What are dreams and the theories behind them?

Updated: Mar 11

Many of us wonder why we dream or what a particular dream means when we wake up the next morning or we try to remember what the dream was about.

Not until recently have dreams been part of scientific and empirical research, before that it was mainly philosophers thousands of years ago who were fascinated with them.

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What is a dream?


Dreams can be a variety of things from images to emotions, to the thoughts we experience when we are sleeping. They can be really vivid and colorful or vague and hard to understand. Dreams can also be somewhat scary or have happy emotions associated with them. Sometimes we wake up and we can refocus on our dream and understand it and other times we can be left confused and not have a clear understanding of it.


What purpose do dreams serve?


Dreams can be a variety of things from images to emotions, to the thoughts we experience when we are sleeping. They can be really vivid and colorful or vague and hard to understand. Dreams can also be somewhat scary or have happy emotions associated with them. Sometimes we wake up and we can refocus on our dream and understand it and other times we can be left confused and not have a clear understanding of it.


Throughout my career I’ve actually had quite a number of patients talk about recent dreams they’ve experienced and bring them into session to get my thoughts on what their dream meant. So, what do us psychologists have to say about why all of us dream? Many theories have been suggested, however no one single consensus has been agreed upon. It might seem by now with all the technology we have and all the research that is out there, that researchers would have a better understanding of the purpose of dreams, however science is still studying the functions and purposes of sleep itself and why we need it.


Researchers are somewhat divided when it comes to discussing dreams and what there purpose is. Some researchers say there is no real purpose to them, while other researchers state that our dreams are essential to our emotional, mental, and physical well-being.

Some researchers suggest that dreams serve no real purpose while others believe that dreaming is essential to mental, emotional and physical well-being. The director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Boston, Mass., named Ernest Hoffman, suggested in the journal ‘Scientific American’ in 2006 that "a possible function of a dream to be weaving new material into the memory system in a way that both reduces emotional arousal and is adaptive in helping us cope with further trauma or stressful events."

Now, let’s talk a little more about some of the most recognizable dream theories and the theorists behind them.



Psychoanalytic theory of dreams


Have you ever heard of Sigmund Freud? He was from Austrian and the founder of psychoanalysis back in the 1910’s.


Sigmund Freud’s theory of dreams suggested that people’s dreams represented their unconscious thoughts, desires, and motivations. In his psychoanalytic view of personality, he believed that people are driven by their aggressive and sexual instincts that are repressed from their conscious awareness. Since these thoughts are not consciously expressed by the individual Freud suggested that our thoughts found their way into the person’s awareness through their dreams while sleeping.


He even wrote a famous book back in 1899 titled “The Interpretation of Dreams” and stated, “dreams are disguised fulfillments of repressed wishes."


Freud even broke up our dreams into two different components: manifest content and latent content. Manifest content is the actual images, thoughts, and content contained within the dream, while latent content represents the hidden psychological meaning of the dream.


Here is another dream theory…



Activation-Synthesis model of dreaming


This was first proposed by J. Allan Hobson and Robert McClarley in 1977. According to this theory, areas in the brain become activated while the body is in REM sleep, which causes areas in the limbic system involved in emotions and memories to become active. The brain creates and decodes this internal activity and tries to find meaning in these signals, which results in dreaming. This model suggests that dreams are a subjective interpretation of signals generated by the brain during sleep.


I’ve had many patients come in to discuss their dreams and try and find the meanings behind the dream. I have shared with many of my patients that dreams are not meaningless and they are more like our imaginative conscious state and we are trying to make sense of information and our ideas.


Here are a few other theories/ideas of dreams that researchers have came up with…

  • One theory implies that dreams are the result of our brains trying to interpret external stimuli during sleep. For example, the sound of the music on the radio may be assimilated into the content of a dream.

  • Another theory uses a computer metaphor to justify dreams. According to this theory, dreams serve to “declutter” confusion from the mind, much like cleanup operations in a computer, refreshing the mind to prepare for the next day.

  • This last model suggests that dreams function as a form of therapy. The dreamer is able to make connections between different thoughts and emotions in a safe environment and work them out in their minds/dreams instead of in real life. This may be why sometimes we wake up in the morning and wonder if that dream we just had was real or just a dream.



Laine E. Davis, PsyD

Postdoctoral Psychology Resident


Blair H. Mor, Psy.D.

Supervising Licensed Psychologist

Owner at MorMindful Therapy & Psychiatry


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