The INSIDER Summary:
• When you’re asleep, your brain tries to solve your emotional problems.
• Dreams are a visual representation of that.
• For the imagery, your brain invents scenarios and draws on memories.
• Understanding your dreams can help you solve your emotional problems.
Dreams are confusing.
They rarely seem to make sense. They can have vivid images of people you think you’ve forgotten. And they can be emotionally intense, even though you might wake up totally calm.
Dream interpretation has been around for thousands of years, and answers have been offered by religion and literature. To scientists, though, the meanings of dreams remain elusive.
Scientists have done a lot of research on dreams, but there’s still a lot to learn. But before we dive into what scientists think they might mean, first we have to explain what a dream actually is.
So what are dreams, anyway?
Scientists are divided on even the issue of defining the word “dream.” Penelope Lewis, the author of “The Secret World of Sleep: The Surprising Science of the Mind at Rest” and the director of the Sleep and Memory Lab at the University of Manchester, offers one catchall definition. Lewis says dreams are “all perceptions, thoughts, or emotions experienced during sleep.”
When you’re dreaming, your brain processes emotions.
Your brain makes dreams during the REM stage of the sleep cycle. Robert Hoss, the former president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, told INSIDER that three parts of the brain activate during dreaming, in this stage of sleep.
First, there’s the Limbic region, associated with processing emotions. Then there are sub-Cortical regions associated with the Limbic region, which deal with resolving problems and learning. Finally, there are several parts of the Associative Cortices, which is where dreams originate.
When you dream, your brain is trying to fix your emotional problems for you.
According to Hoss, dreams are all about dealing with your emotional problems.
“The best way to think about dreaming is that it’s a natural process that deals with with problems that occur during the day,” Hoss told INSIDER. “The function is what’s called adaptive learning. During our day, we run into a bunch of problems we’re dealing with, issues, stressful things, anxieties, whatever, usually emotion-related problems.”
To solve your emotional problems, it picks up on past associations.
Your dream is your brain figuring out your problems for you. That’s why the problem-solving part of your brain is activated during dreaming. Your brain tries to resolve your emotional issues by searching for past associations to the problems you’re currently having.
If, for example, you’re upset at a person for cancelling plans at the last minute, your brain will try to remember earlier occasions where you’ve had similar upset feelings, and re-run the emotional process you went through that eventually resolved them. They’re also often different to the ways the dreamer would normally try to solve the problem in waking life.
That’s why you might have dreams with a bunch of disparate scenes, Hoss said. Each segment is your brain making a different attempt to solve your issue.
The visuals you see are emotionally similar to the problems you’re dealing with now.
When your brain is digging into your emotional problems, it taps into your visual memories where you had similar emotions.
Let’s use the earlier example, where the emotional problem you have is being miffed at a person who canceled last-minute plans. You might dream about not getting into the college you wanted to get into, or not being invited to a party, or other experiences where you feel miffed.
Those images can include your memories.
Memories are used in the images that come up in your dreams. So if you’re feeling miffed, your brain could invent a scenario where you haven’t gotten into the college you wanted. But it can also draw on a memory, like the time you got rejected when you asked someone out, or the time you actually didn’t get into the college you wanted to.
“Your dream goes and looks for associations with the past to try to solve these problems,” Hoss said. “So the problems you see in the dreams are all your personal stuff — your personal memories, your personal associations — and those associations have real meaning to you.”
Your dreams aren’t trying to “tell” you anything, but they’re still worth paying attention to.
Dreams don’t necessarily “tell” you anything. They’re visual representations of your brain running a process of solving your emotional problems. If you wake up happy, chances are, your brain already solved your problem for you. You don’t have to do anything!
However, there’s some benefit in trying to interpret your own dreams. If you recognise an emotional problem you’re having, then it helps to try to address it in your waking life. When you’re awake, you can do a better job at actually acting on the problems you have.
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