Why You Dream (and Why It's Good for You)

Reviewed Oct 10, 2017

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Summary

Dreams are the way your brain sorts out memories and emotions. 

From psychoanalysts like Sigmund Freud to psychic mediums like Edgar Cayce, different people have long held different theories about the function of dreaming. Freud believed that every dream is partially motivated by an ongoing childhood wish, while Cayce held that dreams were meant to awaken the dreamer to his future potential.

Sorting out memories and emotions

Modern sleep scientists like Rosalind Cartwright, PhD, head of the Center for Sleep Disorders at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago, do not necessarily disagree with their predecessors. Cartwright says dreams are the way your brain sorts out memories and emotions. She says that during rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep your brain searches for solutions to the problems that trouble you when you are awake.

One of Cartwright's research focuses is on people experiencing divorce. If those people have trouble recalling details of their dreams, or if their spouse or ex-spouse makes unpleasant experiences, Cartwright's team has found they may not be coping well.

However, if the same subjects reported dreams rich in detail and peopled with positive characters, it may be a sign they're moving on—at least emotionally. "Our data suggest that problem-solving takes place during dreaming," says Cartwright. "We're still recruiting individuals to corroborate the role of dreams in adjusting to disturbing life events." In other words, memories stored in one section of the brain are woven into narratives to help the dreamer’s next relevant encounter with the problem. Thus, dreams are essential for our emotional health.

Filing away information

Robert Stickgold, MD, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, says, "Dreams are just the body’s way of clearing out the mental 'in-box.' The trick is to move it to the file cabinet and to file it in the right place.” Stickgold studied the dreams of amnesia patients and discovered that they did not have dreams about recent activities like those without amnesia did. Stickgold found people with amnesia have damage in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls information on life events.

In an ABC News interview, Stickgold explained that during REM sleep, the brain is engaged in "cross-referencing" different kinds of new information. "The brain is looking for cross references—does this fit with this? Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t,” he said. When it doesn’t fit, the dream seems weird, but when the cross-reference is a good one, the brain can reinforce the memory—and the dream makes sense to the dreamer. Stickgold also found, however, that people with amnesia do dream—and their dream "information" comes from the neocortex, the part of the brain that controls general information about our lives.

Reinforcing new lessons

According to a European study led by Pierre Maquet at the University of Liège in Belgium, sleeping after learning a new task reinforces the lesson. He found that the same regions of the brain that show activity while we learn a new task are also active while we dream. This heightened activity was observed during the brief but active stage known as rapid-eye-movement, or REM, sleep. These findings, along with Stickgold's and Cartwright's, would correlate with those of psychologists who believe that dreaming helps consolidate memories of the previous day, allowing dreamers to "sort things out." In other words, dreams cross-reference information, reinforce new information/lessons learned, and improve emotional health through both.

Entertaining

Although many professionals agree with the idea that dreams are a combination of the short-term and long-term memory and provide a way for the mind to restore itself during sleep, there are some who believe that dreams are meaningless, sort of a mental "screensaver." Different research at Harvard University studied infants, who spend up to 90 percent of their day in REM sleep. This research team concluded that dreams act as mental stimulation to prevent humans from waking up, so that they will remain in the restful, restorative state of slumber.

Some scientists believe sleep helps us sort things out; others believe sleep itself sorts us out. We may not have a definitive answer on why we dream, but one thing is for sure: Dreaming is a natural function that somehow helps us right our human selves and adapt to the world.

Resources

The Twenty-four Hour Mind by Rosalind D. Cartwright. Oxford University Press, 2012.

National Center on Sleep Disorders Research
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, NIH
www.nhlbi.nih.gov/about/ncsdr/ 
By Bethanne Kelly Patrick
Source: ABCNews.com, http://abcnews.go.com; Pierre Maquet, Philippe Peigneux, Steven Laureys, Carlyle Smith, "Be Caught Napping: You're Doing More Than Resting Your Eyes," Nature Neuroscience, July 1, 2002; Rosalind Cartwright, Ph.D., Rush Medical Center, Chicago

Summary

Dreams are the way your brain sorts out memories and emotions. 

