The Science Behind Dreams
BY: CAPRI MILLS
Hi! My name is Capri Mills. I'm a junior in high school and have a passion for science, psychology, and writing. I also enjoy giving back to the environment and my community in any way I can. After high school, I plan to continue on a neuroscience path throughout college and beyond.
Ever woken up from an odd dream and wondered where in the world it came from? Dreams- a combination of visual, sensual, and acoustic stories that occur in our minds when we sleep- have puzzled scientists for ages. Some seem very lifelike and realistic whereas others are totally outlandish and bizarre. Throughout history, the meaning of dreams has been debated, and there are still theories that discuss the reason behind them nowadays. However, we are closer than ever to figuring out exactly why our dreams are the way they are.
A notable psychological approach to dreams was Sigmund Freud’s. He was a psychoanalyst who proposed that dreams were a manifestation of our subconscious desires and wishes, especially forbidden ones. He thought it was our mind’s way of transforming a taboo or forbidden thought into a “non-threatening form” (Mcleod). People took Freud’s ideas of dream symbolism out of hand, though, making dream dictionaries that are still popular today. Nowadays, however, there are a lot more scientifically based theories on dreams.
One of the most popular of these theories is the activation-synthesis hypothesis, which says that dreams are just electrical impulses in our brain that pull random images and thoughts from our brains. Aka, they don’t truly mean anything. Dreams are just an attempt to organize and make sense of these impulses (Linden). The other side of this, though, is the “threat simulation theory”, which states that dreams actually do have a purpose: to be a biological defense mechanism that simulates threatening events in life. This can be backed up by the fact children living in a stressful and threatening environment have highly activated threat simulation systems and high dream production whereas children in safe environments do not (Valli et al.).
Overall, there is simply no straight-cut answer as to why we dream. Two likely theories are the activation-synthesis hypothesis and threat simulation theory, but neither can be proven definite yet. Or you could go the Freudian route and say they are a manifestation of our subconscious desires. While it’s been shown that sleep is needed to recharge both our bodies and brains (“Why Do We Need Sleep?”), dreams seem to remain a mind-boggler. Perhaps one day the mystery will be solved.
Linden, Sander Van Der. "The Science Behind Dreaming." Scientific American. Scientific American, 26 July 2011. Web.
Mcleod, Saul. "Sigmund Freud's Theories." Sigmund Freud's Theories | Simply Psychology. Web. 12 June 2021.
Valli, Katja, Antti Revonsuo, Outi Pälkäs, Kamaran Hassan Ismail, Karzan Jalal Ali, and Raija-Leena Punamäki. "The Threat Simulation Theory of the Evolutionary Function of Dreaming: Evidence from Dreams of Traumatized Children." Consciousness and Cognition. U.S. National Library of Medicine, Mar. 2005. Web. 12 June 2021.
"Why Do We Need Sleep?" Sleep Foundation. 11 Sept. 2020. Web. 12 June 2021.
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