The content and function of dreams have been topics of scientific, philosophical and religious interest throughout recorded history. Dream interpretation, practiced by the Babylonians in the third millennium BCE and even earlier by the ancient Sumerians, figures prominently in religious texts in several traditions, and has played a lead role in psychotherapy. The scientific study of dreams is called oneirology. Most modern dream study focuses on the neurophysiology of dreams and on proposing and testing hypotheses regarding dream function. It is not known where in the brain dreams originate, if there is a single origin for dreams or if multiple regions of the brain are involved, or what the purpose of dreaming is for the body or mind.
The human dream experience and what to make of it has undergone sizable shifts over the course of history. Long ago, according to writings from Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, dreams dictated post-dream behaviors to an extent sharply reduced in later millennia. These ancient writings about dreams highlight visitation dreams, where a dream figure, usually a deity or a prominent forebear, commands the dreamer to take specific actions and may predict future events. Framing the dream experience varies across cultures as well as through time.
In the Hall study, the most common emotion experienced in dreams was anxiety. Other emotions included abandonment, anger, fear, joy, and happiness. Negative emotions were much more common than positive ones. The Hall data analysis showed that sexual dreams occur no more than 10% of the time and are more prevalent in young to mid-teens. Another study showed that 8% of both men's and women's dreams have sexual content. In some cases, sexual dreams may result in orgasms or nocturnal emissions. These are colloquially known as "wet dreams".
The visual nature of dreams is generally highly phantasmagoric; that is, different locations and objects continuously blend into each other. The visuals (including locations, people, and objects) are generally reflective of a person's memories and experiences, but conversation can take on highly exaggerated and bizarre forms. Some dreams may even tell elaborate stories wherein the dreamer enters entirely new, complex worlds and awakes with ideas, thoughts and feelings never experienced prior to the dream.
Scientists researching some brain functions can work around current restrictions by examining animal subjects. As stated by the Society for Neuroscience, "Because no adequate alternatives exist, much of this research must [sic] be done on animal subjects." However, since animal dreaming can be only inferred, not confirmed, animal studies yield no hard facts to illuminate the neurophysiology of dreams. Examining human subjects with brain lesions can provide clues, but the lesion method cannot discriminate between the effects of destruction and disconnection and cannot target specific neuronal groups in heterogeneous regions like the brain stem.
Denied precision tools, obliged to depend on imaging, much dream research has succumbed to the law of the instrument. Studies detect an increase of blood flow in a specific brain region and then credit that region with a role in generating dreams. But pooling study results has led to the newer conclusion that dreaming involves large numbers of regions and pathways, which likely are different for different dream events.
Image creation in the brain involves significant neural activity downstream from eye intake, and it is theorized that "the visual imagery of dreams is produced by activation during sleep of the same structures that generate complex visual imagery in waking perception."
For humans in the pre-classical era, and continuing for some non-literate populations into modern times, dreams are believed to have functioned as revealers of truths sourced during sleep from gods or other external entities. Ancient Egyptians believed that dreams were the best way to receive divine revelation, and thus they would induce (or "incubate") dreams. They went to sanctuaries and slept on special "dream beds" in hope of receiving advice, comfort, or healing from the gods. From a Darwinian perspective dreams would have to fulfill some kind of biological requirement, provide some benefit for natural selection to take place, or at least have no negative impact on fitness. Robert (1886), a physician from Hamburg, was the first who suggested that dreams are a need and that they have the function to erase (a) sensory impressions that were not fully worked up, and (b) ideas that were not fully developed during the day. In dreams, incomplete material is either removed (suppressed) or deepened and included into memory. Freud, whose dream studies focused on interpreting dreams, not explaining how or why humans dream, disputed Robert's hypothesis and proposed that dreams preserve sleep by representing as fulfilled those wishes that otherwise would awaken the dreamer. Freud wrote that dreams "serve the purpose of prolonging sleep instead of waking up. Dreams are the GUARDIANS of sleep and not its disturbers."
