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Cognitive Theories of Dreaming

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Cognitive Theories of Dreaming

what is the problem solving theory of dreams

This theory describes that dreams have important psychological function. Instead of being random selections of information, this theory believes dreams work to tell a story and relate to recent experiences.

The problem-solving theory is a cognitive theory of dreaming that states the function of dreams is to help people solve their ongoing problems. In Cartwright's theory, dreams are a series of images activated by ongoing concerns, which are sought to be solved.

The main gist of the problem-solving theory, introduced by Cartwright, is that dreams work to help individuals solve ongoing problems. Images seen during dreams under this theory are activated by ongoing concerns. Thus, the effects of personal concerns on dreams are most likely to be seen by studying people under stress.

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Why We Dream: Real Reasons Revealed

what is the problem solving theory of dreams

BOSTON – The slumbering mind might not seem like an apt tool for any critical thinking, but humans can actually solve problems while asleep, researchers say. Not only that, but one purpose for dreaming itself may be to help us find solutions to puzzles that plague us during waking hours.

Dreams are highly visual and often illogical in nature, which makes them ripe for the type of "out-of-the-box" thinking that some problem-solving requires, said Deirdre Barrett, a psychologist at Harvard University.

Barrett's theory on dreaming , which she discussed at the Association for Psychological Science meeting here last month, boils down to this: Dreaming is really just thinking, but in a slightly different state from when our eyes are open. [Why we dream is just one mystery of the mind.]

"Whatever the state we're put in, we're still working on the same problems," Barrett said. Although dreams might have initially evolved for a different purpose, they likely have been refined over time so they can serve double-duty: help the brain reboot itself and problem-solve.

Dreams and evolution

A theory to explain dreams, or any human behavior for that matter, needs to take into account evolution, Barrett said. But many early theories of dreaming either didn't address evolution at all, or downright contradicted it, she said.

For instance, Sigmund Freud proposed dreams exist to fulfill our wishes. But such gratification in an imaginary world would do little to help us adapt our instincts to the physical world, which is one key point of evolution, Barrett said.

Others have proposed dreams are more of a side effect of the sleep cycle. Dreams usually occur during Rapid Eye Movement, or REM, sleep. This stage is thought to serve several functions: to rest a part of the brain (since some areas are active while others aren't) and to replenish brain chemicals, such as neurotransmitters.

This has led some to say that dreams happen simply because REM sleep happens, Barrett said. The psychologist Steven Pinker once likened dreams to computer screen savers, saying that it perhaps "doesn't really matter what the content is as long as certain parts of the brain are active."

However, Barrett disagrees. "My opinion is that, evolution just isn't wasteful, that when things evolve for one purpose, that generally they don't continue throughout time to have only that purpose, but anything else that may be useful about them gets refined," she said in a telephone interview with LiveScience prior to the convention.

She also noted that REM sleep has been around for quite some time, since mammals evolved some 220 million years ago. "The longer something has existed during evolutionary history, the likelier it is to have other functions overlaid on it," she said at the convention.


Barrett has studied problem-solving in dreams for more than 10 years, and documented many examples of the phenomenon.

In one experiment, Barrett had college students pick a homework problem to try to solve in a dream. The problems weren't rocket science; they were fairly easy questions that the student simply hadn't gotten around to solving yet. Students focused on the problem each night before they went to bed. At the end of a week, about half the students had dreamed about the problem and about a quarter had a dream that contained the answer, Barrett said.

So at least in the cases where problems are relatively easy, some people can solve them in their sleep.

Barrett has also extensively reviewed scientific and historical literature, looking for examples of problems solved in dreams.

She found examples of almost every type of problem being solved in a dream, from the mathematical to the artistic. But many were related to problems that required individuals to visualize something in his or her mind, such as an inventor picturing a new device.

The other major category of problems solved in dreams included "ones where the conventional wisdom is just wrong about how to approach the problem," Barrett said.

Dreams might have evolved to be particularly good at allowing us to work out puzzles that fall into those two categories, she said.

