For centuries, people have questioned the meaning of dreams. Early civilisations thought of dreams as a medium between humans and the gods. The Greeks and Romans were convinced that dreams could predict the future. Since then, times have changed. Now there are many different theories on dream meanings and dream interpretation. In this article, we explore the different theories behind dream meanings, talk to dream analysts, and find out what happens while we dream to find out whether our dreams have any true meaning.
One neurobiological theory of dreaming is the activation-synthesis hypothesis. This was proposed by Harvard University psychiatrists, John Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley. The activation-synthesis theory states that we dream because the mind attempts to make sense of i.e., synthesise, brain activity that happens when we sleep. Resultingly, the theory states that dreams don’t actually mean anything as dreams are just the result of neuronal processes.
This is because, whilst we may be asleep, our brains are anything but. Whilst we sleep, our brains perform several activities, including cleaning, known as metabolic clearance. These activities often occur in the amygdala and hippocampus, areas of our brain responsible for emotions, senses and memories which causes a spike in brain signals and impulses. The effort to give these sudden signals meaning is what leads us to dream. Memories in the brain are used to make sense of the signals and impulses resulting from this activity. For example, if these resulting signals are similar to those produced whilst running you may dream of running.
However, critics of the activation-synthesis theory argue, that current neurophysiology fails to fully account for dreams and their meanings as it is too reductionist and simplistic.
Another theory is the threat simulation theory, which describes dreams as a defence mechanism our brains put in place to prepare us for threatening events. This theory is evolutionary-derived. That those with a more highly developed threat simulation system increase their chance of survival and reproduction and these threat simulation systems have since been ingrained into the gene pool. Threat simulation allows us to face our fears in a safe simulation.
Dreams, therefore, act as a dress rehearsal for the real thing, allowing us to practise the cognitive mechanisms necessary for threat perception and avoidance.