The Real Reason Humans Dream

Why did Miley Cyrus dream that she gave Lady Gaga a foot massage (via Twitter)? Why did Kristin Bell dream that she and Jon Snow (yes, Game of Thrones Jon Snow) were running for their lives, only to be saved by a dance-off (via Twitter)? Why did Ellen DeGeneres dream that she and Jimmy Fallon were swimming in an ocean of orange soda (via Twitter)?

When we dream, the logical and rational centers of our brain take a breather. The emotional centers of our brains, on the other hand, have a field day (via The Conversation). As we dream, our brains also release dopamine, which research has linked to hallucinations (via Cleveland Clinic). Knowing this, dance-offs with mythical warriors, super-star studded foot massages, and Fanta-filled oceans don't seem so strange. The heart wants what it wants, and we seem to allow it to do so when we dream. So, that's how it happens, but why do we dream?

Dreams may help with memory

There's no one reason why it is that people dream, but researchers have some ideas. One idea is that dreams help us to organize and store memories more efficiently. Studies, for example, prove that if you learn new information and then give it a night's sleep, you'll be able to remember it better than you would without your ZZZs (via Healthline).

This may all be tied into when you have the most intense dreams because even if you don't remember your dreams, you're still having them. And while you can dream at any point during your sleep cycle, you're likely to remember the dreams you have during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, since they're generally the most vivid and intense, per Neuroscience. Many researchers believe that REM sleep, during which brain activity is much higher than other sleep stages, is when you process what happened to you that day and your memories get consolidated and stored, according to Physiological Reviews. And the transfer of memories from different parts of the brain and the processing of the emotions that happens during that transfer may be aided by dreams, via Neuroscience.

Dreams can help us problem solve and face fears

For Sigmund Freud and his theories on psychoanalysis, dreams were vitally important as he felt they revealed hidden desires and unconscious feelings. While not all of Freud's theories have lasted the test of time, researchers have confirmed a clear connection between dreams and emotions, per Frontiers in Psychology. And that emotional component to dreams likely plays a role in the benefits of dreaming. Some researchers will tell you that dreams are a safe way to learn to deal with threatening situations (hello, Jon Snow).

If you have a bad dream that's not a full-on nightmare, when you're awake, your brain reacts less strongly to scary or anxiety-producing situations, leaving you better equipped to handle them, according to the University of Geneva. "Dreams may be considered as a real training for our future reactions and may potentially prepare us to face real life dangers," explained Lampros Perogamvros, one of the researchers in the University of Geneva study.

Dreams don't have to be scary to have benefits. Dreams are a time when your mind is free to be creative, and dreams can help with problem-solving by making connections that your conscious brain wasn't able to (via Trends in Cognitive Sciences).

Dreams can help us cope with life

And some feel that dreams can serve as a sort of therapist's office in the unconscious, helping us process and cope with emotional and traumatic experiences. These findings seem to support the theories of those who believe that dreaming is a form of therapy. When you're stressed out, worried, or anxious about something, you may find yourself dreaming more often, at least remember your dreams more vividly. That's because your dreams could be helping you work through something. As sleep expert Dr. Rubin Naiman told Time, these dreams could very well be a powerful "antidepressant." Per Naiman, we should be starting "conversations," especially with the dreams that scare us. Naiman believes that "when we turn to [dark dreams] with a willingness to make peace, it starts to morph and it can bring us some very beautiful experiences."

Then there's lucid dreaming, where you know that you're dreaming and can direct what's happening in the dream. It is being used to help treat anxiety and PTSD, per Frontiers in Psychology. And it's been shown to be effective at reducing the number of nightmares, according to Discover.

If you're someone who doesn't often remember your dreams, and they do tend to fade quickly for many of us, try keeping a dream journal next to your bed. Immediately upon waking, write down what you remember. The more you practice remembering your dreams, the easier it will become.