The ancient Egyptians thought that dreams were divine predictions of the future. They used messages from dreams to make important state rulings and decide how to treat illness. For thousands of years great importance has been placed on discovering the meaning of dreams. Even now different cultures have very different ideas about why we dream. Although most people probably regard it as a bit of a fairground gimmick in today’s world, there’s probably still a mystic woman in an incense-filled tent somewhere more than willing to interpret you night-time mind-wanderings. But Impact Science want to know: what really is going on?

There are two main camps in the scientific study of dreaming. Psychologists think that dreams allow us to sort through the events of our day, and start dealing with any problems occupying our minds. But most dreams are so random that it’s hard to see how dancing around a marshmallow factory enthusiastically reciting French verb endings could possibly be related to your day.

A slightly more probable idea – the ‘activation-synthesis hypothesis’ to those in the know – is that our dreams do not have any meanings at all. This theory says that whilst we sleep our dream worlds do not actually play out as little movies in our heads. Instead, a random firing of electrical brain impulses brings to mind unconnected snapshots from our memory. When we wake we connect these images up, creating stories to try and make sense of what we have seen.

Scientists who look at the physical changes that occur when we dream believe that vital neural connections are exercised by our dream activities. This regular use of nerve cells is thought to be important to helping us learn. The link between dreaming and learning is further backed up by the fact that young children spend more of their night’s sleep dreaming than adults do.

It seems that theories about dreaming are still a little hazy, and after our brief investigation into the scientific world of dreams we are still no closer to finding out what the marshmallow factory is all about. So if you’re studying psychology or neuroscience and wondering what to do for your PHD, you know what Impact Science suggests.

Laura McGuinness

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