Understanding what you dream begins with understanding why you dream
Why dream? For one, your brain consolidates memories while dreaming. Memories are encoded as symbolism for easy reference. Dreaming makes room for tomorrow, taking what you experience today and fitting it into the existing structure that is you: your mind, psyche, personality, character.
Evolution is driven by how a species adapts to its environment. For the human species, adaptation is driven in large part by dreaming. We are too preoccupied while awake to do this deep-level processing and learning. Some theorists think that dreaming evolved in the human species as a means of survival.
The same thinking applies to explaining why animals dream. They’re learning.
Dreaming is good for your brain
Dreaming—especially REM-stage (rapid eye movement) dreaming—is critical for brain development. Infants sleep 16 hours per day and spend half that time in REM stage. Brain development in overdrive!
Dreaming heats up your neural pathways, making them malleable—also known as neuroplasticity. Neural pathways are pruned, strengthened, and created.
[See this example of neuroplasticity expressed symbolically in a dream.]
Dreaming is vital for absorbing new information so it can be cross-referenced and readily accessed. Studies show that students perform better on tests after napping, and piano students perform better with new material after a full night of sleep. While dreaming, you incorporate what you learn and improve at it.
A quote from Jerome Singer, Emeritus Professor of psychology at Yale U.
This [dreaming] starts to sound a lot like the basis for human creativity. The fusing of things that don’t seem to have any connection. That’s what sleep, particularly dreaming does. Like good cooking, when it comes to memory, it’s not enough to chop up the ingredients and put them together. The brain needs time to let things marinate.
Dreams perform two stages of memory processing: the immediate processing of daily memories, and a second stage that processes memories more deeply into your being. Those dreams tend to be particularly potent, memorable, and metaphorical. Think of it as a distilling process, and left at the end is a potent brew of the lessons and experiences most important for your growth as a person, and for your life.
More reasons to sleep in
People who get enough sleep perform better on tests. They perform better athletically. Their moods and emotions are more manageable. They appear healthier.
People who go for long periods without dreaming break down physically, emotionally, and psychologically. Their attention spans shorten and memories fog. They are irritable, anxious. They have difficulty absorbing new information and are prone to depression and weight gain. Go too long without dreaming and a person will dream while awake. The symptoms can start in as little as 24 sleepless-hours. We have a word for that condition:
That article doesn’t perfectly back my point, but it’s a nice parallel with it. Blending of dream reality and physical reality is too much to handle and the mind goes haywire. Dreaming appears to play a role in keeping us sane!
Watch Dr. Rubin Naiman talk about the epidemic of dream deprivation in modern society. He makes the brilliant comment that dreaming is like psychological digestion, and when we don’t get enough REM sleep, we experience “psychological constipation.”
These insights tell us not only why it’s important to sleep and dream, but why we dream and what’s in our dream content.
Dreams and emotions: let it all out!
Emotions are processed and sorted in parallel with your memories while dreaming, and they’re combined with imagery charged with meaning and significance. You can think of your dreams as your viewing station into internal processes as you sleep, especially emotional ones.
Psychologist Sander van der Linden:
Dreams seem to help us process emotions by encoding and constructing memories of them. What we see and experience in our dreams might not necessarily be real, but the emotions attached to these experiences certainly are.
Let’s emphasize that point: the emotions are certainly real.
Related: Dreams that help emotional closure
I have a shortcut to getting to the meaning and significance of a dream: connect the emotions with waking life. Dreams are legendary for creating scenarios that trigger emotions so they can be digested. I tell people to process their heavy emotions before going to sleep because they don’t want their dreams to do it for them. The guard is down and filters off while dreaming, and dreams exaggerate scenarios to make them more vivid and memorable.
Cue bad dreams!
As a public expert on dreams, I’m frequently asked why a person’s dreams will be full of the same anxieties, fears, dread, stress and other hardships as when awake. The person just wants a break to sleep after a hard day. My reply is, imagine if you didn’t get that opportunity to vent. Imagine waking up and picking up where you left off, stuffed full of emotions and feeling on edge. Dreams clear out and process emotions similar to how they clear out memories to start fresh the next day. The person doesn’t feel refreshed, but they don’t know how much worse off they’d be if they didn’t dream.
Once you dream about something it’s perceived as being in the past, creating a psychological cushion. It helps to put the past “behind you.”
