Some Dreams are Just for You

Updated: Jun 3, 2019

I had a friend who tried hard to remember more of her dreams. She would write them down and then tell people about them. She stopped, though, because it started interfering with her social life. She would start talking about her dreams, and people would leave the room.

There are several major theories about why we dream:

One is the activation-synthesis theory, which holds that dreams are interpretations by our forebrain of essentially random activity from the spinal cord and cerebellum during sleep, especially rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

Part of the explanation for why dreams can be so weird is that they are interpreted from chaotic information. The older parts of our brain are the seat of our basic emotions. According to this theory, the emotion comes first, and dreams are made to make sense of that emotion. Evidence for this position comes from scene changes that happen: when we have anxiety dreams, for example, they often switch from one anxious situation to a different one—so rather than us feeling anxious because of the content of our dream, it could be that our feeling is causing an anxious narrative in the dream.

Another major theory of dreaming is threat-simulation theory, which holds that the evolutionary function of dreaming is for us to practice how to behave in threatening situations. There is a lot of evidence for this theory, too.

First, most dream emotion is negative. Also, people tend to dream of ancestral threats: falling, being chased, natural disasters, and so on. These frightening elements are overrepresented in dreams—that is, we see them in dreams much more than our experience in our day-to-day world would predict. Many people dream of being chased by animals, but how often does this actually happen to people? The overrepresentation of animals chasing us in dreams, especially for children, suggests that we have some innate fear of them. In contrast, we do not dream of modern threats, such as heart attacks, as much as we would expect if dreams were based on the problems we actually face in today’s world.

These two theories of dreaming are often presented as competing, but as far as I can tell, they are compatible. Thus, even if dreams are interpretations of chaotic input from the spinal cord, there is still a theory needed to describe how that chaotic input is elaborated into narratives that we experience as dreams, and it is quite possible that the mind takes advantage of this opportunity to practice dealing with dangerous things.

So, why do we feel the urge to talk about our dreams?

A suggested ramification of threat-simulation theory relates to the idea that “two heads are better than one”: discussion of dreams might be adaptive if they help us mentally prepare for threats. Perhaps, we like to talk about dreams to help us prepare for how to act in dangerous situations in the future.

Which leads us to why we find our own dreams so interesting. There are three reasons, based on known psychological effects, although all are speculative, in terms of my application of them to dreams.

1. The first is negativity bias, which makes us pay attention to dangerous things.

Because most dreams are negative (support for the threat-simulation theory), our bias in favor of negative information makes them feel important.

2. The second reason has to do with the emotional primacy of dreaming.