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How the strangeness of our dreams reveals their real purpose

A new explanation for dreaming suggests that it does something far deeper than enhancing sleep-based learning. It might even explain our love for stories


4th November 2020

By Erik Hoel

IF ALIENS ever 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. People are often very interested in events that never happened, be it in TV shows, video games, novels, or movies. Why care so much about fiction?

Perhaps these aliens could hypothesize that humans are too stupid to distinguish between truth and falsehood. Or maybe they watch out for bogus events for the same reason they overeat cheesecake: both are not natural results of developed interests.

The aliens’ confusion could deepen when they learned that humans are falling asleep and dreaming. Because dreams are also fictions. Dreaming takes time and energy, so it probably has an evolutionary purpose. The aliens may wonder why they lack the importance of experiencing things that never happened.

As someone who grew up in my family’s bookstore and as a writer, this question of the meaning of fiction is particularly important to me. I think the 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 dreaming, we can ask if it applies to the artificial dreams, that we call fictions.

As a neuroscientist, I’ve worked on a hypothesis that relies on what we’ve learned about artificial neural networks to use dreams as a means to improve our performance in waking life, just not in the way we might think. If right, it can also explain some of those strange human attractions for the unreal in our waking lives. …