What is it about?

Dreams have troubled and intrigued people for thousands of years, yet what exactly dreaming is and why we dream remain largely a mystery. Is it a form of mind-wandering without adaptive value? Is it meant to forget things to avoid overloading the brain with unimportant memories? Is it meant to improve memories and to avoid forgetting things? Is it a form of social simulation or image-based thinking allowing us to address various sorts of problems? Experiences while awake can cause damage – such as oxidative damage – to the brain when neural circuits are overused. Memory formation is also required to reduce the risks of future overuse and damage. While in deep sleep the brain repairs any damage that might have occurred and also engages in memory formation. These processes change the way in which nerve cells function and might cause them to function incorrectly. Thus, after having made these changes, the neural circuits need to be tested to see if they function correctly. In this article, I present a view of dreaming as a testing phase to assess such repair and adaptive processes that occur while asleep. It is somewhat analogous to an article being taken in for maintenance and repair. A technician might then replace some parts, lubricate other parts and adjust still others. This is similar to the repair and adjustment processes occurring in deep sleep. Then the technician needs to test the article to see if it is working correctly – this is the dreaming part. If it is not working quite right, further adjustments are made – another sleep episode – before more extensive testing occurs – another dream episode. When the article functions correctly, it is returned to its owner – the “waking up” part of the analogy.

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Why is it important?

Rather than seeing dreaming as a pointless side effect of sleep, it should be considered an integral part of sleep-dependent restorative and adaptive processes without which a person cannot function optimally. If one has dreamt, one can have some reassurance that repair and adaptive processes have occurred and that the repairs and adaptations were tested. The chronic loss of dreaming opportunities would lead to an accumulation of mental inefficiencies and repair errors that will eventually cause serious problems. A good night’s sleep, including dreaming, is essential to good health.

Perspectives

Besides the general restorative and adaptive aspects of dreaming, one might wonder if dreams could have more of a direct personal relevance. I think so. The sequences in which neural circuits are activated during dreaming will likely depend on the amount of repair that each neural circuit required. Therefore, the presentation in a dream of the information load of these circuits, and the ones that they are interconnected with, might reveal to the dreamer new associations between wakefulness experiences. This is not to say that one should obsessively analyze dreams because these might just represent ordinary repair and adaptive processes and thus reveal unremarkable associations between wakefulness experiences. But, neither do I think that one should ignore dreams because valuable insights could very well be had from paying attention to them.

Hans Georg Schulze

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This page is a summary of: Dreaming reflects neural resynchronization after sleep-dependent neuroplastic adaptations., Dreaming, July 2023, American Psychological Association (APA), DOI: 10.1037/drm0000250.
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