The mystery surrounding the phenomena of dreams has baffled many scientists. There have been several theories and studies that have proposed different reasons as to why human beings dream. From Sigmund Freud’s theory that believed dreams to be a representation of “disguised fulfilments of repressed wishes” to those that suggest dreams to be a manifestation of our past memories, there have been several studies decoding their origin.
However, the most recent theory suggests that dreams are the coping mechanism that prepares us for reality. Erik Hoel, a research assistant professor of neuroscience at Tufts University in Massachusetts, US, published a paper in 2020 titled, ‘The Overfitted Brain: Dreams evolved to assist generalization’. Erik works at Tufts’ Allen Discovery Center where he studies consciousness, modelling the relationships between experiences and brain states.
For his research, Erik worked with artificial neural networks like machine learning. Working with complex machines like DeepMind, the Google artificial intelligence program, Erik learnt that when such machine learning programs repeat a task, again and again, they can become “overfit”. This means that the machines are able to do that one thing really well, but not to learn lessons and create general knowledge that can be applied to different tasks. To prevent that, programmers often add random variables or other unwanted additions to data
Something similar happens to our brains, according to Erik’s research. By dreaming, our brain breaks the cycle of monotonous tasks by adding a hint of weirdness to our dreams, thus keeping our brains fit.
Erik mentions how fiction and the weird elements in our dreams are part of an evolutionary process. Speaking to Tufts Now, Erik said that there is a sort of deep biological need for fiction in humans. He mentioned that the whole idea of TV shows, novels, movies, and video games that we consume for long hours are diversions that actually serve deep down some sort of fundamental purpose.
He further says that the point of dreams is the dreams themselves because they act as an escape away from the statistically biased input of an animal’s daily life, which can therefore increase performance. Erik says that although it may sound paradoxical, a dream about flying may actually help one keep your balance running.