The Science Behind Dreaming: Why Do We Dream What We Dream?

Dreams are extremely weird. 

That’s my main takeaway from the past two weeks spent home in which I’ve found time in my busy, busy schedule to sleep for 12 straight hours a night, each day.

They aren’t just weird because things happen in them that don’t make any logical sense, but also because we’ve dreamt since the dawn of human existence, yet no one completely knows why we do it or what causes it. We also don’t know if the things that happen in our dreams hold any significant meaning or symbolism in our waking lives, or if it’s all just completely random. It’s a muddled cloud of confusion. 

But some things about dreams can be said for sure.

For instance, did you have a dream last night? If you’re saying no, you’re wrong. It’s actually true that everyone dreams every night, even if you can’t remember it. If you can remember it, chances are it was really weird. 

That’s because we usually remember our dreams if we’ve just woken up out of REM sleep, which is the point in the sleep cycle that usually has us encountering the weirdest, most illogical circumstances while unconscious. Those are the dreams that involve losing all your teeth, being chased by a demon or finding out your real dad is Tony Hawk and that you’re both aliens. Non-REM sleep usually involves dreaming about everyday occurrences like walking your dog or sending in the article that you wrote for The Oracle late. 

Why? That can’t be said for sure, but we can take a look at what parts of the brain are active during these two types of sleep to try to understand the possible reasons. During non-REM sleep, most regions of the brain aren’t activated at all, so none of them are really interacting with each other. But during REM sleep certain parts are activated, while other parts are not.

The biggest reason why we may have such weird dreams during REM sleep is that our prefrontal cortexes are less active. This is the part of the brain that processes reflective thought, self-awareness and conscious input from the world around us. While the prefrontal cortex is less active during REM sleep, the amygdala — which is the part of the brain responsible for emotion, motivation and reward — shows heightened activity along with parts of the brain responsible for visual association. So, our emotions and visuals interact without any logic while we dream in REM sleep, causing some really strange dreams.

As far as the things that happen in our dreams, no one can say for sure what they actually mean or if they have any meaning at all. But the reason for certain happenings in your dream could be due to external factors. 

One study found that if an external stimulus such as a sudden light or sound was presented to someone while sleeping, it would have an effect on their dream. In the study, a tone sound was played and in response, dreamers reported an earthquake or plane crash in their dreams. During the same study, a lamp was shone on the sleeper, and their dream involved a sudden fire, flash of lightning or shooting stars. 

Try paying attention to the next dream you remember and if your surroundings may have had any influence on what happened in it. Maybe you’ll discover some new answers to the never-ending uncertainties of your subconscious, or maybe you’ll just reaffirm that dreams are weird.