Falling into a bottomless abyss, arguing with your significant other, taking a calculus test, or being chased by a monster—you may have had one of these dreams before and woken up utterly confused. But while dreams often strike us as nonsensical, they are actually more useful than we realize. Here are five reasons why dreaming is good for you.
1. Dreams help you make sense of your daily experiences
Some researchers think that dreams serve as theatrical reenactments of real-life situations, allowing us to digest what’s going on in our lives. In a paper published in the journal Dreaming, dream researcher G. William Domhoff analyzed 143 reports written by a widower who, over 22 years, had documented his dreams about his deceased wife.
The widower noted that some of the dreams, such as those reenacting marital disagreements, allowed him to reflect on the couple’s relationship and issues they had struggled with. As Domhoff pointed out in the study, this is also why dreams could be useful in psychotherapy: “They provide a platform for talking about painful issues that the client finds difficult to discuss without first recalling how they were dramatized in a dream.”
2. Dreams may act as sleep guardians
According to a theory proposed by Freud, dreams may prevent sleep disruption. Other researchers have tested the famous psychoanalyst’s hypothesis by comparing the frequency of sleep issues in brain-damaged people with anoneira—loss of the capacity to dream due to the injury—and in brain-damaged individuals who retained their ability to dream. Indeed, in line with Freud’s premise, it turned out that the former group tended to experience more slumber disruption than the latter, wrote the authors of a paper published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. (Are you getting enough sleep? Take our sleep deprivation quiz to find out.)
3. Dreams help you remember
Plenty of research has shown that sleep helps you absorb new information, and there is some evidence suggesting that dreaming also strengthens memories. In a study published in Current Biology, researchers asked 99 people to play a virtual reality maze. The investigators tested the people’s memories by asking them to remember objects in the maze. Half of the participants then took a nap, and once they woke up, the scientists retested all of the people’s memories of the maze. The people in the napping group improved more on the test than those in the non-napping one. However, those who had dreams of the maze during the nap improved 10 times more than the other participants in the napping group.
4. Dreams may prepare you to face threats
Researcher Antti Revonsuo claims that dreams prepare us to face real-life threats. In a paper on the topic, published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, he cited previous research examining 500 dream reports, which showed that the vast majority of emotions experienced in people’s dreams were negative. Around half of these emotions fell into the category of “apprehension,” whereas the other half were labeled as “sadness,” “anger,” and “confusion.” Other studies yielded similar results, suggesting that negative emotions prevailed in people’s dreams. As counterintuitive as it may seem, negative emotions, such as fear or panic, actually prepare us to deal with dangerous scenarios. Dreams that trigger such emotions may, in turn, prime our minds for coping with threatening situations in real life.
5. Dreams can even put you in a better mood
Dreams may be able to regulate one’s mood, according to a study published in Psychiatry Research. Scientists evaluated the moods of 60 people using a psychological questionnaire twice: before and after the people got a night’s sleep. The researchers also awakened the participants from time to time, asking them whether they had any dreams, and, if so, what those dreams were about. The investigators wanted to see whether sleep and dreams would affect the participants’ moods. They found that those people who had been in neutral moods at the start of the experiment did not experience significant changes in their disposition overnight.
However, the moods of those who had felt down before going to sleep did improve. Interestingly, along with this change, the people in the latter group also experienced a gradual reduction in the frequency of negative dreams from the beginning to the end of the night. “This suggests that dreaming may actively moderate mood overnight,” the authors wrote.
Need help falling asleep? Here are 10 nighttime activities to help you relax.