The Science of Dreams: How They Work and What They Mean

Among my roommates, I’m always the one that has the crazy dreams. I’ll wake up and head straight to their rooms and tell them how I started a modern-day American Revolution with the cast of Grey’s Anatomy, that I was neighbors with the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or how a meeting at work included the hosts of the famous podcast Call Her Daddy. For some of us, it seems like our minds are racing long after our eyes close. Why do we remember certain dreams and forget others? Does the content of our dreams mean anything?

For starters, we aren’t the only people who have tried to find the purpose of dreams. The ancient Romans and Greeks believed that dreams were symbolic of religious prophecies, and later on Sigmund Freud suggested they were representative of the things we longed for, but our conscious mind wasn’t aware of (his ideas about the subconscious were a little far-fetched, though). In today’s world, it seems like our interpretation of dreams is split fairly evenly: some believe they are a reflection of our memories and emotions while others believe they mean nothing at all.

According to the Scientific American, “sleep serves to reenergize the body's cells, clear waste from the brain, and support learning and memory.” Essentially, our brain is reorganizing and rejuvenating itself during the night. This neurological cleaning happens all throughout the different stages of sleep, one of them being rapid eye movement, or REM, sleep. During this stage of sleeping is where our most intense dreaming occurs.

Within the scientific community, many neurologists argue that dreaming is simply a side effect of the processes going on in our brain during the night. There is no Freudian-style hidden meaning behind them at all. Even though it would make life a little easier if there were meanings to our dreams, a dream about an ex or forgetting to put on pants for school are just dreams — no more, no less. With that being said, it’s still fun to look them up in a dream dictionary every now and then.

So now that we know that dreams have no scientifically backed meaning to them, why do we remember them so well? You can thank the theta waves in your frontal lobe for that.

During the night while you sleep, there are four major waves at play within your brain: alpha, theta, delta, and beta waves. Each one has different speeds and voltages that affect the cleaning process differently. During a study published in The Journal of Neuroscience, it was determined that a common factor among participants of the study was the frequency of theta waves when they were woken up during REM sleep. Neurologists found that the lower frequency correlated with a higher retention rate of the contents of their dreams.

Sander van der Linden, a doctoral researcher in psychology, said that these findings were reminiscent of how humans process memories when we are awake. According to Van Der Linden, “it is the same electrical oscillations in the frontal cortex that make the recollection of episodic memories (e.g., things that happened to you) possible. Thus, these findings suggest that the neurophysiological mechanisms that we employ while dreaming and recalling dreams are the same as when we construct and retrieve memories while we are awake.” Essentially, we remember dreams because of how realistic they feel.

While it is nice to think that our dreams have deeper meanings, it is just not the case. However, the fact that we remember the contents of our dreams like they actually happened to us in real life show that there is power in our subconscious thought.

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