Neuroscience of Dreams

At the Merit Club we are fascinated with what makes our brains tick! Every Wednesday we will be digging a little deeper into this with our Neuroscience Wednesdays series. Finding videos and articles on subjects from love through leadership to addiction, these blogs will cover a range of ideas and theories that help us understand our mind better, have the power to shape our lives and the way we think. 

This week on Neuroscience Wednesday at The Merit Club we are investigating that all-important, mysterious and elusive question: why do we dream?

Let's start with what actually happens when we sleep.

In Hank Green's fascinating video, he discusses a few of the ways our brains work when we are asleep, how we sleep, how it can malfunction, and why we dream. Even if it seems as though you are dead to the world when you are asleep, your perceptual window is still open!

So why do we even need to sleep in the first place? 

The more scientific (geeky) answer to this - which we grant you is not the most exciting, but probably good to know, no? - is:

  1. To allow our cells and neurons time to rest and repair.

  2. To support growth - because sleep is the time that the pituitary gland, also known as the master gland, releases growth hormones. (And this is a reason why babies sleep a lot of the time!)

  3.  It also aids with improving our memory and other parts of our mental activity.

But what exactly happens to us when we are asleep?

Eugene Aserinsky, a pioneer of sleep research, discovered what we now refer to as REM (Rapid Eye Movement) a continuous sleep stage in which vivid dreams occur. So, there are 4 distinct stages of sleep all defined by different types of brain waves - bear with us, the exciting part is coming: 

  1. NREM-1 : this is when you start to feel the falling feeling when you’re drifting off to sleep.

  2. NREM-2 : during this time you relax more deeply, however your brain waves are moving rapidly. You’re definitely asleep but you can still be easily woken up.

  3. NREM-3 : in this stage the slowest of brain waves occur, the delta waves.

  4. REM : the most important stage when you are in a deep sleep and those vivid dreams can take place. 

This cycle continues every 90 minutes.

On average we spend about 6 years of our life dreaming. Sometimes we have bizarre dreams, but most of the time our dreams just recount events that have perhaps happened that day, they may be reshuffled, and often pass by unnoticed. If something traumatic has happened to you, it's not uncommon for your brain to provide you with a nightmare to help get rid of those daytime fears.

Ok, but... WHY DO WE DREAM?

Sigmund Freud, our absolute hero, revolutionised the study of dreams with his work The Interpretation Of Dreams. Freud began to analyse dreams in order to understand aspects of personality, because he believes that nothing you do occurs by chance; every action and thought is motivated by your unconscious at some level.

This is when it gets exciting...

Freud believes that in order to live in a civilised society, we are susceptible to suppressing certain urges and impulses deep into our unconscious that are seen to be unacceptable in society.(!!!) However, these desires need to be released in some way and he believes that they have a way of coming to the surface in disguised forms -  through our dreams...! 

Since the content of the unconscious may be extremely disturbing or harmful, Freud believes that the unconscious expresses itself in a symbolic language, which is why he categorises our personality into three parts:

Id - this is the childish and impulsive part of our personality. It does what it wants without thinking about the effects that it will have. 

Ego - this is the realistic part of us that is concerned with the conscious, the moral and the self-aware aspect of the mind. It's job is to meet the needs of the id by looking at the reality of the situation.

Superego - this is when morality develops and the part of your personality that determines what is right or wrong. 

When you are awake,  the impulses and desires of the id are suppressed by the superego. Through dreams, you are able to get a glimpse into your unconscious or the id. Because your guards are down during the dream state, your unconscious has the opportunity to act out and express the hidden desires of the id. However, the desires of the id can, at times, be so disturbing and even psychologically harmful that a "censor" comes into play and translates the id's disturbing content into a more acceptable symbolic form. This helps to preserve sleep and prevent you from waking up shocked at the images. As a result, confusing and cryptic dream images occur.

According to Freud, the reason you struggle to remember your dreams, is because the superego is at work. It is doing its job by protecting the conscious mind from the disturbing images and desires conjured by the unconscious. 

So, he also believes that the purpose of a dream is wish fulfilment. Things that we feel we lack in our lives such as the lack of power and control, or unsatisfactory love may weave its way into our dreams as a way of getting fulfilment.  For example, anxiety dreams are seen as a sign of repressed sexual impulses... Who would have thought...?

Is there such a thing as 'Dream Interpretations'? is it possible?

You are the maker of the dream …
Whatever you put into the dream must be what is in you.
— Fritz Perls

There are many amazing minds who explored a number of theories around dreaming. The one that stood out to us most was the one which allowed us to stay an active participant in the process of understanding our dreams rather than force us to just simply accept it.

Frederick Perls coined the term Gestalt therapy, a form of psychotherapy which aims to raise clients awareness in the function of their everyday life and lets the client interpret their own dreams. Perls believes that dreams contain the rejected, disowned parts of the Self. Every character and every object in a dream represents an aspect of the Self. You are the hurricane, you are the attacker, you are the broken down car, you are the bridge, and you are the dusty book.

Perls rejects the notion that dreams are part of a universal symbolic language. He believes that each dream is unique to the individual who dreams it.

In order to discover what aspect of yourself is being disowned, Perls believes that it is important to retell your dream in the present tense and act it out accordingly. It is important to verbalise how each and every component in your dream felt, even inanimate objects. Reenact the dream and take on the role of the different characters and objects. Start a dialogue with the dream object and express how you felt toward each other. By taking on a different role within your dream and reenact it, you may then be able to acknowledge and realise feelings that you may have overlooked or buried. Your dream literally comes alive.


So, are dreams a way for the unconscious to relieve itself of all those socially unacceptable desires we may feel sometimes or are they just a more creative way of expressing how the events in our day went? We hope you got closer to finding your own answers to this fascinating topic.

With references from:,

Words by Mine Sherefali