Why Do We Dream?

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

Those eureka moments may come from our dream states being more visually vivid than those of our waking lives, full of images we’ve never seen, says Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D., author of the 2001 book The Committee of Sleep: How Artists, Scientists and Athletes Use Dreams for Creative Problem-Solving—And How You Can, Too.

“There are two types of problems that seem especially likely to get solved in dreams, and they really seem to be those things that dreams are best at,” Barrett says. “One is if it’s a visual-spatial kind of problem–anything from an artist trying to get inspiration for what to paint next to inventors who are working on some three-dimensional, physical device, where visualizing how it should work is a part of the process. The other kind of problem that they seem especially likely to solve is one where the person is stuck exactly because the conventional wisdom is wrong. Some dreams are just better at helping you think more broadly and loosely.”

That’s not to say that dreams lack emotional import. Imaging studies have found that areas of the brain responsible for emotion are especially active during dreams. And Hartmann found that the intensity or emotional power of prominent images in people’s dreams, increased in the weeks following 9/11, even though dreamers weren’t dreaming of more towers or airplanes than before the terrorist attacks. They were, however, dreaming of more frightening run-ins with other people and animals, possibly indicating emotional stress or feelings of insecurity, according to the 2008 study, which was published in the journal . Dreams following trauma, Hartmann wrote there, are “guided by the emotion of the dreamer.”

For that reason, some scientists believe that nightmares or recurring dreams following trauma may help us work through traumatic experiences. Powerful images of terror and vulnerability (a tidal wave, for example) may be followed by dreams combining elements of the trauma and older material from the dreamer’s life. “The dreams seem to be ‘weaving in’ or integrating the traumatic experience,” says Hartmann. But others have found that dreams after trauma may actually perpetuate victims’ fears and anxieties while they’re awake, said Sean Drummond, Ph.D., associate professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in February 2010.

Which isn’t to say that only a powerful emotional event will spark a memorable dream. University of California, Santa Cruz, research professor in sociology G. William Domhoff has described dreams as reflective of our waking concerns—a kind of personality profile—and Barrett believes in a kind of continuum of thought process, with dreams falling on the fuzzier end. “Dreams are dealing with as broad a swath of our life as our waking thought is, but they are better and worse at some things compared to our waking thought,” Barrett says.

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