Where do dreams come from?

Dreams Part 2

Where do our dreams come from?  It’s an interesting question. 

Let’s start with some neuroscience. In a part of our brain called the Limbic System, we have an area which contains all our long term memories, called the “hippocampus”. After all we need a storage system for our vast memories and experiences. Like an endless filling cabinet, we can’t carry all our vast memory systems and experiences around with us in the foremost of our minds on a day to day basis.  Therefore we store them in our filling cabinet. 

It processes almost thirty billion bytes of data per second and it records all our significant experiences that we have, from the time of our birth to our final breath.  The filling cabinet doesn’t recognise logic or reasoning but has its own language.  It recognises – sight, sound, touch, taste, smell and instinct, in other words, it relies on our sensory perceptions. 


Let’s just run a bit further with this. Suppose we’re chatting and a fly passes by us, are we really going to bat an eyelid? After all, a simple fly is quite harmless; it possess no threat, so we wave it away and carry on chatting.  Now, let’s suppose it’s a wasp; now this becomes a potential threat, as a wasp can sting us and cause a reactive pain.  Our audio hearing perceives this threat through our hearing, so we’ll stop talking and look around to see where the threat is.  This is the learnt and conditioned information putting us on high alert and so we react accordingly. 

The same applies with the threat of potential aggression or risk of attack, we react accordingly.  We’ll either remove ourselves from the threat or confront it (flight or fight).  Our sensory perceptions are working for us at an unconscious and conscious level.  A foul smell or taste we don’t like can have us wrinkling our noses or even gagging; a gut feeling can tell us that something is not right.

We’re collecting and gathering files in our filling cabinet and our environmental existence contributes mostly to this.  It forms a blueprint as to how we see and evaluate our internal world about ourselves, as well as the safety of our external world.  In other words, we become shaped by the filling cabinet, good and not so good experiences.  It’s from these file snap shots that our dreams come, randomly all mixed up according to what happening in our lives in the present as well as the past. 

Understanding the connection.

Connected to this integrated function and next to the filling cabinet (hippocampus) is the amygdala, which is involved in processing emotions and fear-learning.  It links areas of the cortex that process higher cognitive information with hypothalamic and brainstem systems that control lower metabolic responses (e.g. touch, pain, sensitivity and respiration).  This allows the amygdala to coordinate physiological responses based on cognitive information. 

If we experience a frightening dream, our body will also react automatically with symptoms such as;

  • rapid heart rate,
  • dry mouth
  • perspiration

This is why we can awaken from a bad dream feeling emotionally overwhelmed or a happy dream only to realise that we are chuckling with laughter.

Next time we’ll explore a weird dream and give it a rational meaning.