Why Do We Dream?

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

Want to see whether you think better asleep or awake? Barrett has found even mere mortals have found solutions in their dreamscapes using simple techniques. Half of students who wrote about a problem in their life before going to bed, then visualized it and told themselves they wanted to dream about it once the lights were out did, in fact, dream about their problem. Twenty-eight percent of dreams that were about a personal issue revealed a solution, as did 38 percent of those that were about objective problems, according to a study she published in 1993 in the journal Dreaming.

You can try out a more elaborate version of the technique by placing reminders near your bed. If you’re an artist, position a blank canvas nearby, or if you’re trying to work out something in a relationship, put the person’s photo on your bed stand and look at it before you go to sleep. “A simple state of intent increases the odds that you’ll have a dream on the topic and solve the problem,” Barrett says.

And getting more sleep will up your chances of remembering it. The tendency to recall dreams correlates with more time snoozing, Barrett says. And unless we wake up right after a dream, it won’t get stored as a long-term memory and is lost to sleep. So get in the habit of keeping a pen and paper or voice recorder by your bed so you can document any dreams you have when you first get up, Davis says, or at least of staying still for a moment to increase your chance of hanging on to it. If you don’t remember a dream, tune into your mood as you wake up—it may jog your memory.

While experts agree that dreaming can provide benefits—offering clarity, solutions, and catharsis for some—there’s still no consensus on exactly why we dream. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide what, if anything, your dreams are telling you. When Davis’ daughter was a child, she used to ask her expert dad what her dreams meant. “I’d say, ‘I have no idea,’” Davis recalled, “‘but isn’t it amazing that this stuff happens?’”

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