"I think that dreams and REM sleep have probably further evolved to be useful for really as many of the things that our thinking is useful for," Barrett said. "It's just extra thinking time, so potentially any problem can get solved during it, but it's thinking time in the state that's very visual and looser in associations, so we've evolved to use it especially to work on those kinds of problems."

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.

Problem-solving in dreams (famous examples)

In dreams, while our conscious mind is inactive, our subconscious mind is actively working on problems that we may have failed to solve consciously in our waking life. That’s why it’s highly likely that a solution to a problem that you’ve been working on for quite a while can pop up in your dream.

This is similar to when, for example, you are thinking hard about a problem and then you let go of it because you can’t come up with a solution. And then after a while, when you’re involved in some other unrelated activity, the solution to your problem suddenly pops up from nowhere. You say you had an insight .

This happens because as soon as you let go of the problem consciously, your subconscious mind is still working on solving it behind the scenes.

Once it solves the problem, it gets ready to launch the solution into your consciousness as soon as it comes across a trigger that’s in some way similar to the solution- an image, a situation, a word, etc.

Examples of some famous solutions found in dreams

Dreams not only help you understand your own psychological makeup but also solve your complex daily life problems for you. If you aren’t maintaining a dream journal yet, the following anecdotes will surely motivate you to record your dreams…

Structure of benzene

August Kekule had been trying to figure out how atoms in the benzene molecule arranged themselves but couldn’t come up with a plausible explanation. One night he dreamed of dancing atoms that gradually arranged themselves in the form of a snake.

The snake then turned around and swallowed its own tail, forming a ring-like shape. This figure then kept dancing in front of him.

Upon waking up Kekule realized that the dream was telling him that benzene molecules were made of rings of carbon atoms.

The problem of the shape of the benzene molecule was solved and a new field called aromatic chemistry came into existence that significantly advanced the understanding of chemical bonding.

problem solving in dreams

Transmission of nerve impulses

Otto Loewi believed that nerve impulses were transmitted chemically but he had no way to demonstrate it. For years he searched for ways to prove his theory experimentally.

One night he dreamed of an experimental design that he could possibly use to prove his theory. He carried out the experiments, published his work and finally confirmed his theory. He later won a Nobel prize in medicine and is widely regarded as the ‘father of neuroscience’.

Mendeleev’s periodic table

Mendeleev wrote names of the different elements along with their properties on cards that he laid out in front of him on his table. He arranged and re-arranged the cards on the table trying to figure out a pattern.

Exhausted, he fell asleep and in his dream he saw the elements getting arranged in a logical pattern according to their atomic weights. Thus the periodic table was born.

The golf swing

Jack Nicklaus was a golf player who hadn’t been doing well lately. One night he dreamed that he was playing very well and noticed that his grip on the golf club was different than what he actually used in the real world. He tried the grip that he’d seen in the dream and it worked. His golfing skills greatly improved.

The sewing machine

This is the anecdote that I found most fascinating. Elias Howe, the inventor of the modern sewing machine, faced a great dilemma while making the machine. He didn’t know where to provide an eye to his sewing machine needle. He couldn’t provide it at the tail, as is usually done in hand-held needles.

One night, after he had spent days figuring out a solution, he saw a dream in which he had been assigned the task of making a sewing machine by a king. The king gave him 24 hours to make it or else he would be executed. He struggled with the same problem of the needle eye in the dream. Then the time of execution arrived.

While he was being carried by the guards for execution, he noticed their spears were pierced at the tips. He had found the answer! He should provide the eye to his sewing machine needle at its pointed tip! He begged for more time and whilst begging he woke up. He rushed to the machine that he had been working on and solved his problem.

Dreams and creativity

Dreams can not only provide us with solutions to problems but also give us creative insights.

Stephen King’s plot for his famous novel  Misery  was inspired by a dream, so was Stephanie Meyer’s  Twilight . Mary Shelly, the creator of the Frankenstein monster, had actually seen the character in a dream.

The Terminator, created by James Cameron, was also inspired by a dream. Paul McCartney of The Beatles one day ‘woke up with a tune in his head’ and the song ‘Yesterday’ now has the Guinness world record for the greatest number of covers.

