LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The desire to interpret our dreams is as old as time. We can look all the way back to the ancient Greeks and Egyptians and see them wrestling with their dreams and their belief that they were messages from the gods.
Flash forward thousands of years, and an unidentified blond geeky guy may be trying to make sense of his recurring dream where he has shown up to his high school graduation in his underwear.
You know, hypothetically.
Because we dream every single night—whether we remember it or not—it’s natural to try to draw meaning from them for our waking lives.
But, let’s start off with a more foundational question: Why do we even dream at all? I asked two brain science professors at the University of Louisville—Dr. Brendan Depue and Dr. Nicholas Hindy—to weigh in.
“We take a bottom-up approach to thinking about dreams,” said Dr. Hindy.
For a lot of what we know about dreams, we have rodents to thank. For example, in one study, researchers observed the brain activity of mice as they ran through a maze, noting which parts of the brain fired as they ran.
The researchers kept monitoring brain activity afterward as the mice fell asleep. They noticed that the same brain cells started firing, in the same order, but ten times faster. Essentially, the mice were rerunning the maze in their minds in record time.
Doctors say that this is how our brain takes a short-term memory and turns it into a long-term memory.
“Dreams are really the replaying of the day's events. And so, as memory gets encoded and consolidated, they really get solidified into long term memory,” Dr. Depue said.
“The thought is, what the brain does is - it practices. It re-experiences the events of the day hundreds of times so that you will then have a stronger representation in other parts of your brain as a long-term memory now,” Dr. Hindy said.
Now, a couple follow up questions:
If dreams are just memories being stored, then why do I dream things that didn't happen in real life?
When your mind files your memories away during dreams, it links them with other things in your memory. This is what makes them stick around long-term. For something to happen in your dream, you have to have thought about it when you were awake. But things like music, movies, and conversations can all be at play. So, even if you’ve never jumped out of an airplane, you could dream about doing so if you recently saw a movie about skydiving.
Given what we scientifically know about dreams, does it still make sense to search for deep meanings in them?
This is the real follow-up question, and the answer is more controversial. The brain scientists I spoke to said that searching for specific meanings and symbols within your dreams isn't really backed up by the research.
However, this doesn’t mean that you should immediately discount what you see when you’re asleep. The general tones of our dreams can give us a glimpse into our underlying moods and anxieties and recognizing those can be very valuable.
“If you haven't faced something but it's still coming up in sleep, you're dreaming about it, maybe you need to take a look at what it actually means. But as far as some hidden relevance to the psyche, I don't know how much weight that holds,” said Dr. Depue.
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