Why Do Humans Dream?

A graph depicting the difference of recalled syllables and forgotten syllables between the awake and sleep.

National Center for Biotechnology Information

A graph depicting the difference of recalled syllables and forgotten syllables between the awake and sleep.

Lilly Wolfe, Columnist

Though it’s something that people may experience both frequently or rarely, everyone has had a dream. Even if you forget your dreams or think that you never have had a dream, everyone dreams. Even though dreams are a common experience among people, they continue to confuse experts. Though scientists have learned how people dream, researchers are still baffled as to why we do this. There are theories on such by both scientists and psychologists, but no definitive answers. 


To first understand some of these theories, knowing how humans dream in the first place is important. According to Very Well Health, sleep happens in four basic stages. The first three stages are the Non-Rapid Eye Movement or NREM 1-3. These three stages basically just help your body relax before going into the last stage of sleep called Rapid Eye Movement (REM). In this stage, your mind becomes more active and your eyes move back and forth at a quick pace. The limbic system, which deals with emotions such as fear, as well as your visual cortex are both particularly active in this stage. This is when dreams occur and it explains why dreams tend to be so visual and often relate to your life.

As to the purpose of your dreams, some suggest that because parts of your brain that deal with emotions become so active, emotional dramas in your personal life manifest into dreams. This can help us work things out on a more complex level than when we are awake.

According to Time, another reason why we dream is known as the defensive activation theory. This theory states that we dream to prevent the takeover of the visual cortex during awake hours. At night it is dark, and before electricity was invented, our ancestors lived in that darkness for about 12 hours a day. The visual cortex is the part of our brain that allows us to understand what we see. And during the time when our ancestors couldn’t see, the visual cortex became more active, as sight is the only weakened sense in the dark. Because of this, the visual cortex is constantly looking for “brain territory.” This theory suggests that sleep is a way to tire out the visual cortex. The theory also explains why hallucinations occur more frequently in those experiencing a lack of sleep.

Another common theory about the reason behind dreaming is that it is a way for us to reinforce and analyze our memories. The National Center for Biotechnology Information states that this theory was popularized by the University of Tuebingen when they released a study in 2013 that talks about the importance of Slow Wave Sleep (SWS), which occurs right before REM sleep. The study states that SWS can consolidate memories. They also cite an experiment performed in which people were asked to memorize a series of nonsensical syllables and then repeat them after sleep. It showed that those who had gotten at least three hours of sleep before being asked to repeat the syllables forgot less.

A more philosophical take on the purpose of dreams is that it acts as a muse for artists as stated by Debra Sullivan of Healthline. Many artists and writers including Salvador Dali and Vincent Van Gogh have mentioned the contribution that dreams played in their work. Though most people don’t wake up from their dreams and create works of art, they can still provide creative inspiration in different ways.

There are many theories as to why humans dream, but what matters is that we can ultimately take something from them. Whether it be inspiration for a drawing, a way to sort out inner thoughts, or a fun topic to talk about with your friends, dreams do in fact have significance.