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Dreams and creative problem-solving


Dreams have produced art, music, novels, films, mathematical proofs, designs for architecture, telescopes, and computers. Dreaming is essentially our brain thinking in another neurophysiologic state-and therefore it is likely to solve some problems on which our waking minds have become stuck. This neurophysiologic state is characterized by high activity in brain areas associated with imagery, so problems requiring vivid visualization are also more likely to get help from dreaming. This article reviews great historical dreams and modern laboratory research to suggest how dreams can aid creativity and problem-solving.

Keywords: REM sleep; creativity; dream incubation; dreams; problem-solving.

© 2017 New York Academy of Sciences.

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Wondrium Daily

Why Do We Dream? Three Modern Theories on Sleep

From The Lecture Series: Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior

December 1, 2017 Psychology

By Mark Leary, Ph.D. , Duke University

Why do we dream modern theories of dreams suggest that dreams are functional—that they do something useful for us. one functional theory suggests that dreams help people to solve personal problems, to find solutions to things in life that are bothering them..

Dreaming conceptual image

This is a continuation of  Why Do We Dream? From Freud to Activation-Synthesis Theory

The problem-solving explanation of why we dream.

So, if we are struggling with problems at work or in a relationship, our dreams explore these problems as we sleep and sometimes hit upon a solution for us. When people say that they are going to “sleep on” a problem, they mean that they hope that an answer will come to them while they’re sleeping.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior . Watch it now, Wondrium .

The “problem-solving explanation” for why we dream sounds quite plausible, but it doesn’t really square with a good deal of research either. For example, less than half of the dreams that people report have any connection, however remote, to the events they experienced the previous day, and even far fewer seem to have anything to do with people’s current problems.

Furthermore, the fact that people recall only a very small percentage of their dreams—perhaps as low as 1 percent—also argues against the problem-solving theory. It wouldn’t make much sense to have a process that helped us figure out solutions to our problems but that didn’t let us remember the solutions that dreaming provided!

…research doesn’t show differences in well-being between people who do and do not remember their dreams.

And, if dreams help us with our problems, then it would seem that people who remember their dreams would be at a great advantage in life compared to people who don’t recall many of their dreams each night. But research doesn’t show differences in well-being between people who do and do not remember their dreams. People who recall more of their dreams don’t seem to resolve their personal problems more effectively. So, although there’s plenty of evidence that many dreams do reflect our daily problems, there’s not much support for the idea that dreaming helps us figure out useful solutions.

Learn more about the evolution, self-awareness, and culture of human beings

The Cleanup Explanation for Dreaming

Other theories of dreaming focus on what the brain is doing when people dream, and these explanations don’t require that people remember their dreams in order for the process to be beneficial. For example, one theory suggests that dreams are involved in the process of “cleaning up” recent memories and other clutter from the mind.

I have a program on my computer that I run from time to time that deletes redundant files, clears out fragments of files I don’t need any more, erases traces of Internet surfing, and generally cleans up the clutter on my hard drive so that it operates more efficiently.

In the same way, some experts suggest that while we sleep each night, this kind of cleaning operation occurs in the brain. The images in our dreams are just snippets of memories that are being scanned and evaluated for deletion, thereby cleaning up the mind to prepare for the next day.

Like the other theories, the cleanup explanation makes sense, but not everything that we know about dreaming supports it. As I mentioned, only about half of our dreams involve anything related to our recent experiences, so it’s not clear that our dreams reflect recent memories that are being scanned and deleted.

And, in addition, the cleanup explanation would seem to predict that our dreams would be composed of little piecemeal snippets of memories, but they usually aren’t. Dreams often have an internally consistent story line that doesn’t have any obvious connection to anything that actually happened to us recently.

Learn more about the massive effect genes have on people’s personalities

Why We Dream: The Consolidation Theory

A similar explanation known as consolidation theory suggests that dreams are involved in the storage of memories from the previous day. When we talked about forgetting, I mentioned that memories undergo a process of consolidation that helps to store them in long-term memory. And some researchers believe that dreaming occurs each night during the consolidation process.

This is another explanation in which the content of a dream is just a by-product of brain activity that’s occurring as memories are consolidated.

