Essay Opinion

Waking the Dreamer

The psychological origins of dreams and what they mean for our waking reality.

Dreams offer experiences unlike any other. Most human experiences are fundamentally based on the combination of outside influences and inward reflection leading to responses. Dreams fundamentally defy this logic, creating narratives that exist entirely within one’s own mind. They are not grounded in reality but instead seem to be an amalgamation of memories, fears, desires, and all that comes with unmanaged thought. Some may look to the familiar subjects of dreams and try to extract meaning from their relationship to the subject or its expression in the dream. Doing this is only natural, it seems logical to analyze things that don’t appear to make sense. And what other place provides more meaning than your own thoughts? In theory, this makes sense, but in reality, there is far too much uncertainty surrounding the seemingly random subject matter of dreams, and their place within the sleeping process is the only thing that points to hard evidence concerning the true purpose and function of dreams.

Sleep is one of the most essential bodily rituals we go through to ensure that our bodies and minds stay healthy and function smoothly. “REM sleep is a state of the brain that enables essential housekeeping functions, upon which waking consciousness depends” (Hobson and Friston, 2012). It is largely an automatic process, where we let go of the reins and let our brain do the work of filtering out toxins that have built up over the day, transferring short-term memory into long-term storage, and various other essential processes (Rasch, 2011).

So where do dreams fit into all of this? If we are to continue with the housekeeping analogy of sleep, dreams are like walking into a room right in the middle of it being cleaned. Belongings would be strewn about, drawers would be open, and things would generally seem very different from what we are used to. During REM sleep your body stimulates the areas of the brain associated with learning and memory, which is why babies spend up to 50% of their sleep in the REM stage, while adults only reach about 20% (El Shakankiry, 2011). This may explain the fantastical nature of dreams, as your mind unconsciously manages the logistics of supporting waking thought. In dreams characters may change at random, locations are much more fluid, and the events happening don’t seem to follow a pattern or logic. It’s as though your consciousness “wakes up” while your brain isn’t ready for it. The reason for this is not known, but a likely story is that dreams developed as an evolutionary byproduct of sleep, and have no real meaning or power over our waking thoughts. In the words of Duke University Professor of Philosophy and Neurobiology, Owen Flanagan, dreams are “evolutionary epiphenomena” and “came along as a free rider on a system designed to sleep and think” (Flanagan, 2000).

This would also help to explain why dreams are hardly ever remembered, and if they are they fade quickly as the dreamer wakes up.  If dreams offered significance or purpose, such as a way for our brain to test scenarios and simulate how we would react in real life, why wouldn’t we remember them? Surely remembering these important experiences would help us later on. There is no clear answer to this question, which shows the waning value of dreams when they are looked at outside the context of sleep. If daydreaming was truly dreaming during the day, as in an experience you slipped into that was filled with random imagery and inconsistent narratives, and you forgot most of the experience once it was over, what purpose would it serve? It would only be a clouding of reality, a false recombination of the genuine that confuses more than it guides.

Dreams only make sense in the context of sleep, with all of the background processes taking place and maintenance being carried out. It is a possibility that dreams themselves are a part of this maintenance, like a sort of consciousness check-up. This involves some speculation, trying to place dreams in the context of how our unconscious brains operate. If dreams only offered a functional purpose, like testing our brain’s virtual reality generator (Hobson and Friston, 2012) we would be mistaken to look for meaning in the test material. It is like using a placeholder picture to test the display of a monitor, and then looking for meaning within the picture itself. This interpretation solves some of the questions surrounding dreams, like why we don’t remember them. We don’t because we simply don’t need to, and to intentionally remember and analyze them is to attribute meaning to an inherently meaningless process. 


Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep | National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Accessed 15 Nov. 2021.

El Shakankiry, Hanan M. “Sleep Physiology and Sleep Disorders in Childhood.” Nature and Science of Sleep, vol. 3, Sept. 2011, pp. 101–14. PubMed Central,

Flanagan, Owen J. Dreaming Souls: Sleep, Dreams, and the Evolution of the Conscious Mind. Oxford University Press, 2000.

Hobson, J. A., and K. J. Friston. “Waking and Dreaming Consciousness: Neurobiological and Functional Considerations.” Progress in Neurobiology, vol. 98, no. 1, July 2012, pp. 82–98. PubMed,

Rasch, Björn, and Jan Born. “About Sleep’s Role in Memory.” Physiological Reviews, vol. 93, no. 2, Apr. 2013, pp. 681–766. PubMed Central,