Little Movies in Our Heads

Dreams are strange, but why is that?

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The famous painting "The Persistence of Memory" by Salvador Dali shows how dreams are odd but still have elements of reality in them. (Photo Courtesy of Wallpaper Flare)

Disco parties at a supermarket. Talking bears watching baseball. Crazy stuffed animals chasing you with a chainsaw. Wars between humans and pigs armed with Nerf guns. These are all possibilities of dreams that are, as usual, nonsensical. And if you’re like me, you might even try to decipher these weird dreams, wondering: why do we have such weird dreams? Are dream dictionaries true? Do dreams really have deeper meanings?
Well, no one really knows for sure. There are many theories about why we dream of particular dreams, even dating back to ancient Egyptian times. One theory is that dreams are a way of dumping out old memories and preserving the important ones. Researchers of the Max Planck Medical institute in Heidelburg, Germany came to this theory after a study in 2007. During their study, they anesthetized mice and studied their brain while they slept. They found that in their sleep, the brain uploads whatever is being held in the short-term memory“storage” and empties it out so that the brain can have space to gather more short-term memories the next day. The brain then moves on to the long-term memories, organizing the important memories and clearing the unnecessary ones. During this process, random memories make their way into dreams, which is why you dream of different memories.
Another theory comes from neuroscientist Antti Revonsuo, called the Threat Simulation Theory. Revonsuo argues that the brain prepares us for future dangers in our dreams. This could be why we dream of failing a test we are about to take or an embarrassing moment in public.
A more positive reason for certain dreams is problem-solving. A study in 2010 at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston gave 99 people a task to navigate through a 3D maze. During the middle of their practice session, they were given a 90-minute break. Some were given quiet tasks to do during the break while others were told to take a nap. Those who napped and dreamed about the maze did significantly better than those who did not. This could explain why we sometimes dream indirectly about what we are learning at school.
The final theory in this article is one of Sigmund Freud’s theories. This particular theory states that we sometimes only dream about the fulfillment of our wishes. These wishes may come symbolically, such as flying meaning wishing for freedom, or literally, such as dating your crush.
Ultimately, the meaning of dreams revolves around the person–your memories, personality, and life shape what you dream. Dreams may be chaotic, but they are far from boring. All we can do is sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.