Why Do We Dream?

Scientists still disagree; but they are starting to identify ways we benefit from them

Dreams. A good one can put you in an upbeat mood the rest of the day, while a bad one may leave you feeling troubled and down for hours. How much stock should we put in these mysterious nighttime narratives?

Everyone dreams (though not all of us remember) and dreams show up in texts as old as the Bible, pointing to their cultural—if not psychological—significance. But scientists still disagree about whether dreams serve any purpose at all, and if they do, what it is.

“Anyone who tells you they know is wrong,” says Ernest Hartmann, M.D., a psychiatry professor at Tufts University.

The idea that dreams reveal our unconscious desires or anxieties, or represent aspects of ourselves, permeates Western pop culture and still plays a role in psychotherapy. But those theories, put forth by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung in the late 1800s and early 20th century, are impossible to prove, and “still most interesting despite the fact that they’re not understood by science,” says Doug Davis, Ph.D., an emeritus professor of psychology at Haverford College. “What dream interpretation does is let you sneak up on something that you might not have stumbled upon otherwise.”

In fact, famous scientists and artists have reported that their dreams revealed solutions to problems they were stumped by in their waking life, or inspired their creative works. Among the most famous examples is the 19th century chemist August Kekulé, who said he figured out the ring-like structure of benzene, which was atypical of all known molecules, after dreaming of a snake biting its tail. More recently, Avatar writer/director James Cameron told the San Francisco Chronicle that the alien species in the film, the Na’vi, was inspired by a dream his mother had of a 12-foot tall, blue woman.

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