2 MIN READ | Cognitive Psychology

Adam Mulligan

5 Common Theories for Why We Dream

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Adam Mulligan, (2022, July 6). 5 Common Theories for Why We Dream. Psychreg on Cognitive Psychology. https://www.psychreg.org/common-theories-why-we-dream/
Reading Time: 2 minutes

For hundreds of years, humans have been seeking the reasoning behind why we, animals, and some birds, dream. Nearly everyone dreams, and most people experience involuntary ones that last seconds or several minutes. 

Most dreams happen during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when our brain activity increases along with our breathing and heart rates. However, many scientists and dream experts have different theories for why this happens. Here are some of the most common ones. 

To organise our memories

You might rely on sites like www.everspiritual.com to find out what your dreams mean, but some experts think that one of the top reasons for having dreams in the first place is so that our brains can organize our short-term and long-term memories. 

Some people also think that our dreams improve procedural and spatial memory, but memory-based experiments have contradicted that theory, and many researchers now don’t think that memory can be enhanced through dreaming. However, there is plenty of research to suggest a link between dreaming and reconsolidation.

To stimulate the brain during rest

According to studies, sleep-deprived children may experience reduced brain mass, behavioral disorders, and neural degradation. These can be challenging problems to combat, and some sleep experts wonder whether dreams are our brain’s way of encouraging development and stopping cell death in young people experiencing sleep deprivation. Such a theory would also indicate that dreams serve no purpose in the brains of older adults. 

Tonic immobility reflex

In the wild, the tonic immobility reflex or ‘playing dead’ is a defense mechanism for mammals and reptiles against predators. Our physiological changes during REM sleep, like paralysis, can mimic this reflex. Some sleep experts have theorised that dreams are how we prepare ourselves for waking up to threats, especially since our increased breathing rates would show would-be predators that we’re still alive. 

To get rid of useless memories

Our brains operate in overdrive every day, with the average person having more than 6,000 thoughts daily. Not all of these will be necessary to carry through to the following day, so some people think that dreams are there to help us eliminate noise and useless memories we might have acquired that day. In the absence of that ‘noise,’ we might have more space for practical and relevant memories while potentially improving our ability to do memory-based tasks. 

To solve problems

REM sleep provides us with a helpful mindset to solve problems, but scientists are now toying with the idea that dreaming can also assist with problem-solving. In a study, researchers woke up participants during the night during dreaming sleep and non-REM sleep and gave them short anagram puzzle tests while monitoring the results. 

When woken up during non-REM sleep, participants solved very few puzzles, but they were able to solve up to 35% more when woken during REM sleep. Some participants also said that when they were woken while dreaming, the solutions effortlessly popped into their heads. 

We may never know exactly why we dream or whether there’s more than one reason. But, any of these theories above might make you put more thought into each dream you have and question why it was there in the first place.


Adam Mulligan did his degree in psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. He interested in mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.


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