How Dreams Work

By: Lee Ann Obringer & Yves Jeffcoat  | 
Why humans dreams has puzzled us for eons. Do you remember what you dreamed last night? Boris SV/Getty Images

Humans have always dreamed. Yet the phenomenon of dreaming has long been puzzling and fascinating. And for good reason: Dreams can be vivid, exciting and sometimes terrifying. But as many questions as neuroscientists, psychologists and philosophers have asked about dreams, the purpose of dreaming is still nebulous. Are they strictly random brain impulses, or are our brains actually working through everyday issues while we sleep as a sort of coping mechanism? Should we even bother to interpret our dreams? Many people say that we have a great deal to learn from our nighttime narratives.

In this article, we'll talk about the major dream theories, from Sigmund Freud's view to the hypotheses that claim dreams are random. We'll find out what scientists say is happening in our brains when we dream and why we have trouble remembering dreams when we wake up. We'll also cover recurring dreams and nightmares.


For centuries, we've tried to figure out just why our brains play these nightly shows for us. Researchers continue to toss around many theories about dreaming. According to Sidarta Ribeiro, a neuroscientist and author of the book "The Oracle of Night: The History and Science of Dreams," those theories essentially fall into two categories:

  1. theories that claim dreams have meaning
  2. theories that claim dreams have no meaning

Ribeiro supports theories that fall in the former camp. Still, he says, there is a long tradition of anti-Freudian thinkers who say that dreams are nothing more than a byproduct of brain activity.

In the next section, we'll look at the different stages of sleep.