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Wanda Sekula

March 22nd, 2022

What’s the use in dreaming?

0 comments | 4 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Wanda Sekula

March 22nd, 2022

What’s the use in dreaming?

0 comments | 4 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Wanda Sekula uses psychological theory to explore the important role that dreaming has for our wellbeing, recovery and memory. This post was originally written as part of PB101: Foundations of Psychological Science, a compulsory course on the BSc Psychological and Behavioural Science undergraduate programme at LSE. It has been published with the permission of the author.

In Adele’s words: ‘they say that times supposed to heal ya’. It turns out that time spent dreaming can help with the healing process.

Have you ever woken up from a dream with your heart racing, palms sweating, very much distressed, sad perhaps? Maybe you have felt more tired from this dream than from your hard work of the entire day combined?

It seems illogical that this stream of ideas, sensations, emotions raid your brain when you’re supposed to be resting. It seems like an unnecessary burden to have used substantial mental resources during sleep, doesn’t it? And for what? The answer is rather clouded, but there are some interesting theories as to how we benefit from dreaming ; it brings about a multitude of good for us, beyond anything we could foresee, even in our wildest dreams.

What is dreaming?

The founding father of dream analysis, Sigmund Freud, believed that dreams provide an insight into our darkest desires (Freud, 1995). Dreams are our fantasy world, a flipped reality, in which we actively engage in.

Dreams are defined to be both a mental activity as well as a conscious experience (Malcolm, 2019). In the words of Descartes, the human mind is conscious at all times through thoughts, sensations and intuitions we have, even in our sleep (Malcolm, 2019). Our mind is constantly active and, in simple terms, dreaming is just a form of activity that takes place when we sleep.

Dreams take place during the REM (Rapid Eye Movements) stage of sleep (Lesku et al., 2011). It is the stage where your brain’s electric activity is almost the same as when you are awake, the only difference being that your muscles are paralysed; excluding your breathing muscles, of course, and, surprisingly, your eyes muscles. Our bodies are asleep, but our eyes and our brains are working hard. But why does it happen?

Dreaming helps us remember things

Have you ever found yourself dreaming about recent events of the day before? Researchers find that dreaming is used for memory consolidation.

Memories are being put into our long-term memory storage compartment whilst we sleep, it is explained by something called “continual activation theory”. Essentially, working memory is used for the temporary storage and manipulation of information, including the transfer from short-term memory to long-term memory (Zhang, 2005). For our memories to be consolidated they are ‘replayed’ within working memory. When we dream, our working memory gets activated with short-term memory snippets that still have not found their way onto the hard drive (long-term memory storage). This usage of working memory during dreaming helps us remember our past experiences when we wake up (O’Neill et al., 2010).

Studies suggest that only certain memory processes can happen in the brain when you are asleep and dreaming. As it turns out, we are much better at tackling a complicated 3D maze if we have napped and dreamed between the attempts,  than if we had just thought about the maze between the attempts or if we had dreamlessly napped (Wamsley, 2014). The study consisted of a control group that stayed awake throughout the experiment, they had a hard time getting through the maze compared to those who had a nap between the first and second attempt. Interestingly, when comparing the individuals who had napped and reported having a dream to those who had just slept without the dream phase, the dreaming participants showed a significant improvement between both attempts. This finding is in line with the idea of memory consolidation during the dreaming phase; but even a dreamless sleep can help us with remembering things, like navigating the 3D maze, for instance.

The brain becomes its own recovery centre

In Adele’s words: ‘they say that times supposed to heal ya’. It turns out that time spent dreaming can help with the healing process; REM sleep – the ‘dream state’ of sleep – can help with removing the pain from traumatic, heavily emotional experiences (Walker & Van Der Helm, 2009). In other words, the dreaming process that occurs during REM sleep ‘heals ya’.

How do we know this? Dreaming diminishes intense emotional experiences and reduces levels of stress chemicals (noradrenaline) in the brain (Walker, 2017). Through dreaming, we are able to process our emotions by creating a new memory, our dream narratives remove the emotion from an experience; such processed emotions are somewhat deactivated, which is particularly important for minimising the impact of negative emotions, which is essential to heal any mental scarring of the past (Van Der Linden, 2011).

To prove the positive effects of dreaming, it is easiest to look at what happens when we are sleep-deprived and cannot dream at all. Such situations can even impair our perception of emotional expressions in others and we often struggle to recognise any positive expressions in people (Cote et al.,2013). When we don’t dream, we begin to see things through dark lenses.

