Jay Dixit, in Psychology Today, surveys research that considers dreams to be the brain’s training grounds for real-world emergencies.
The idea that dreams are a dojo for perfecting waking activities fits well with what is already known about practice. Mental rehearsal through visualization improves skills, enhances learning, and changes the brain, polishing performance in almost any domain, from sports to piano playing.
The single most pervasive theme in dreaming is that of being chased or attacked. Just as athletes in training repeat parts of their performance, we may, in our nightmares, be attacked and chased over and over again, not to solve a particular problem but to actually practice efficient escape behavior.
Saber-toothed tigers no longer stalk our villages, but Stone Age themes still rule our dreams. “Nowadays, the evolutionary footprint is clearest in the dreams of children, who often dream about being chased by monsters, much the same way we were once chased by predators,” says Revonsuo. As life has evolved, so have the threats we rehearse. “You insert a modern danger into that ancestral key and get a bizarre combination,” says Revonsuo. “We dream of being chased, shot, or robbed, getting into traffic accidents, a burglar in our house, or perhaps smaller mishaps such as losing our wallets–and that prepares us for our waking life.”
The dreaming brain, explains Revonsuo, scans emotional memories. When it detects a memory trace with a strong negative emotion, it constructs a nightmare around that theme. The more traumatic the event, the more intense the nightmare. The brain’s system for detecting threats is sensitive and flexible: Anything the brain tags with a strong negative charge gets thrown into the threat bin and dredged up at night.
Sometimes this system works well: Dreaming about a boy running in front of our car better prepares us should that danger crop up in real life. But sometimes the modern world throws the threat-detection mechanism out of whack: Watching horror movies can trigger nightmares about vampires, ghosts, aliens, or zombies. Such “nonsense nightmares” don’t rehearse any useful threats; they’re like an allergic reaction, says Revonsuo. Just as our immune system can mistake pollen for a pathogen and mount a defensive campaign, the threat-detection system misperceives horror movies and deploys its defenses by generating a nightmare.