From psychoanalysts like Sigmund Freud to psychic mediums like Edgar Cayce, different people have long held different theories about the function of dreaming. Freud believed that every dream is partially motivated by an ongoing childhood wish, while Cayce held that dreams were meant to awaken the dreamer to his future potential.

Sorting out memories and emotions

Modern sleep scientists like Rosalind Cartwright, PhD, head of the Center for Sleep Disorders at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago, do not necessarily disagree with their predecessors. Cartwright says dreams are the way your brain sorts out memories and emotions. She says that during rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep your brain searches for solutions to the problems that trouble you when you are awake.

One of Cartwright's research focuses is on people experiencing divorce. If those people have trouble recalling details of their dreams, or if their spouse or ex-spouse makes unpleasant experiences, Cartwright's team has found they may not be coping well.

However, if the same subjects reported dreams rich in detail and peopled with positive characters, it may be a sign they're moving on—at least emotionally. "Our data suggest that problem-solving takes place during dreaming," says Cartwright. "We're still recruiting individuals to corroborate the role of dreams in adjusting to disturbing life events." In other words, memories stored in one section of the brain are woven into narratives to help the dreamer’s next relevant encounter with the problem. Thus, dreams are essential for our emotional health.

Filing away information

Robert Stickgold, MD, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, says, "Dreams are just the body’s way of clearing out the mental 'in-box.' The trick is to move it to the file cabinet and to file it in the right place.” Stickgold studied the dreams of amnesia patients and discovered that they did not have dreams about recent activities like those without amnesia did. Stickgold found people with amnesia have damage in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls information on life events.

In an ABC News interview, Stickgold explained that during REM sleep, the brain is engaged in "cross-referencing" different kinds of new information. "The brain is looking for cross references—does this fit with this? Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t,” he said. When it doesn’t fit, the dream seems weird, but when the cross-reference is a good one, the brain can reinforce the memory—and the dream makes sense to the dreamer. Stickgold also found, however, that people with amnesia do dream—and their dream "information" comes from the neocortex, the part of the brain that controls general information about our lives.

Reinforcing new lessons

According to a European study led by Pierre Maquet at the University of Liège in Belgium, sleeping after learning a new task reinforces the lesson. He found that the same regions of the brain that show activity while we learn a new task are also active while we dream. This heightened activity was observed during the brief but active stage known as rapid-eye-movement, or REM, sleep. These findings, along with Stickgold's and Cartwright's, would correlate with those of psychologists who believe that dreaming helps consolidate memories of the previous day, allowing dreamers to "sort things out." In other words, dreams cross-reference information, reinforce new information/lessons learned, and improve emotional health through both.

Entertaining

Although many professionals agree with the idea that dreams are a combination of the short-term and long-term memory and provide a way for the mind to restore itself during sleep, there are some who believe that dreams are meaningless, sort of a mental "screensaver." Different research at Harvard University studied infants, who spend up to 90 percent of their day in REM sleep. This research team concluded that dreams act as mental stimulation to prevent humans from waking up, so that they will remain in the restful, restorative state of slumber.

Some scientists believe sleep helps us sort things out; others believe sleep itself sorts us out. We may not have a definitive answer on why we dream, but one thing is for sure: Dreaming is a natural function that somehow helps us right our human selves and adapt to the world.

Resources

The Twenty-four Hour Mind by Rosalind D. Cartwright. Oxford University Press, 2012.

National Center on Sleep Disorders Research
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, NIH
www.nhlbi.nih.gov/about/ncsdr/ 
By Bethanne Kelly Patrick
Source: ABCNews.com, http://abcnews.go.com; Pierre Maquet, Philippe Peigneux, Steven Laureys, Carlyle Smith, "Be Caught Napping: You're Doing More Than Resting Your Eyes," Nature Neuroscience, July 1, 2002; Rosalind Cartwright, Ph.D., Rush Medical Center, Chicago

Summary

Dreams are the way your brain sorts out memories and emotions. 