There is overwhelming evidence that dreaming is the brain’s reset button and it helps with  processing intense emotionally charged situations in our sleep so that we are able to gather the courage to face another day (Altena et al., 2016).

We dream to survive as the ‘fittest’

Dreaming is a protection mechanism; it gives us a chance to prepare for the dangers and threats that are to come. It can act as a threat simulation in the brain, which is an effective practice for dangerous situation’s brought about by reality. Dreaming is believed to increase our chances of having a “reproductive success”, whereby the cognitive mechanisms required for threat perception and avoidance are practiced in the dream phase (Valli et al., 2005).

Reproductive success? That’s right. These rehearsals of scenarios can fundamentally lead to an enhanced ability to tackle these threats in our day to day lives. Previous studies suggest that we are more likely to have more dreams with threatening content over our lifetime, so, we are repeatedly immersed in these situations to build up our general evolutionary capability (Franklin & Zyphur, 2005).

Is dreaming worth the hassle?

Dreaming can have some negative consequences, especially when you wake up from a nightmare with distress, fear and anxiety. But these consequences are all temporary and negligible when compared with all the long-term benefits that dreams can bring. All these eye movements and fantasy stories improve our memory, provide a recovery mechanism that helps with digesting distressing events of the day. Dreams can even enhance our abilities to defend ourselves against dangerous situations. This dreaming business does not sound too bad: I can learn through sleep, heal through sleep and even practice defending myself through sleep. It is late and I am ready for a nap.

Sweet dreams to all!


  • This post reflects the view of the author and not the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science, nor LSE.
  • This post was originally written as part of PB101: Foundations of Psychological Science, a compulsory course on the BSc Psychological and Behavioural Science undergraduate programme. The post has been published with the author’s permission.
  • Homepage ‘What’s the use in dreaming’ image created using Canva.
  • Banner by Daniil Kuzelev via Unsplash.


ltena, E., Micoulaud-Franchi, J.-A., Geoffroy, P.-A., Sanz-Arigita, E., Bioulac, S., & Philip, P. (2016). The bidirectional relation between emotional reactivity and sleep: From disruption to recovery. Behavioral Neuroscience, 130(3), 336–350.

Cote, K. A., Mondloch, C. J., Sergeeva, V., Taylor, M., & Semplonius, T. (2013). Impact of total sleep deprivation on behavioural neural processing of emotionally expressive faces. Experimental Brain Research, 232(5), 1429–1442.

Franklin, M. S., & Zyphur, M. J. (2005). The Role of Dreams in the Evolution of the Human Mind. Evolutionary Psychology, 3(1), 147470490500300.

Freud, S. (1995). The interpretation of dreams ; and On dreams : (1900-1901). Hogarth Press.

Lesku, J. A., Meyer, L. C. R., Fuller, A., Maloney, S. K., Dell’Omo, G., Vyssotski, A. L., & Rattenborg, N. C. (2011). Ostriches Sleep like Platypuses. PLoS ONE, 6(8), e23203.

Linden, S. Van Der. (2011, July 26). The Science Behind Dreaming. Scientific American.

Malcolm, N. (2019). Dreaming. Routledge.

O’Neill, J., Pleydell-Bouverie, B., Dupret, D., & Csicsvari, J. (2010). Play it again: reactivation of waking experience and memory. Trends in Neurosciences, 33(5), 220–229.

Valli, K., Revonsuo, A., Pälkäs, O., Ismail, K. H., Ali, K. J., & Punamäki, R.-L. (2005). The threat simulation theory of the evolutionary function of dreaming: Evidence from dreams of traumatized children. Consciousness and Cognition, 14(1), 188–218.

Walker, M. (2017). Why Your Brain Needs to Dream. Greater Good Magazine.

Walker, M. P., & Van Der Helm, E. (2009). Overnight therapy? The role of sleep in emotional brain processing. Psychological Bulletin, 135(5), 731–748.

Wamsley, E. J. (2014). Dreaming and Offline Memory Consolidation. Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports, 14(3).


About the author

Wanda Sekula

I am currently a first year undergraduate student studying Psychological and Behavioural Sciences. Understanding why we behave the way we do is key for successful implementation of new government policies, something I plan to be involved in after I graduate.

Posted In: BSc Psychological and Behavioural Science | PB101 Foundations of Psychological Science

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