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The Psychology of Dreaming

   Dreaming, a term conservatively defined as the various thoughts, memories, and emotions that occur during sleep, is a phenomenon that has stumped psychologists for decades. Why? Because the reasoning behind why dreams occur is extremely elusive, leaving psychologists with an incredibly large unanswered question. Though a definite explanation has yet to be discovered, psychologists continue to offer theories – a few of which are listed below.

The Theory of Wish-Fulfillment

In the early 20th century, Sigmund Freud suggested that dreaming held some deeper meaning. For example, a “falling” sensation right before being woken up might be interpreted as a reference to a traumatic childhood fall. The moment where you wake up and return to the comfort of reality could symbolize a parent’s comforting after the fall. Today, Freud’s theory is considered to be mostly false by many psychologists, as it does not have much scientific backing. But, it has played a tremendous role in the understanding of our inner conflicts.

The Theory of Information-Processing

This theory believes that dreams work to transfer what we experienced throughout the day into our memory. The new pieces of information we pick up are supposedly organized in the brain while we dream in REM sleep. Unnecessary material is essentially thrown away, and meaningful material is kept for later retrieval. Without enough sleep, what you have learned throughout the day cannot be properly integrated into your memories. This is why it is important for students to have enough sleep! This theory, while more accepted than Freud’s, receives one major criticism: why is it, then, that we have dreams of things that we haven’t experienced?

The Theory of Neural Activation

The most widely accepted theory as to why we dream is to make sense of neural static, a process that occurs in the brain where neurons continue to fire while we sleep. This theory, proposed by John Allan Hobson, explains that, during REM sleep, the brain is attempting to make sense of the neural activity it is picking up. The limbic system, known as the emotional center of the brain, is much more active during sleep, but the frontal lobe, known as the logical reasoning center, is silent. This is why dreams seem to be more emotionally-based and illogical compared to what we experience while awake.

   Although none of the above theories completely offer an answer as to why we dream, each has been an integral part of delving deeper into the dream world and exploring its depths. We have a long way to go before the phenomenon of dreaming is thoroughly understood, but psychologists inch closer every day. 


Myers, D. G. (2014). Myer’s Psychology for AP (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Worth Publishers.


Editor: Briana Fannin