From psychoanalysts like Sigmund Freud to psychic mediums like Edgar Cayce, different people have long held different theories about the function of dreaming. Freud believed that every dream is partially motivated by an ongoing childhood wish, while Cayce held that dreams were meant to awaken the dreamer to his future potential.

Sorting out memories and emotions

Modern sleep scientists like Rosalind Cartwright, PhD, head of the Center for Sleep Disorders at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago, do not necessarily disagree with their predecessors. Cartwright says dreams are the way your brain sorts out memories and emotions. She says that during rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep your brain searches for solutions to the problems that trouble you when you are awake.

One of Cartwright's research focuses is on people experiencing divorce. If those people have trouble recalling details of their dreams, or if their spouse or ex-spouse makes unpleasant experiences, Cartwright's team has found they may not be coping well.

However, if the same subjects reported dreams rich in detail and peopled with positive characters, it may be a sign they're moving on—at least emotionally. "Our data suggest that problem-solving takes place during dreaming," says Cartwright. "We're still recruiting individuals to corroborate the role of dreams in adjusting to disturbing life events." In other words, memories stored in one section of the brain are woven into narratives to help the dreamer’s next relevant encounter with the problem. Thus, dreams are essential for our emotional health.

Filing away information

Robert Stickgold, MD, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, says, "Dreams are just the body’s way of clearing out the mental 'in-box.' The trick is to move it to the file cabinet and to file it in the right place.” Stickgold studied the dreams of amnesia patients and discovered that they did not have dreams about recent activities like those without amnesia did. Stickgold found people with amnesia have damage in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls information on life events.

In an ABC News interview, Stickgold explained that during REM sleep, the brain is engaged in "cross-referencing" different kinds of new information. "The brain is looking for cross references—does this fit with this? Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t,” he said. When it doesn’t fit, the dream seems weird, but when the cross-reference is a good one, the brain can reinforce the memory—and the dream makes sense to the dreamer. Stickgold also found, however, that people with amnesia do dream—and their dream "information" comes from the neocortex, the part of the brain that controls general information about our lives.

Reinforcing new lessons

According to a European study led by Pierre Maquet at the University of Liège in Belgium, sleeping after learning a new task reinforces the lesson. He found that the same regions of the brain that show activity while we learn a new task are also active while we dream. This heightened activity was observed during the brief but active stage known as rapid-eye-movement, or REM, sleep. These findings, along with Stickgold's and Cartwright's, would correlate with those of psychologists who believe that dreaming helps consolidate memories of the previous day, allowing dreamers to "sort things out." In other words, dreams cross-reference information, reinforce new information/lessons learned, and improve emotional health through both.

Entertaining

Although many professionals agree with the idea that dreams are a combination of the short-term and long-term memory and provide a way for the mind to restore itself during sleep, there are some who believe that dreams are meaningless, sort of a mental "screensaver." Different research at Harvard University studied infants, who spend up to 90 percent of their day in REM sleep. This research team concluded that dreams act as mental stimulation to prevent humans from waking up, so that they will remain in the restful, restorative state of slumber.

Some scientists believe sleep helps us sort things out; others believe sleep itself sorts us out. We may not have a definitive answer on why we dream, but one thing is for sure: Dreaming is a natural function that somehow helps us right our human selves and adapt to the world.

Resources

The Twenty-four Hour Mind by Rosalind D. Cartwright. Oxford University Press, 2012.

National Center on Sleep Disorders Research
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, NIH
www.nhlbi.nih.gov/about/ncsdr/ 
By Bethanne Kelly Patrick
Source: ABCNews.com, http://abcnews.go.com; Pierre Maquet, Philippe Peigneux, Steven Laureys, Carlyle Smith, "Be Caught Napping: You're Doing More Than Resting Your Eyes," Nature Neuroscience, July 1, 2002; Rosalind Cartwright, Ph.D., Rush Medical Center, Chicago

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