Why Doesn’t the Human Brain Want Us to Know We’re Dreaming?

Dreams are mysterious. Science is not sure why we dream. There are only theories. But what intrigues me is: Why does our brain prevent us from knowing we’re dreaming?

Sure, there are theories that might well explain why we dream at all. An article in Psychology Today offers some plausible explanations. They tell us that dreams could be: “A component and form of memory processing, aiding in the consolidation of learning and short-term memory to long-term memory storage.” Or: “A means by which the mind works through difficult, complicated, unsettling thoughts, emotions, and experiences, to achieve psychological and emotional balance.”

But–why is it  necessary that we not know we are dreaming? Most people don’t know they’re having a dream. Yet the mind can operate at pretty high levels while dreaming. I can read and write in a dream. I can compose song lyrics in a dream. I can have pretty coherent conversations in them. (Sometimes I even try to rewrite the stories as the dream is going on–even though I don’t know it’s a dream. It’s feels as if I’m writing a script or a novel. But as I write scripts and novels in real life, that’s not too surprising. What’s surprising is, in this whole weird dream-story revision attempt, I STILL don’t know I’m dreaming!) You’d think that, operating at that level, the mind would be capable of noticing it is dreaming, especially as dreams are often quite surreal.

Surrealism–the actual art form–is associated with dreams, and surreal things do happen in mine. In a dream I had recently, a friend told me that his car wasn’t working. I asked what was wrong with it and he said, “Just look!” The car was 95 per cent buried in his front yard with lawn growing neatly over it. I said, “Yeah that would do it.” Now why didn’t I say: “Wow, that is not going to happen in life. I must be dreaming!” Never occurred to me I could be dreaming.  I never ever think I’m dreaming even if there are talking soap bubbles flying past, or tiny little people crawling out of my shoes. In the dream I sputter, “What the hell! Hey there’s these damn little people in my shoes, honey, look! Dammit!”

It seems to be integrally designed into dreaming that you not know that you’re dreaming. I can think of possible reasons; if you’re processing some  real-world psychological stress  in the dream,  and you realize you’re dreaming, it does somehow make sense that the realization would interfere with the processing. You might need to take the event in the dream seriously to process the underlying stresser, or trauma, that generated it.

But doesn’t it feel strange that we have a built-in neurological device for suppressing the realization that we’re dreaming? It’s as if our brains are wired to deceive us, to tell us that we’re not dreaming when we are. (Matrix fans can say, “Maybe that applies to waking life too!) Yes there are visual illusions that happen in the brain. Pareidolia, and so on. But that’s more like an accident of the brain’s information processing limitation. In the case of dreams, it’s almost as if our brains are designed to lie to us! I know: we’ve probably evolved this way for a reason.

But still–it feels like our brains are messing with us.

PS: Yes, there are “lucid dreaming” adventurers who claim they can learn to know they’re dreaming, and even control the dreams. If true, there aren’t very many such people, and I understand that getting there is a long road. It’s sort of like hacking some part of the brain. It may even be doing them harm–because like I said, the brain likely has its reasons for keeping us from knowing that we’re dreaming.

Here is that Psychology Today article: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/sleep-newzzz/201502/why-do-we-dream

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