Articles & Anecdotes

Evolutionary Dream Theory


I’ve been on an evolutionary psychology kick for about a month now. It all started when I decided to take evolutionary psych. online during my second semester of my senior year of college.

My midterm ended up being a paper analysis of the book, “Sex, Murder and the Meaning if Life” by Douglass T. Kenrick. Ever since, every behavior I notice and stop to think about seems to bring me back to this hugely interesting perspective on life.

This book was eye-opening for me, to say the least. Kenrick walks his reader through every chapter, always beginning with a personal anecdote and extending his theories across a broad range of ideas and legitimate research.

He slowly but surely convinced me that evolutionary theory really makes sense. If you combine it with dynamical systems theory and cognitive psych, the result is simply mind-blowing and perspective altering. Who knew there were plausible answers to questions like where religion actually comes from and why we do the things we do? I certainly didn’t.

I truly recommend this book to everyone and I hope that people will pay more attention to the rawness of Kendrick’s theories someday. I have to warn you though; he really left me wanting more. At the end, I had so many questions answered, yet double the amount of new questions to ask.

What causes dreams? Where do they come from? This is something that has interested me for years. I remember being taught in my intro psychology class in high school that Freud and others have attempted to interpret dreams and their meanings; but we’ve never actually been able to figure out the origin of the ideas for these crazy dreams (of which we have about 3-7 every night). After reading Kenrick’s book, I figured there has to be some evolutionary theory on where dreams come from.

As it turns out, there is. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been enough research done on dreams yet to determine whether or not evolutionary dream theory is correct. But it makes so much sense!

The theory is that dreams serve as a sort of practice mechanism. This mechanism gives us the chance to let various scenarios, such as a frightening car crash or the ability to fly, play out in our heads. During this time, our brain is convinced that whatever is occuring in our dream is actually occuring in reality.

As a result, we usually awaken with lingering feelings left over from our dreams. We have these feelings even once we realize our dreams were never really happening. Evolutionary theory suggests that our minds practice scenarios via dreams to aid in survival and reproduction by building our experience.

So our minds practice scenarios in our dreams to give us a better chance in real life. I agree, but I also think the feelings we encounter as a result of our dreams play an important role.

You know how you sometimes feel overwhelmingly scared, happy, sad, or anxious when you wake up from a certain dream? I think that’s it: feelings. Feelings guide us through life by reacting to scenarios. They ultimately tell us whether we should be afraid, whether we should love someone, or whether we should be cautious. This is what I think we’re practicing in our dreams: the experience of feelings.

I believe feelings are the true origin of dreams because we often have dreams that would never occur in reality. It makes sense that we practice skills and scenarios in our dreams for the day we encounter them in real life, but not if those scenarios aren’t physically possible. 

For example, I might have a dream that I can fly. In my dream I’m flying all over the world flapping and coasting. I would never be able to fly all over the world flapping my wings in real life, obviously. But now ask yourself, what feelings are provoked by dreams about flying all over the world? Feelings of freedom, too much freedom, or maybe even independence and excitement are provoked.

Furthermore, the feelings we experience in reaction to our dreams might leave us with a desire to feel them in real life. Our lingering desires could lead us into new, real-life adventures to satisfy our emotional cravings.

On the other hand, if our dreams leave us with painful emotions such as grief, they may be simply preparing us for the inevitability of mortality. In this respect, dreams can also help us better cope with our daily lives and woes. The easier it is for us to move on from speedbumps in life, the faster we can get back on track to seek survival and reproductive success once again.

There isn’t enough research out there to support these theories; but I hope you seriously consider evolutionary psychology as a plausible tunnel to enlightenment on topics of all kinds of human behavior…and read that book, “Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life.”

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