Why Do We Dream?: An Animated Lesson

Why do we dream? It’s a question science still can’t answer, says the TED-Ed lesson above by Amy Adkins. Many neuroscientists currently make sense of dreaming as a way for the brain to consolidate memory at night. “This may include reorganizing and recoding memories in relation to emotional drives,” writes computational neuroscientist Paul King, “as well as transferring memories between brain regions.” You might imagine a defragging hard drive, the sorting and filing process happening while a computer sleeps.

But the brain is not a computer. Important questions remain. Why do dreams have such a powerful hold on us, not only individually, but — as a recent project collecting COVID dreams explores — collectively? Are dreams no more than gibberish, the mental detritus of the day, or do they convey important messages to our conscious minds? Several millennia before Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, “Mesopotamian kings recorded and interpreted their dreams on wax tablets.” A thousand years later, Egyptians catalogued one hundred of the most common dreams and their meanings in a dream book.

The ancients were convinced their dreams carried messages from beyond their consciousness. Many modern theorists beginning with Freud have seen dreams as purely self-referential, and neurotic. “We dream,” the lesson notes, “to fulfill our wishes.” Instead of messages from the gods, dreams are symbolic communication from unconscious repressed drives. Or, “we dream to remember,” as some contemporary neuroscientists claim, or “we dream to forget” as a neurobiological theory called “reverse learning” argued in 1983. Dreams are exercises for the brain, rehearsals, nighttime problem solving … the lesson touches briefly on each of these theories in turn.

But whatever answers science provides will hardly satisfy human curiosity about the content of our dreams. For this, perhaps, we should look elsewhere. We might turn, for example, to the Museum of Dreams, “a hub for exploring the social and political significance of dream-life.” Philosophical and scientific theories of dreaming are all speculative. “Rather than seek a definitive explanation, the Museum’s goal is to explore the generative and performative nature of dream-life — all the remarkable ways people have put their dreams to work.” Before we share and, yes, interpret our dreams with others, they remain, in Toni Morrison’s words, “unspeakable things unspoken.”

Related Content:

Do Our Dreams Predict the Future? Vladimir Nabokov Spent Three Months Testing That Theory in 1964

Do Octopi Dream? An Astonishing Nature Documentary Suggests They Do

Watch Dreams That Money Can Buy, a Surrealist Film by Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Alexander Calder, Fernand Léger & Hans Richter

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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