A turning point in theorizing about dream function came in 1953, when Science published the Aserinsky and Kleitman paper establishing REM sleep as a distinct phase of sleep and linking dreams to REM sleep. Until and even after publication of the Solms 2000 paper that certified the separability of REM sleep and dream phenomena, many studies purporting to uncover the function of dreams have in fact been studying not dreams but measurable REM sleep.
Hobson's and McCarley's 1977 activation-synthesis hypothesis, which proposed "a functional role for dreaming sleep in promoting some aspect of the learning process...." In 2010 a Harvard study was published showing experimental evidence that dreams were correlated with improved learning.
Crick's and Mitchison's 1983 "reverse learning" theory, which states that dreams are like the cleaning-up operations of computers when they are offline, removing (suppressing) parasitic nodes and other "junk" from the mind during sleep.
Eagleman's and Vaughn's 2021 defensive activation theory, which says that, given the brain's neuroplasticity, dreams evolved as a visual hallucinatory activity during sleep's extended periods of darkness, busying the occipital lobe and thereby protecting it from possible appropriation by other, non-vision, sense operations.
But there can be no reasonable doubt that the idea of a soul must have first arisen in the mind of primitive man as a result of observation of his dreams. Ignorant as he was, he could have come to no other conclusion but that, in dreams, he left his sleeping body in one universe and went wandering off into another. It is considered that, but for that savage, the idea of such a thing as a 'soul' would never have even occurred to mankind....
In the Mandukya Upanishad, part of the Veda scriptures of Indian Hinduism, a dream is one of three states that the soul experiences during its lifetime, the other two states being the waking state and the sleep state. The earliest Upanishads, written before 300 BCE, emphasize two meanings of dreams. The first says that dreams are merely expressions of inner desires. The second is the belief of the soul leaving the body and being guided until awakened.
The ancient Hebrews connected their dreams heavily with their religion, though the Hebrews were monotheistic and believed that dreams were the voice of one God alone. Hebrews also differentiated between good dreams (from God) and bad dreams (from evil spirits). The Hebrews, like many other ancient cultures, incubated dreams in order to receive a divine revelation. For example, the Hebrew prophet Samuel would "lie down and sleep in the temple at Shiloh before the Ark and receive the word of the Lord". Most of the dreams in the Bible are in the Book of Genesis.
Christians mostly shared the beliefs of the Hebrews and thought that dreams were of a supernatural character because the Old Testament includes frequent stories of dreams with divine inspiration. The most famous of these dream stories was Jacob's dream of a ladder that stretches from Earth to Heaven. Many Christians preach that God can speak to people through their dreams. The famous glossary, the Somniale Danielis, written in the name of Daniel, attempted to teach Christian populations to interpret their dreams.
In Buddhism, ideas about dreams are similar to the classical and folk traditions in South Asia. The same dream is sometimes experienced by multiple people, as in the case of the Buddha-to-be, before he is leaving his home. It is described in the Mahāvastu that several of the Buddha's relatives had premonitory dreams preceding this. Some dreams are also seen to transcend time: the Buddha-to-be has certain dreams that are the same as those of previous Buddhas, the Lalitavistara states. In Buddhist literature, dreams often function as a "signpost" motif to mark certain stages in the life of the main character.
The Babylonians and Assyrians divided dreams into "good," which were sent by the gods, and "bad," sent by demons. A surviving collection of dream omens entitled Iškar Zaqīqu records various dream scenarios as well as prognostications of what will happen to the person who experiences each dream, apparently based on previous cases. Some list different possible outcomes, based on occasions in which people experienced similar dreams with different results. The Greeks shared their beliefs with the Egyptians on how to interpret good and bad dreams, and the idea of incubating dreams. Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams, also sent warnings and prophecies to those who slept at shrines and temples. The earliest Greek beliefs about dreams were that their gods physically visited the dreamers, where they entered through a keyhole, exiting the same way after the divine message was given. 041b061a72