Many people experience wild and hallucinatory dreams that seem to come out of nowhere and make absolutely zero sense. However, NBC News BETTER reported that dreaming might not be as strange a phenomenon as some people think. They spoke to Robert Stickgold, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School’s Center for Sleep and Cognition, about the role of dreaming in sleep.
“The brain thinks, makes memories, and solves problems. It observes new information. It processes that information by determining what’s important, what’s not, and what’s connected to something you already know. And then the brain either stores that information or dumps what’s not useful. You can’t both think about something and listen to people at the same time,” Stickgold explains.
In this sense, the brain essentially continues processing and solving problems that we didn’t complete during our waking hours. Furthermore, Stickgold points out that our brains are better at constructing stories while we’re asleep than when we’re awake.
“There are certain questions that come up for which we plot a potential course of action or think through a future scenario to solve. That’s what our brains can’t do in the background when we’re awake. But that type of narrative construction (building a story) still requires us to be consciously aware — which is one feature of dreams. We know they’re happening.”
Many studies have shown that our waking experiences manifest in our dreams and that dreaming may actually help us solve problems.
Stickgold and colleague Erin Wamsley, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Psychology Department at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, performed a series of experiments where they looked at how dreaming improves problem-solving. Participants were given the task to determine how to get through a complex maze and then spent five hours either sleeping or staying awake before being tested again. Those who slept improved the most on the performance, especially if they dreamed about the maze, as opposed to those who were kept awake.
Stickgold explains how the results of studies like this one can lead insight into why we have such crazy dreams.
“Even the really weird dreams may just be part of the brain’s process of elimination-approach to problem solving. Your brain is looking for associated memories that are relevant to recent events.”
Additionally, a lot of memory processing takes place during sleep in which the brain essentially files through new memories and decides whether or not to store them. The emotional centers of our brain are also more active during REM sleep, possibly explaining why our dreams seem to be more emotionally charged and tend not to make much sense within a logical framework.
“The brain is acting like a venture capitalist,” Stickgold says. “It’s intentionally throwing a lot of spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks, knowing that some of it won’t.”