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Why We Dream

Nighttime reveries are nature’s reset button.

Key points

  • Many people are concerned about peculiar or scary dreams, wondering what they mean, but
  • In fact, dreams may be a way of lowering the emotional arousal left over from the day.
  • Emotional arousal persists when we don’t act on feelings that arise or when we ruminate and worry.
  • Dreams allow us to discharge it safely and start afresh the next day.
Johannes Plenio / Unsplash
Johannes Plenio / Unsplash

Suzanne was thinking of not going on holiday with her friend after all. They had agreed to have a week in Corfu, and Suzanne had offered to find a good deal and book it for them. But now she was hesitant.

“Every night for the last three nights, I have dreamed of being attacked on the beach by a man—twice it was rape, once it was a violent assault. Do you believe in precognitive dreams? I think I’m getting a strong message that I shouldn’t go on this holiday.”

The man seemed different each time—on one occasion, he had a shaved head; on another, long, dark, greasy hair—but she was convinced she was being warned. Suzanne believed in astrology and had once or twice visited a psychic, so this wasn’t an outlandish conclusion for her to arrive at. Fortunately, I was able to give Suzanne a much more down-to-Earth explanation for her frightening dreams.

I had seen Suzanne only twice before. She had consulted me because she was anxious about an important exam she was due to take; we did some work on building her confidence and rehearsed, in guided imagery, her staying calm and motivated on the day, keen to demonstrate the fruits of all her hard work. The exam had gone well, and the week in Corfu was her intended reward to herself.

Further discussion revealed that she had last gone to Greece 15 years ago when she was 18, young and naive. She had been raped by a man in his apartment after she went with him on a date. Although she told me that she “got over that years ago,” she found herself thinking about it again a lot. Clearly, a part of her mind still associated Greece with danger.

I was able to explain that our dreams are a means of discharging emotional arousal from the day before that hasn’t been acted on. This was discovered around 30 years ago by psychologist Joe Griffin, co-founder of the human givens approach, after years of studying his own dreams and those of hundreds of others.1 The findings have since been supported by scientific research.2,3,4,5,6,7

Anything which arouses us emotionally in the day but is not expressed is likely to surface in a dream that night to enable us to discharge the emotion and start the next day afresh. It might be a sudden desire for chocolate we are offered when we are on a diet, anger that we suppressed when we felt unfairly treated by our boss, or worries about being raped on holiday. The desire or the anger or the worry is played out in metaphorical form—we enjoy a plate of oysters, normally prohibitive because of price; we express our rage at a traffic warden who has wrongly booked us; or we get attacked by a man on a beach and escape.

Normally that is enough to discharge the arousal, and the dream isn’t even remembered. Job done. But Suzanne’s dream had been vivid enough to wake her, and, disturbed by it, she had thought anxiously about it the next day—setting herself up for needing to dream it out again the next night.

This made a lot of sense to Suzanne. We also agreed it would be helpful to carry out the rewind de-traumatization technique on her real experience of rape all those years ago, as it was still a live pattern she was matching to. That done, she stopped thinking about it, so she stopped having the dreams. She booked the holiday, and, now older and wiser, she and her friend had a wonderful holiday.

Understanding why we dream is powerful knowledge. In their book Why We Dream, Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell describe how the theory helped a Bosnian refugee granted asylum in the UK who was deeply troubled by recurring nightmares of grenades going off in his mouth. It was assumed that, as he had witnessed shocking atrocities in Bosnia, he was suffering from PTSD, and a psychiatrist planned to prescribe medication. However, a colleague of his, who knew about the dream theory, thought to ask if the man had any worries in the UK. It turned out that because his English was so poor, he was terrified that he might inadvertently say something suspicious-sounding, which would lead him and his family to be sent back to Bosnia. Clearly, the grenades in his mouth symbolized this fear. Once reassured that he would not be sent back, the nightmares ceased abruptly.8

We dream in metaphor so that events completed in dreams are not mistaken for real memories (other imagined scenarios are encoded differently in the brain from real experiences for that reason9). Knowing this can take the fear out of many troubling dreams, which are not portents or premonitions but powerful means of resetting emotional balance.


1. Griffin, J (1997). The Origin of Dreams. The Therapist Ltd.

2. Schredl, M (2010). Characteristics and contents of dreams. International Review of Neurobiology. Academic Press, 92, 135–154.

3. Blagrove, M and Pace-Schott, E F (2010). Trait and neurobiological correlates of individual differences in dream recall and dream content. International Review of Neurobiology, 92, 155–180.

4. Ruby P M (2011). Experimental research on dreaming: state of the art and neuropsychoanalytic perspectives. Frontiers of Psychology, 2, article 286.

5. Vallat, R, Chatard, B, Blagrove, M and Ruby, P M (2017). Characteristics of the memory sources of dreams: a new version of the content-matching paradigm to take mundane and remote memories into account. PLOS ONE, 12, 10, e0185262

6. Eichenlaub, J B, van Rijn, E et al (2018). Incorporation of recent waking-life experiences in dreams correlates with frontal theta activity in REM sleep. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 13, 6, 637–47.

7. Walker, M P and van der Helm, E (2009). Overnight therapy? The role of sleep in emotional brain processing. Psychological Bulletin, 135, 5, 731–48.

8. Griffin, J, and Tyrrell, I (2014). Why We Dream: the definitive answer. HG Publishing, East Sussex.

9. Keeler, J F, Pretsell, D O and Robbins, T W (2014). Functional implications of dopamine D1 vs D2 receptors: a ‘prepare and select’ model of the striatal direct vs. indirect pathways. Neuroscience, 282, 156–75.

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