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

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.