This explanation has many of the same problems as the cleanup theory. When researchers analyze the content of people’s dreams, they don’t often seem to involve actual memories like the theory would predict.

Well, as you’re starting to see, researchers have offered many reasonable explanations of what dreaming is all about, but none of them are entirely consistent with the data that research has provided about sleep and dreaming.

Perhaps that means that we haven’t yet uncovered the real purpose of dreaming, or maybe it means that dreaming doesn’t actually have a function, or maybe we’re asking the wrong questions.

Another approach to understanding dreaming is to examine the content of people’s dreams. People tend to dream about certain topics far more than other topics.

Learn more about why we have such a wide variety of emotions

Most people have had dreams of being naked or dressed inappropriately in public, or running in terror from something that was chasing them. But not many of us have had dreams of doing pushups in an airplane or picking grapes. Maybe that tells us something.

Read about why dreams are so weird in part three of this series of articles on dreams.

Common questions about why we dream.

Sleep deprivation, substance abuse or even consumption, food intake, daily activity, goals, stressors, memories : all these and more can explain why we dream .

According to many scientific materialist theories , dreams have no meaning and are simply a way for our brain to “clean up” the extra neurotransmitters. However, across human history, the act of deciphering dreams has existed and been utilized as a way of interpreting the dreamer’s life.

Studies show that dreaming can alleviate depression , although nightmares can cause it. Dreaming seems to be a tool that is misunderstood.

Anyone who has ever had a lucid dream knows that it is entirely possible to control dreams , and lucid dreaming can additionally be exercised as a growable skill.

This article was updated on 12/20/2019

Keep reading sleep patterns across the human lifecycle where should babies sleep the immune response.

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Why Do We Dream?

Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.

what is the problem solving theory of dreams

Shaheen Lakhan, MD, PhD, is an award-winning physician-scientist and clinical development specialist.

what is the problem solving theory of dreams

What Is a Dream?

The role of dreams.

Lucid Dreaming

Stress dreams.

Despite scientific inquiry, we still don't have a solid answer for why people dream. Some of the most notable theories are that dreaming helps us process memories and better understand our emotions , also providing a way to express what we want or to practice facing our challenges.

7 Theories on Why We Dream

A dream includes the images, thoughts, and emotions that are experienced during sleep. Dreams can range from extraordinarily intense or emotional to very vague, fleeting, confusing, or even boring. Some dreams are joyful, while others are frightening or sad. Sometimes dreams seem to have a clear narrative, while many others appear to make no sense at all.

There are many unknowns about dreaming and sleep, but what scientists do know is that just about everyone dreams every time they sleep, for a total of around two hours per night, whether they remember it upon waking or not .

Beyond what's in a particular dream, there is the question of why we dream at all. Below, we detail the most prominent theories on the purpose of dreaming and how these explanations can be applied to specific dreams.

How Do Scientists Study Dreams?

The question of why we dream has fascinated philosophers and scientists for thousands of years. Traditionally, dream content is measured by the subjective recollections of the dreamer upon waking. However, observation is also accomplished through objective evaluation in a lab.

In one study, researchers even created a rudimentary dream content map that was able to track what people dreamed about in real time using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) patterns. The map was then backed up by the dreamers' reports upon waking.

Some of the more prominent dream theories contend that the function of dreaming is to:

Many experts believe that we dream due to a combination of these reasons rather than any one particular theory. Additionally, while many researchers believe that dreaming is essential to mental, emotional, and physical well-being, some scientists suggest that dreams serve no real purpose at all.

The bottom line is, while many theories have been proposed, no single consensus has emerged on why we dream.

Dreaming during different phases of sleep may also serve unique purposes. The most vivid dreams happen during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep , and these are the dreams that we're most likely to recall. We also dream during non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) sleep, but those dreams are known to be remembered less often and have more mundane content.

Dreams May Reflect the Unconscious

Sigmund Freud’s theory of dreams suggests that dreams represent  unconscious desires, thoughts, wish fulfillment, and motivations. According to Freud, people are driven by repressed and unconscious longings, such as aggressive and sexual instincts .

