Although we all experience them for several hours just about every single night of our lives, dreams still remain one of the great unanswered questions of modern science.
People have been trying to puzzle out their meanings for millennia, but we’ve yet to come up with a truly definitive answer as to what dreams are and what they mean.
That said, there are some pretty mind-blowing ideas out there when it comes to understanding these wacky wonders and sorting out just what, exactly, is going on in that strange gray goo we call our brains.
In this article, we’re going to be taking a look at some ideas people have had about our sleepy times over the years, and in the end, hopefully work out some kind of takeaway for what this all means for you.
So stick around—you’re in for a wild ride!
Ancient Theories of Dreaming
For pretty much as long as there have been people, there have been people wondering about dreams.
It just makes sense, after all—every night, you lie down and become paralyzed and unconscious for a couple hours and experience a whole bunch of vivid hallucinations that seem to operate on a completely different logic from the waking world.
If there’s one thing people hate, it’s an unsolved mystery, and if ever there was a mystery worth solving, it’s dreaming.
You’ll find all kinds of fun theories of dream interpretation, or “oneiromancy,” if you start looking into ancient cultures.
A lot of ancient peoples saw some kind of prophetic or spiritual power in dreams.
The ancient Chinese, for instance, believed that sleep allows our souls to talk with gods and past ancestors, who can sometimes give us visions of the future or help us realize truths we were blind to while awake.
Australian aboriginal mythology, meanwhile, focuses heavily on a concept known as the Dreaming, in which gods and natural forces originally created the world from nothingness and continue to shape it to this day.
Aborigines consider humanity and all of nature to be included in this ongoing process.
You’ll even find a ton of examples of spiritually significant dreams in the Bible, where God is said to give certain messages or visions through dreaming.
Freud and Early Dream Psychology
Interesting as these sorts of ancient theories of dreaming may be, though, they’re obviously not looked too kindly upon by modern science.
You’re not likely to find too many researchers telling you your dreams are visions from God or prophecies of the future—but that said, modern experts seem a little confused when it comes to understanding dreams, too.
To be fair, it’s not like many people have been scientifically studying dreams for all that long.
One of the first psychologists to start taking dreams seriously was Sigmund Freud, an Austrian researcher from around the turn of the century.
Freud thought that dreams offered a window into the subconscious mind.
The defenses of the conscious mind, or “ego,” are lowered when we sleep, allowing our animalistic thoughts and desires to shine through.
These are things we normally suppress throughout the day, and dreams are basically just wish fulfillment for a frustrated subconscious.
Freud used this theory to interpret the psychological needs of his patients: they would tell him about their dreams, and he would tell them what the different dream elements symbolized in their minds.
Modern Theories of Dreaming
Influential as Freud’s theories were in his day, most modern psychologists don’t really take his ideas all that seriously.
A lot of what he said about dreams didn’t really have much scientific backing, and the idea of interpreting dreams symbolically has mostly gone out of style.
In its place, modern science has come up with a whole host of new ideas about what dreams are and what they mean.
Dreams as Librarians
One popular theory is that dreams allow us to sort through and catalogue all the information we get throughout the day.
Our mind takes in a truly astounding amount of sensory inputs during our waking hours—way too much for it to try and remember it all.
(There are a couple exceptions to this—people with a condition known as Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory actually do remember every minute of their lives—but this condition often leads to a lot of other issues.)
Basically, the memory formation theory says that dreams give our brains a chance to sift out all the stuff that actually matters from our days, helping us acquire new information or learn new skills.
There are some studies backing this up, too.
In some cases, at least, dreams really do seem to help when it comes to moving short-term memories into long-term storage.
Dreams as Combat Training
Another theory is that dreams help us prepare for life-or-death situations we might come across during our daily lives.
Although most of us probably aren’t in a situation where we’re likely to have to struggle to survive on any given day, our minds might not actually realize that.
The amygdala—the part of your brain associated with things like aggression and fear—is much more active during sleep, even though your body is usually paralyzed and can’t physically act on any impulses.
Strange as this theory might seem in the context of the safe and sanitized modern world, it makes some sense when you consider our species’ evolutionary history.
First and foremost, our brains evolved to keep us alive.
From evolution’s perspective, in fact, that’s their only purpose, so it might make sense for them to spend a substantial amount of time trying to figure out the best way to go about doing that, even if we’re not in any immediate danger.
Dreams in Dealing With Emotions
There’s another idea, based loosely on the earlier ideas laid out by Freud, that dreams help us to deal with the complex jumble of emotions we’re trying to sort through on any given day.
According to this theory, our dreams give us a space to work out our feelings and relieve some of the tension we accumulate throughout the stresses of the day.
This might seem like more pseudoscience, but when researchers woke people up during REM sleep (the sleep period all your dreams take place in), they found that their participants experienced increased tension and increased risk for anxiety and depression over the following days.
Dreams as… Nothing?
Finally, there’s another idea about dreaming that I like to call the killjoy theory.
Basically, this theory says that dreams don’t actually do anything.
They’re just random firings from our brain while it’s unconscious, and we’re just interpreting all these signals as events.
They don’t have any meaning or serve any function—they’re just there.
What Do My Dreams Mean?
All in all, I’d be lying if I said anyone had completely worked out exactly what all your nighttime craziness really means.
A lot of experts think it’s probably some combination of theories.
Some dreams might help you file away memories, while others might help you work out your emotions, prepare you to fight for your life, or just do nothing at all.
If you’re looking to interpret any particular dream, there are some resources for working out what some common dreams mean.
If you’re poking around the internet looking for answers, though, it’s important to keep in mind that every person is unique—so just because you’re having a common dream like, say, realizing your naked in the middle of a busy street, there’s no site that can tell you precisely what that means for your life.
Dreams are complicated things, after all.
It’s the human brain, and you can’t really expect simple answers.
How to Avoid Bad Dreams
Now, if you’ve been plagued by bad dreams for a long time now and you’re just looking for some way out, none of the different theories of sleep mean that you just have to accept these terrors as a fact of life.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, there are a couple easy ways to ward off some of these terrors of the night.
First of all, you can consider any medications you might be taking, as well as any nighttime snacks you might like to indulge yourself with.
Both of these things can do weird things to your body during sleep, so if you’ve been suffering from nightmares, you might want to reconsider the things you’re putting in your stomach and bloodstream.
Things like sleep disorders and stress can also lead to bad dreams, as can (ironically) lack of sleep.
While you should consult your doctor if you’re dealing with any of these last three factors, one easy way to improve both the quantity and quality of your sleep is by creating a quality sleep environment.
Things like white noise and proper room temperature can seriously improve your sleep, as can a decent mattress.
You can find a helpful guide to choosing the right mattress here.
Always remember to invest in your body and prioritize your sleep.
It’s more important than you might think!
Updated at September 6, 2021