Dreaming is a workout
Your body runs processes while dreaming, too, as cells clean house and various systems and organs give status updates to the mind. When something is off in your body, your mind will try to fix it, and your dreams give you a view into this process—and even make you part of it.
You can choose in your dreams to be sick or well, to heal or not, all based on what you believe to be true while dreaming—based on how you react to the imagery and story. I’m not saying it’s that way for everyone—dreaming is a widely varied phenomenon—but for most folks, their dreams trigger all sorts of reactions in the body, and that fact adds to the many reasons to know as much as possible about your dream life.
For example, a man dreams that a fish with big teeth is going to enter his body and eat the coffee grounds in his knee. He thinks about it and says sure, go ahead. The fish does its thing, and the next day the strange grinding sound he’d been hearing in his knee is diminished. The fish in the dream represents antibodies, and his consent sets them loose in his bloodstream. Usually, a bodily process like this is subconscious, but he actively decides to allow it in this case.
Why? A clue is found in the next scene of the dream. When the fish is done, the dreamer tosses it into a pool with other fish and it eats them, too. Antibodies are not picky. They eat their target and everything like their target. The dreamer’s consent is needed because of the risk involved to address the issue with his knee by attacking it with antibodies. If he had reacted by saying he didn’t want the fish anywhere near him, his body would not have loosed the antibodies.
Simple fact #1: he subconsciously knows what he’s agreeing to.
That bird’s-eye view into your health is invaluable. It’s saved many lives by giving timely warnings. Learn more at LetMagicHappen.com.
Then something magical happens
You are dreaming. You experience emotions and sensations. Imagery and thoughts run through your mind. You follow them down the mystery hole. Then something magical happens.
It’s magical by the standards of science because it happens even though it’s apparently unnecessary for the adaptation of the human species to its environment, and all physiological processes such as dreaming are viewed in this evolutionary light. How does dreaming help the species and the individual survive and thrive?
We’ve discussed some examples, but none of them explain why we have deeply meaningful dreams. Some researchers say it’s simply because of a human proclivity to look for meaning in everything, even where there is none. It’s hardwired. But that explanation, while true in some cases, stretches too thin when used to assert that no dreams have meaning.
Dreams have meaning not because we mistakenly ascribe it to what’s merely a succession of meaningless imagery. Dreams have meaning because something at the core of the mind steps into the dreaming process and uses it for a deeper purpose.
The Self archetype: the wizard behind the curtain
That “something” that creates the magic is known as the Self and it’s an archetype of the complete person. It’s you in your fullness, fully developed and actualized. The Self’s mission is to unify the conscious mind with the unconscious mind, and in dreams it appears as shapes such as circles, squares, and mandalas, and as imagery such as the Great Tree, a holy mountain, holy figures such as Christ and Krishna, a wise man or woman, and powerful and wise animals (especially talking animals).
View every meaningful dream through the lens of what it’s ultimately trying to accomplish: unification of the psyche, beginning with the processing of day to day events in your life, and ending with self-actualization. The ultimate goal is the “marriage of the soul.” The conscious mind fully unites with the unconscious mind, and the sum total is something greater than its parts.
Dreams have short, medium, and long-term objectives. They help you process, help you learn, help you grow, and somehow it all ties in with why consciousness exists in the first place and its role in an infinite universe.
The map for higher consciousness is embedded in the mind from birth.
The directions for following it are given to you nightly.
So why do we dream?
- To learn.
- To grow.
- To adapt.
- To consolidate memories.
- To process and release emotions.
- To cope.
- To restore.
- To rejuvenate.
- To become a whole and complete person.
But wait, there’s one more way of looking at dreams that’s most helpful for understanding their meaning and message:
We dream to self-regulate
The dreaming mind is the main spokesperson for the unconscious mind, and the unconscious mind is the parent of the conscious mind. Part of its job is to keep everything balanced and regulated in the psyche, which is a collective with many moving pieces. Through dreams it shows you how it does its job. The better you know your dreams through understanding why you dream, the better you can interpret them. Open the curtain and see the inner workings.
Another way to think of this process is the unconscious compensates. For example, by filling dreams full of humble and simple people to balance an inflated ego. It’s a proverbial swing the other direction. Learn more about compensation it when we cover dream amplification.
When you ponder your dreams and look for the meaning and significance, keep in mind why you dream. It will provide valuable insights and clarity.