While many of Freud's assertions have been debunked, research suggests there is a dream rebound effect, also known as dream rebound theory, in which suppression of a thought tends to result in dreaming about it.

What Causes Dreams to Happen?

In " The Interpretation of Dreams ," Freud wrote that dreams are "disguised fulfillments of repressed wishes." He also described two different components of dreams: manifest content (actual images) and latent content (hidden meaning).

Freud’s theory contributed to the rise and popularity of dream interpretation . While research has failed to demonstrate that the manifest content disguises the psychological significance of a dream, some experts believe that dreams play an important role in processing emotions and stressful experiences.

Dreams Process Information

According to the activation-synthesis model of dreaming , which was first proposed by J. Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley, circuits in the brain become activated during REM sleep, which triggers the amygdala and hippocampus to create an array of electrical impulses. This results in a compilation of random thoughts, images, and memories that appear while dreaming.

When we wake, our active minds pull together the various images and memory fragments of the dream to create a cohesive narrative.  

In the activation-synthesis hypothesis, dreams are a compilation of randomness that appear to the sleeping mind and are brought together in a meaningful way when we wake. In this sense, dreams may provoke the dreamer to make new connections, inspire useful ideas, or have creative epiphanies in their waking lives.

Dreams Aid In Memory

According to the information-processing theory, sleep allows us to consolidate and process all of the information and memories that we have collected during the previous day. Some dream experts suggest that dreaming is a byproduct, or even an active part, of this experience processing.  

This model, known as the self-organization theory of dreaming , explains that dreaming is a side effect of brain neural activity as memories are consolidated during sleep. During this process of unconscious information redistribution, it is suggested that memories are either strengthened or weakened. According to the self-organization theory of dreaming, while we dream, helpful memories are made stronger, while less useful ones fade away.

Research supports this theory, finding improvement in complex tasks when a person dreams about doing them. Studies also show that during REM sleep, low-frequency theta waves were more active in the frontal lobe, just like they are when people are learning, storing, and remembering information when awake.

Dreams Spur Creativity

Another theory about dreams says that their purpose is to help us solve problems. In this creativity theory of dreaming, the unconstrained, unconscious mind is free to wander its limitless potential while unburdened by the often stifling realities of the conscious world. In fact, research has shown dreaming to be an effective promoter of creative thinking.

Scientific research and anecdotal evidence back up the fact that many people do successfully mine their dreams for inspiration and credit their dreams for their big "aha" moments.

The ability to make unexpected connections between memories and ideas that appear in your dreams often proves to be an especially fertile ground for creativity.

Dreams Reflect Your Life

Under the continuity hypothesis, dreams function as a reflection of a person's real life, incorporating conscious experiences into their dreams. Rather than a straightforward replay of waking life, dreams show up as a patchwork of memory fragments.

Still, studies show that non-REM sleep may be more involved with declarative memory (the more routine stuff), while REM dreams include more emotional and instructive memories. In general, REM dreams tend to be easier to recall compared to non-REM dreams.

Under the continuity hypothesis, memories may be fragmented purposefully in our dreams as part of incorporating new learning and experiences into long-term memory . Still, there are many unanswered questions as to why some aspects of memories are featured more or less prominently in our dreams.

Dreams Prepare and Protect

The primitive instinct rehearsal and adaptive strategy theories of dreaming propose that we dream to better prepare ourselves to confront dangers in the real world. The dream as a social simulation function or threat simulation provides the dreamer a safe environment to practice important survival skills.

While dreaming, we hone our fight-or-flight instincts and build mental capability for handling threatening scenarios. Under the threat simulation theory, our sleeping brains focus on the fight-or-flight mechanism to prep us for life-threatening and/or emotionally intense scenarios including:

This theory suggests that practicing or rehearsing these skills in our dreams gives us an evolutionary advantage in that we can better cope with or avoid threatening scenarios in the real world. This helps explain why so many dreams contain scary, dramatic, or intense content.

Dreams Help Process Emotions

The emotional regulation dream theory says that the function of dreams is to help us process and cope with our emotions or trauma in the safe space of slumber.

