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Why Do We Dream?

Author: Brander Sattler

From: East Meadow, NY, USA

Dreaming is something that we all partake in. Dreaming occurs in the REM (rapid-eye movement) stage in our sleep. Throughout each stage of our sleep, our dreams become longer because the REM stage becomes longer. Dreams can exist in many forms. For example, nightmares- scary dreams that cause fear/anxiety, and lucid dreams-dreams in which you know you are asleep and that you can control your actions. However, have you ever wondered why we dream? Why do dreams occur? What controls the contents of the dream? If you want these questions answered, please read further.

Freud’s Theory

According to psychologist Sigmund Freud, we dream of an act of understanding our unconscious wishes, feelings, and desires. Our dreams contain manifest content: actual content of our dreams, as well as latent content: the symbolism behind what happens. In order to understand Freud’s point of view, we have to understand that Freud viewed our brain as an iceberg. The small tip of the iceberg represents our conscious mind. The large portion of the iceberg that is not visible is supposed to represent our unconscious mind. Freud believed that dreams were a way of glimpsing at the unconscious mind, which we cannot do in our everyday lives. Freud would analyze the actual content of our dreams (manifest content) and see if there are hidden meanings in them (latent content), and in doing so tried to identify problems in people’s lives and help resolve them.

What are examples of different symbols or latent content in our dreams? One example includes if you dream about being naked, you are most likely insecure about your shortcomings. As a result of this dream analysis, this insecurity could be fixed. In addition, an umbrella or a stick in a dream can represent a penis, which shows an unconscious wish or desire of sexual desire and not being fulfilled.

Freud’s theory of dreaming is very archaic and not widely accepted or used anymore. However, Freud did inspire future neuroscientists and psychologists to come up with their own theories about why we dream. Some of these theories are explained below.

Activation-Synthesis Theory

Currently, the more commonly accepted theory is the activation-synthesis theory. The basis of this theory is that dreams are a result of your brain trying to make sense of the random neural activity that occurs during sleep. This theory was first proposed by Harvard psychiatrists J. Allan. Hobson and Robert McCarley in 1977.

In order to understand this theory, we have to understand what goes on in a sleeping brain. A common misconception is that our brains are passive during sleep, but this is certainly not the case. Instead, our brain is active in the lower levels of the brain in order to clean up our brain and to store memories. This brain activity and neural firing are the root causes of dreams. The upper levels of your brain which are responsible for higher-order functions try to make sense of these random signlas, which causes dreams.

Criticism of Activation-Synthesis

After Hobson and McCarley published their research, there was considerable controversy directed towards the activation-synthesis theory, particulate from Freudaian analysis. This theory did not sit well with them because they thought that the theory implied that dreams were “meaningless.” Hobson responded to these accusations by saying “Dreaming may be our most creative conscious state, one in which the chaotic, spontaneous recombination of cognitive elements produces novel configurations of information: new ideas. While many or even most of these ideas may be nonsensical, if even a few of its fanciful products are truly useful, our dream time will not have been wasted.” Our dreaming period is so useful that many psychologists cannot even agree what the main purpose of dreaming is. Other speculations on why we dream are explained below.

Additional Roles

There are numerous other reasons that could explain why we dream. For example, it is speculated that we dream as a means of therapy. While we dream, we are in a deeper emotional state than when we are awake. As a result of this deeper emotional state, our brain uses this as an opportunity to confront emotional dramas in our lives because our brain can make more connections regarding how we feel that our conscious brain could not make. Another widely held theory about dreaming is that it is a way to improve our memory. Experiments have shown that sleep helps to store memories, which is what this theory is based-on. However, we don’t have a clear understanding about how dreams affect memory and information recall as a whole.


Needless to say, there are many theories about our reasons for dreaming. Is it to make sense of ransom brain activity or to improve our memory? Psychologists have been debating this topic for centuries and new information about dreaming is constantly being revealed. Maybe one day you can find out the definite cause of dreaming and come up with your own theory. Just keep asking questions.


Author: Branden Sattler

Branden is a rising junior at East Meadow High School. He has a passion for psychology and wants to understand how different aspects of life affect a person’s emotional well-being.


Works Cited

  1. Cherry, K. (2020, April 17). How Does the Activation-Synthesis Model Explain Dreams? Retrieved November 08, 2020, from

  2. Cherry, K. (2020, April 22). Sigmund Freud's Theories of Latent Content in Your Dreams. Retrieved November 08, 2020, from

  3. DerSarkissian, C. (2019, November 05). Dreams: Why We Dream, Nightmares, and Lucid Dreams. Retrieved November 08, 2020, from

  4. Freud's Dream Symbols and Jung's Viewpoint. (2019, March 14). Retrieved November 08, 2020, from

  5. Roland, J. (2017, August 22). Why Do We Dream? The Role of Dreams and Nightmares. Retrieved November 08, 2020, from

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