The Functional Role of Dreaming in the Emotional Process

Dreams: Manifestations of Reality?

The debate over the dream’s association with reality is long and unfinished. Some researchers have found that dreams are a result of the experiences of our wakefulness. While others claim that reality and dreams are unrelated to every extent.

Recent research has increasingly found that dreams have a resonance with reality. Many of them have found that thoughts, emotions, and perceptions related to certain situations in real life find a place within people’s dreams. Dreams are seen as a simulation of reality mentation. The mental processes that we experience during our waking hours can influence and can be influenced by our dreams.

Though many people claim that they don’t dream, it has been found that people forget dreams easily. It could be an effect of the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep stage in which one mostly dreams. The forgetting is related to a process that occurs during the REM stage named “active forgetting”. The activation of MCH cells during the stage inhibits storing information or dreams in long-term memory (Izawa et al.,2019).

The neurological base of dreams and emotions:

Earlier studies have found that dreams and the emotional operation of the world have more in common than we know. Neuroimaging studies reveal that certain processes are shared by emotional experiences in dreams and emotion regulation during wakefulness. They have similar neural substrates, i.e., their underlying working during emotion understanding and processing is similar. The amygdala, hippocampus, and mPFC (medial prefrontal cortex) together influence waking and REM sleep in a continuous manner.

Some other researchers have uncovered the important role of the REM sleep stage in operating on the emotional experience during wakefulness. During the REM stage, the memories of wakefulness come under a scanner and the waking emotionality finds recognition and is dealt with within dreams. Dreams are not just different versions of the occurrences of the world, they emulsify real emotions and then deal with those emotions within the dreams.

Often, dreams are associated with reducing traumatic memories as dealing with them within dreams is easier and causes lesser pain and disturbances to the person. In the real world, experiencing traumatic events reduces our ability to fear extinction mechanisms (no fear response) but dreams provide safety to combat the fear and make use of fear extinction mechanisms effectively.

Emotions in dreams:

Dream experience is filled with memories of the waking period and it includes a variety of emotions.These instances are a reactivation of the experiences that a person goes through during his wakeful hours.

Each dream contains at least one constant emotion throughout. The most frequent and intense emotion experienced by people is fear. It does make great sense as fear is a difficult emotion to deal with in waking hours. Nightmares are the manifestations of the fear affect. Fear is hard to deal with but in dreams, it becomes a less harmful phenomenon. Thus, its occurrence may lead to a reduction of fear when awake.

Research has found that emotional distress is reduced by emotions experienced during sleep in dreams. Dreams with fearful situations prepare the individual for future similar occurrences. Their reactions are modified and useful for the protection of their emotional peace and for tackling such real-life situations.

Humans also tend to experience other emotions during dreaming. We are faced with certain emotions like regret or anxiety in our wakeful hours. These emotions are manifested within our dreams and help us manage our emotions and maintain our self-esteem. For example, it may occur that you got into a heated argument with someone and could not defend your thoughts appropriately. You may dream about a similar event in which you were able to provide a satisfactory defence to your viewpoint. This may increase your self-respect and maintain it even when awake.

Our psychological states can also influence the content of dreams on a wide level. Intense sadness in reality may lead to a person experiencing happy dreams to balance out the negativity in their real life. The sadness leads to uncertain feelings about relationships, social standing, or understanding oneself and others. The dream, then, works as a middleman to sort out the sadness to reduce the distress in our lives. Feeling low is a part of life but dreams can sometimes motivate us and increase self-confidence. This boost can lift our mood and exhibit better decisions and increase positive emotions. For example, a person failed a test and is saddened by it. She may later dream about passing a future exam with better and successful marks. This dream reminds her that ruminating about the past would not bring peace but working harder would.

Lastly, the experience of happiness within dreams. Happiness is one emotion but it involves other subdivisions within itself like love, laughter, and freedom. The wakeful emotion of happiness influences our dreams and enhances that happiness. Happiness does not last forever but when we experience it, we want it to stay that way in our lives. This results in dreams of more things, people, events, or situations that provide more and more optimism to us. But one more emotion that optimism can lead to is anxiety and fear of losing the source of happiness. These may present themselves within our dreams and if remembered may disrupt our daily functioning and consistent happiness.


The way our dreams are influenced and influence our emotions is a peculiar matter and calls for more understanding of the phenomenon. The interconnectedness of our different emotions is remarkable. How one emotion can be a result or cause for another by our mental mechanisms puts us in awe of the capacity of our wonderfully created bodies and brain.

Dreams are a pivotal part of this mechanism and their occurrence is not recognized by many as much. They need to be acknowledged for the important part that they play in uncovering our emotional states and projecting appropriate responses within the dream experience.


Scarpelli S., Bartolecci C., D'Atri A., Gorgoni M. and De Gennaro L. 2019. The Functional Role of Dreaming in

Emotional Processes. Frontiers in Psychology.

Conte F. et al. 2020. Relationships between Dream and Previous Wake

Emotions Assessed through the Italian Modified

Differential Emotions Scale. Brain Sciences.

Donelly J. 2019. The Emotional Importance of Dreaming. Insight Psychological.

Hoover R. 2018. We've started to uncover the true purpose of dreams. New Scientist.

Université de Genève. 2019. How our dreams prepare us to face our fears. ScienceDaily.


This Blog on 'The Functional Role of Dreaming in the Emotional Process' has been contributed by Arpita. She is a 3rd year BA Psychology (Hons) student. She just doesn't find humans interesting, but likes to analyse them and their interactions with each other. She has a heightened inclination towards learning why and how biases and stereotypes occur within us and how they can be managed. She is part of the Global Internship Research Program (GIRP). GIRP is an IJNGP initiative to encourage young adults across our globe to showcase their research skills in psychology and to present it in creative content expression.