How the strangeness of our dreams reveals their true purpose
A new explanation for the dream suggests that it does something much deeper than reinforcing learning while we sleep. It might even explain our love of stories
November 4, 2020
IF ALIENS visited Earth, they might notice something strange. Almost everyone, everywhere, spends a significant part of their day paying attention to things that are not real. Humans often care fiercely about events that never happened, whether in TV shows, video games, novels, movies. Why care so much about fictions?
Perhaps, these aliens could assume, that humans are too stupid to distinguish between the truth and the lie. Or maybe they pay attention to false events for the same reason they eat too much cheesecake: both are unnatural results of evolved interests.
The aliens’ confusion may deepen when they learn that humans are falling asleep and dreaming. Because dreams are also fictions. Dreaming takes time and energy, so presumably has an evolutionary purpose. Aliens might start to wonder what they’re missing about the importance of experiencing things that never happened.
Having grown up in the family bookstore and novelist, this question of the importance of fictions is particularly dear to me. I think imaginary aliens are in the same position as a scientist trying to explain the evolved purpose of dreams – and if we can identify the biological reason for the dream, we can ask ourselves if this applies to the artificial dreams that we do. let’s call it fictions.
As a neuroscientist, I worked on a hypothesis that builds on what we’ve learned about artificial neural networks to present dreaming as a way to improve our performance in waking life, but not in the way of which we might think. If this is correct, it may also explain part of this strange human attraction to the unreal in our waking lives.