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Paprika, Satoshi Kon

Your weird dreams help you cope with unexpected situations, says new theory

Researchers have suggested that dreams make our understanding of the world more nuanced

The question of why we dream has long puzzled scientists. Their subjective nature, and the fact they can’t be recorded, makes it impossible to prove why they occur, or even how they differ between individuals.

Now, a new theory has proposed that the reason we have weird dreams is to help us cope with the unexpected. Inspired by the ways artificial intelligence uses neural networks to learn information, researchers at Tufts University in Massachusetts, US, have proposed that dreams offer the brain a break from the sameness of daily stimuli.

“While various hypotheses have been put forward, many of these are contradicted by the sparse, hallucinatory, and narrative nature of dreams, a nature that seems to lack any particular function,” Erik Hoel, a research assistant professor of neuroscience at Tufts University, told the Guardian.

According to Hoel, a common problem when training AI is that it becomes too familiar with the data it’s trained on, because it assumes the data set is a perfect representation of all situations it might encounter. To remedy this, scientists introduce chaotic elements into the data in the form of corrupted inputs.

Hoel argues that our brains respond similarly when we dream. By creating strange and surreal versions of reality, dreams make our understanding of the world more nuanced. “It is the very strangeness of dreams in their divergence from waking experience that gives them their biological function,” Hoel said.

Although Hoel’s ‘overfitted brain hypothesis’ is still untested, it would explain why we tend to have crazy dreams in periods of monotony. Last year, researchers at the Dream Research Institute in London and Harvard University in Massachusetts conducted surveys on what they labelled ‘pandemic dreams’ to refer to the collective rise in reports of vivid dreams over lockdown. 

“People tend to attach more importance to dreams and dream more at times of transition and in times of crisis, like when changing jobs or when there’s been a death in the family. Now, we’re experiencing this in the collective because our whole world has been turned upside down,” said Brighton-based psychotherapist Matthew Bowes at the time.

“It is all plausible,” Prof Mark Blagrove, director of Swansea University Sleep Laboratory, who specialises in the study of sleep and dreams, responded to the theory.

“This theory proposes that in dreams we generalise from what we have learned during the day. It thus fits within various other current theories, such as the recent Nextup theory, which holds that dreams search for novel associations of what has recently been learned,” he added.

“However, as with so many theories that dreaming has a function, there is no evidence yet that dreaming is more than an epiphenomenon, a functionless byproduct of neural activity,” he concluded.