Research shows that the amygdala, which is involved in processing emotions, and the hippocampus, which plays a vital role in condensing information and moving it from short-term to long-term memory storage, are active during vivid, intense dreaming. This illustrates a strong link between dreaming, memory storage, and emotional processing.

This theory suggests that REM sleep plays a vital role in emotional brain regulation. It also helps explain why so many dreams are emotionally vivid and why emotional or traumatic experiences tend to show up on repeat. Research has shown a connection between the ability to process emotions and the amount of REM sleep a person gets.

Content similarities and common dreams shared among dreamers may help promote connection. Research also notes heightened empathy among people who share their dreams with others, pointing to another way dreams can help us cope by promoting community and interpersonal support.

Other Theories About Why We Dream

Many other theories have been suggested to account for why we dream.

Lucid dreams are relatively rare dreams where the dreamer has awareness of being in their dream and often has some control over the dream content. Research indicates that around 50% of people recall having had at least one lucid dream in their lifetime and just over 10% report having them two or more times per month.

It is unknown why certain people experience lucid dreams more frequently than others. While experts are unclear as to why or how lucid dreaming occurs, preliminary research signals that the prefrontal and parietal regions of the brain play a significant role.

How to Lucid Dream

Many people covet lucid dreaming and seek to experience it more often. Lucid dreaming has been compared to virtual reality and hyper-realistic video games, giving lucid dreamers the ultimate self-directed dreamscape experience.

Potential training methods for inducing lucid dreaming include cognitive training, external stimulation during sleep, and medications. While these methods may show some promise, none have been rigorously tested or shown to be effective.

A strong link has been found between lucid dreaming and highly imaginative thinking and creative output. Research has shown that lucid dreamers perform better on creative tasks than those who do not experience lucid dreaming.

Stressful experiences tend to show up with great frequency in our dreams. Stress dreams may be described as sad, scary, and nightmarish .

Experts do not fully understand how or why specific stressful content ends up in our dreams, but many point to a variety of theories, including the continuity hypothesis, adaptive strategy, and emotional regulation dream theories to explain these occurrences. Stress dreams and mental health seem to go hand-in-hand.

A Word From Verywell

While there are many theories for why we dream, more research is needed to fully understand their purpose. Rather than assuming only one hypothesis is correct, dreams likely serve a variety of purposes.

Knowing that so much is left uncertain about why we dream, we can feel free to view our own dreams in the light that resonates best with us.

If you are concerned about your dreams and/or are having frequent nightmares, consider speaking to your doctor or consulting a sleep specialist.

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By Kendra Cherry Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.

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  1. problem solving theory of dreams

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  1. Master Cognitive Theories of Dreaming with Picmonic for College

    The problem-solving theory is a cognitive theory of dreaming that states the function of dreams is to help people solve their ongoing problems. In Cartwright's

  2. Why Do We Dream

    BOSTON – The slumbering mind might not seem like an apt tool for any critical thinking, but humans can actually solve problems while asleep

  3. Problem-solving in dreams (famous examples)

    In dreams, while our conscious mind is inactive, our subconscious mind is actively working on problems that we may have failed to solve

  4. Theories of Dreaming

    How we interpret the random images and sensations is the dream's meaning. Theories of Dreaming. Dreams as Problem-Solving. Dreams reflect emotional

  5. Dreams and creative problem-solving

    Dreams have produced art, music, novels, films, mathematical proofs, designs for architecture, telescopes, and computers.

  6. The Case Against the Problem-Solving Theory of Dreaming

    The idea that dreams help rid the brain of useless recent memories is based on the assumption that the pontine instigators of REM are producing random

  7. Why Do We Dream? Three Modern Theories on Sleep

    The Problem-Solving Explanation of Why We Dream ... So, if we are struggling with problems at work or in a relationship, our dreams explore these problems as we

  8. Dreaming

    Problem-solving dream theory of Diedre Barrett describes dreaming as simply 'thinking in different biochemical state'. According to this theory we continue

  9. Why Do We Dream? Top Dream Theories

    Dreams Aid In Memory ... This model, known as the self-organization theory of dreaming, explains that dreaming is a side effect of brain neural

  10. Dreams as Problem Solving: A Method of Study