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Spectacular Sleep: Why Do We Dream?

by Brooke Allnutt (‘23)

Being chased by the Phantom of the Opera who drove a flying bus, hiding from a giant bunny who lived under the playground, and morphing into George Washington and then SpongeBob were just a few of the weird dreams I had as a child. As I grew older, my dreams became less memorable, but I never stopped wondering why I dreamed. If you have ever wondered the same thing (or if you want to hear about some interesting dreams people have had), keep on reading! 
Reasons Why We Dream

The jury is still out on why exactly we dream, but over the years, scientists have come up with several theories. 

As one might expect from Sigmund Freud, he suggested that dreams represent the fulfillment of repressed or unconscious desires.1 Although many of his claims have been dismissed by  contemporary scientists, some research has shown that there is such a thing as dream rebound, whereby suppressing thoughts makes it more likely to dream about them.2 Have you ever been told to not think of an object, but then all you can think about is that object? That is one example of how dream rebound works in day-to-day life.

Another theory is that dreams have evolved to prepare us to face dangers in the outside world. According to the continual-activation theory, dreams keep our brain active while we sleep, which would be very useful for early humans who constantly had to be on the lookout for danger.3 Dreams also create scenarios in which dreamers are able to experience various social situations in order to prevent these situations from happening in real life.4 Dreaming about showing up to class with no clothes on is one example of this. According to the threat stimulation theory, dreams can also prepare us to handle life-threatening scenarios.4 I can personally relate to this one, as many of my dreams have involved me running away from various characters, including Ursula, an evil fairy, and a robber.

In addition to preparing us for dangerous or embarrassing situations, dreams can also help us process information. The activation-synthesis theory suggests that dreams occur when the brain tries to interpret the meaningless patterns of electrical signals that occur as we sleep.5 This may lead to someone making new connections between ideas upon awakening.6 Similarly, the creativity theory of dreaming states that while in a dream, our minds can freely explore all possibilities without having to worry about the limits of reality, thus allowing new discoveries to be made.7 There are several stories that back up this theory. In fact, students like me who have struggled in chemistry and organic chemistry can thank the dreams of various distinguished scientists, as shown with August Kekulé’s discovery of the structure of benzene and Demitri Mendeleev’s epiphany about the periodic table.

Finally, the self-organization theory of dreaming posits that dreaming is simply a by-product of the brain consolidating memories during sleep.6 Useful memories are strengthened, and unhelpful memories fade away.6 Memory consolidation also consists of reactivation, abstraction, and extraction, resulting in fragments of memory which could be temporarily organized into a narrative that we call a dream.6 This temporary arrangement could explain why we often forget our dreams (for better or for worse) as soon as we wake up.
Wacky Dreams Submitted By Fellow Students

“When I was little I had a recurring nightmare where I was riding on the Pirates of Caribbean boat ride at Disney World, and the Grinch popped out of the water with a machete, chopped the boat in half so that I was separated from my family, and then pulled me out and drowned me.”

~Student 1

“I dreamed I was escaping from a Jumanji-style jungle to a helicopter that would take me to safety. I was running, and in front, I see a pool of water with a frog on the side. I jump to get over the pool, but something hits my chest while I’m in midair and makes me fall into the water.  I look near the frog and there is a sign saying ‘bullfrogs seem harmless but they enjoy ambushing whoever passes too close to their pool and then dissolving them in acid.’”

~Student 2

“I’m not sure how but my dad figured out that we were somehow related to UK’s royal family via the queen. The queen invited us to a brunch at this really nice place and my mom told my sister and I that we could get engaged there in the morning and then have a reception right after, and they won’t charge a penny because the queen had already booked it for the brunch. I told my mom I don’t have a boyfriend, but she said to not worry and just be on my best behavior. We went to this brunch, and I got along really well with little Princess Charlotte. I started painting her nails, and then little George comes over, so I offered to do a clear polish on him. He goes for it and then we all go back inside of the building.”

~Student 3

“I was with my father and another person, and we were looking for the famous ‘golden coffin’ of Noyz because we thought it could be worth a lot of money. After a lot of research, we found it in Lignano, about 20m from the shore. We were on a boat offshore, and to reach it, I had to swim for 1km. I took it and went all the way along the waterfront with a golden coffin on my shoulder and nobody said anything.”

~Student 4

“I robbed a supermarket with the members of BTS.”

~Student 5

“I was in a haunted house with Scooby-Doo.” 

~Student 6

“I was lit on fire by my friends.”

~Student 7

“I was chased by a cartoon tornado that had a face.”


~Student 8

“There was a dream where I kept ‘waking up’ but only in the dream — very freaky.”

~Student 9

  1. Zhang, Wei, and Benyu Guo. “Freud’s Dream Interpretation: A Different Perspective Based on the Self-Organization Theory of Dreaming.” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 9, 2018. Crossref.
  2. Susanna. “Wegner’s Theory of Dream Rebound: The Effect of Thought Suppression.” Exploring Your Mind, 30 Mar. 2020, 
  3. Continual-Activation Theory of Dreaming.” Goertzel, Accessed 20 Feb. 2022.
  4. Revonsuo, Antti. “The Reinterpretation of Dreams: An Evolutionary Hypothesis of the Function of Dreaming.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, vol. 23, no. 6, 2000, pp. 877–901. Crossref.
  5. Courses, The Great. “Why Do We Dream? From Freud to Activation-Synthesis Theory.” The Great Courses Daily, 16 May 2020.
  6. Zhang, Wei. “A Supplement to Self-Organization Theory of Dreaming.” Frontiers, 2016. 
  7. Llewellyn, Sue. “Editorial: Do Both Psychopathology and Creativity Result from a Labile Wake-Sleep-Dream Cycle?” Frontiers, 2017.
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