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Understanding the Mechanism Behind Dreams

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Written by
Dr. Veronica Flores
  • Icon Calendar 18 May 2024
  • Icon Page 616 words
  • Icon Clock 4 min read
English (United States)
Academic level
High School
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Individual Essay Example

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Everybody experiences dreams, but not everyone recalls what they dreamt. Over the years, people have been enquiring about the cause of dreams and why we experience them. To answer this question, we should consider three mechanisms: activation, threat simulation, and memory consolidation. Dreams, activated by the brain’s interpretation of neural activities during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, serve as a biological defense mechanism, simulate threats, and aid in memory consolidation and emotional processing.

Activation-Synthesis Hypothesis

Firstly, dreams are activated by the brain, as explained by the activation-synthesis theory. REM sleep is characterized by more dreaming than non-REM (Hoel 2021, p. 2). In this case, the dreams result from the cortex experiencing slow waves of neural activities produced by the brain. During REM sleep, dreams result from the brain releasing extra energy (Hoel 2021, p. 6). The energy released is in the form of electrical impulses, which cause neural activities. While trying to make sense of these activities, the brain activates dreams by pulling random thoughts and memories, as per the synthesis theory. As such, dreams are triggered by the brain as it interprets the neural activities produced while getting rid of extra energy.

Understanding the Mechanism Behind Dreams

Threat and Social Simulation Theories

The second mechanism behind dreams is that they are a biological defense and survival mechanism per the threat and social simulation theories. The threat simulation theory suggests that dreaming enabled our forefathers to prepare for future disasters since they simulated dangerous events (Wamsley 2022, p. 13). Dreaming about life-threatening situations enhances the neuro-cognitive mechanisms required to prepare and avoid these circumstances. Despite some of these situations being imaginary, the dreams help us practice and be ready when they occur. In addition, dreams are purposeful since they help in the survival of our ancestors, as dictated by both the threat and social simulation theories (Wamsley 2022, p. 13). The social simulation theory states that dreaming is a way of rehearsing how to interact with others in our waking lives. Social skills, bonds, and networks are some of the aspects mirrored by dreams. Hence, dreams come as a way to help humans defend themselves and survive together.

Emotional Processing and Memory Consolidation

Lastly, dreams are a result of emotional processing and memory consolidation. Not only do dreams help in memory consolidation, but they also give emotional memory processing its emotional regulation features (Zhang et al. 2024, p. 2). In this scenario, dreams occur as a way to explore our inner subconscious minds and form memories by including elements of recent events or experiences. It is beneficial in working through unresolved emotions and experiences, contributing to overall mental health. Therefore, as per this mechanism, dreams are a multifaceted phenomenon uniting memory, emotion, and creativity.


Activation, threat simulation theory, and memory consolidation are the three main mechanisms behind dreams. Activation of dreams happens due to the brain’s analysis of neural activities. Moreover, dreams may result from a biological defense mechanism that simulates feature threats. Finally, dreams come as a result of memories joining and emotional processing. Thus, dreams are mysterious and complex experiences, and understanding them requires more than mere curiosity.

Reference List

Hoel, E 2021, ‘The overfitted brain: Dreams evolved to assist generalization,’ Patterns, vol. 2, no. 5, pp. 1–15, viewed 20 April 2024, DOI: 10.1016/j.patter.2021.100244.

Wamsley, EJ 2022, ‘Constructive episodic simulation in dreams,’ Plos One, vol. 17, no. 3, pp. 1–18, viewed 20 April 2024, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0264574.

Zhang, J, Pena, A, Delano, N, Sattari, N, Shuster, AE, Baker, FC, Simon, K & Mednick, SC 2024, ‘Evidence of an active role of dreaming in emotional memory processing shows that we dream to forget,’ Scientific Reports, vol. 14, no. 1, pp. 1–13, viewed 20 April 2024, DOI: 10.1038/s41598-024-58170-z.

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