Why Do We Dream?

It's obvious that life crosses over into the dream world. They have individual meanings and, for some, paying attention to those could provide understanding that your waking mind is missing. Credit: Burtoo / Getty Images

You are at work, but then it turns into a circus. Christopher Walken saunters in, but then he kind of morphed into the old soccer coach who benched you in middle school. And then you wake up. It was only a dream, you say to yourself.

However nonsensical, it's a mistake to dismiss your dreams out of hand, according to Roger Harnish, a professor of psychology at Rochester Institute of Technology and creator of Dream Professor, an iPhone app that helps users analyze their dreams. "If you try to link them to what's been currently going on in your life," Harnish says, "they might help you understand and resolve things in your life that have been unresolved."

When trying to understand a particularly confusing dream, many people end up consulting a dream dictionary. Such directories have been with us since Freud wrote The Interpretation of Dreams, which discussed the importance of dreams as a way to ferret out our subconscious wishes and desires. While Freud did make some attempts at examining some of the universal symbolism in dreams (spoiler alert: most were symbols for sex and genitals), he stressed that dreams cannot be understood without first understanding the individual. This is where dream dictionaries fall short. "[They] say that everybody is the same, people aren't unique, that their lives aren't unique," says Harnish. These refresh sources are not always so helpful. Consult dreammoods.com about why raisins seem to keep appearing in your dreams, and you'll learn that they represent "some negative force that is working against you. The dream may also be a metaphor for something or someone who is old and shriveled." Or maybe you had a handful of them before bed.

This isn't necessarily the fault of dreammoods.com: Dreams are extremely challenging to study. Even scientists remain unclear about what biological purpose they serve. Some researchers believe that dreams might play a role in consolidating our memories, strengthening parts of them, and integrating them with prior events and knowledge. But even if we don't know what dreams do, we can probably rule out a couple old ideas. They don't seem to be trash dumps for thoughts, although some people believe sleep might still clear unnecessary leftovers from our mind. Also, science has yet to confirm the supernatural purpose of dreams. "They don't seem to be messages from other worlds, other sources, psychic things like that," says Harnish.

That said, it's obvious that life crosses over into the dream world, as anyone who has had a stress dream about a test or gone on a dream-date with a crush can tell you. They have individual meanings and, for some, paying attention to those could provide understanding that your waking mind is missing. Harnish's app uses an algorithm to interpret the details of dreams. This algorithm searches for patterns — which are based on how most people's minds and memories work — and lets you know if your dream might be related to feelings like anxiety, depression, joy, or sadness. "There is no way that we are even close to be accurately detecting these types of things," Harnish admits. But the his app can help tease out what the mind is trying to process when you sleep. If you are looking for meaning from dreams, that might be the best we can expect.