular atonia that accompanies it may be a built-in measure to protect us from self-damage which could occur while physically acting out these vivid REM dreams." Source: howsleepworks.com REM sleep is also when lots of brain activity happens and our memories are being filed, suggesting a link between dreams and this mental sort out. Dreams that occur at the later stages of REM sleep are the ones that tend to be most vivid and easiest to recall. It's thought that we each dream at least three times a night (often many more) and that dreaming happens around 2 hrs of the total time we're asleep on average. Some of these episodes might only last seconds however and most will be subconscious.
WHY DREAMING MATTERS This remains one of the great unanswered questions of behavioural science. The experts have however established that there is some link to memory and learning. It could be that dreams are a type of mental housekeeping to help us regulate and make sense of recent events in our lives. Reliving experiences internally through dreams is thought to facilitate learning and create some order in our long-term memory. They are also considered to be an opportunity to delete unwanted or unnecessary data from our memory banks. Some research has suggested that dreams can also refine and improve memories, making them more useful for the future, so that the subsequent performance of learned tasks is improved. This has been conclusively demonstrated experimentally, for example in in tests in which rats are set to learn tasks like navigating mazes. Dreams may also help us process our emotional reaction to situations and help us manage our mood during waking hours. Pretty important then.
MAKING SENSE OF DREAMS Everyone from ancient civilisation onwards have tried to make sense of the meaning behind the dreams we have. You'll find stories of dreams being the inspiration for all kind of waking actions dating right back to the Greeks and the Romans. 20th century scientists such as Freud had their own ideas. These days there are lots of interpretation books out there which have their own take on how to understand where your sub-conscious mind goes at night. The various interpretations are just that of course - just our waking minds trying to put meaning to something that is still quite mysterious. However, we do know that there are some frequently occurring themes that occur in dreamers from all types of cultural and geographic backgrounds. The psychologists get particularly excited about these as they are so widespread they are considered to be linked to something quite fundamental about being human. The regulars are things like falling, being naked, floating, being in danger, being chased, being tested and dreams involving teeth. Have a look at dreamstop.com to get a sense of what the most frequent interpretation of these type of dreams and some other specific ones are. It's kind of fascinating.
TRACKING YOUR DREAMS Depending on when in your sleep cycle a dream occurs you might find it easy or hard to recall. Dreams are usually easier to remember at the moment of waking (many we do remember often slip away from our conscious minds shortly after that). So if you want to find out out more about where your mind is going at night, it makes sense to have a pen and paper at the ready to record your memories as soon as you wake up.