Why Do We Dream? New Research Might Have the Answer

New research has reportedly revealed why we dream and where our dreams come from. The short of it? Our dreams might be reflective of the re-processing in REM sleep of intense moments we experience during our waking lives.

The study was published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience this past June and examined 20 healthy student subjects who, according to lead author Jean-Baptiste Eichenlaub, were vividly recalling their dreams almost every night.

Participants were asked to journal for 10 days straight, recording major daily activities and emotional events, as well as things that stressed them out. Each student was allowed to include five events on any given day and was required to score them on an intensity scale from 1 (low) to 3 (high). On the 10th day, participants slept in a lab while being monitored with non-invasive electroencephalography caps, which are used to record brain wave activity connected to rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep — also known as theta activity — and slow-wave sleep.

After 10 minutes of each sleep cycle, the subjects were woken up and asked to detail their dreams. These dreams were then compared with their journals.

Scientists discovered that the recorded events were linked to the intensity of the REM theta waves. In other words, the intense and emotional activities going on in a person’s life were connected to the intensity of their REM sleep — but not their slow-wave sleep.  Moreover, waking experiences that had a higher emotional impact were more likely to be incorporated into the participant’s dreams than mundane activities.

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While many previous studies have come to similar conclusions, this study is different because it makes the connection between memory processing, dreams, and REM theta waves. Eichenlaub tells Sleepopolis:

It is already known that dream content arises, at least to some extent, from waking-life experiences. However, this is the first finding that shows that this phenomenon is related to REM sleep theta waves, which suggest that dreaming reflects emotional memory processing that takes place in REM sleep.

Dreams are hard to study for a somewhat obvious reason: They take place in the mind of someone who can’t communicate what’s going on at that specific moment. Scientists have to rely on the dreamer’s memories of their dreams instead, which is by no means fool-proof. However, the reason behind dreaming and brain activity is largely debated, and this new evidence brings us one step closer to narrowing the debate and finding some concrete answers.

Eichenlaub says the next step in this research is to try and manipulate REM sleep and theta waves to encourage participants to dream about recent and intense experiences. This research will use binaural beats, a type of soundwave therapy where the right and left ears listen to two slightly different frequency tones, with the hopes it will induce theta brain waves.

Laura Schwecherl

Laura is a journalist with nearly a decade of experience reporting and covering topics in the health, fitness, and wellness space. She is also a marketing consultant, where she works with impact-oriented startups to build marketing and editorial strategies. Outside of work, you can find her reading Murakami novels, writing amateur poetry, or trail running in her hometown, Boulder, Colorado.

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