Medically Reviewed by Jacquelyn C Johnson, Psy.D.
Dr. Jacquelyn Johnson is a licensed clinical psychologist. She is in private practice in California, and specializes in issues specific to high-performing African American women such as contending with the strong Black woman trope. Dr. Johnson received her MS in marriage and family therapy from Fuller Theological Seminary, and her doctorate from the University of La Verne.

Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream. Every so often, that song randomly gets stuck in my head, which cannot come as a surprise given what I write about for a living. When it struck this time, it got me thinking about what’s happening in our brains when we dream. What parts of our brain are “The Sandman?” Okay, to be fair, The Chordettes may have been singing about finding their dream man, but you can see how I got here.

I spoke to Dr. Ambra Stefani, neurologist and researcher at the Medical University of Innsbruck, Austria and Robert Hoss M.S., Conference Director of IASD, and director of the DreamScience Foundation to dig into what happens in the brain while we’re dreaming. And not to spoil the fun, but there is no one part of your brain that’s the sandman. 

“Current knowledge suggests that the temporoparieto-occipital junction (which includes the visual cortex) and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex are the brain areas mainly involved in dreaming,” says Dr. Stefani. 

Our brain is extremely active with multiple parts working together to help us dream. It turns out dreams serve a significant role in how we perceive the world. 

Why Do We Dream?

Dreaming isn’t just something that happens while we sleep. It actually plays an important part in our well-being. It allows our brain to keep learning, process memories and resolve issues we’re facing. “It is sort of like the operating system of a computer that is working in the background and even continues when you have no applications running on the screen,” says Hoss. 

“When we sleep and dream, only a part of the brain becomes inactive. This is primarily the prefrontal cortex (responsible for logical or rational thought, will, and self-reflection) along with the precuneus and posterior cingulate, which trigger the frontal areas and give us a sense of consciousness and working memory,” Hoss adds.

We dream every night, even if we don’t remember it. Vivid dreams primarily take place during REM sleep. Researchers suggest that our experiences and the memories triggered by recent events inspire our dreams. The logic that dictates our waking lives is not present in dreams, so dreams sometimes don’t make the most sense. 

There are many theories of why we dream –– research has yet to agree entirely. These are some of the common reasons. 

Parts of the brain that are active during REM Sleep: 

  • Anterior cingulate
  • Basal ganglia
  • Medial prefrontal cortex 
  • The ventromedial & caudal orbitofrontal cortex
  • Basal forebrain 

Parts of the brain active during NREM sleep: 

  • Central prefrontal cortex
  • Motor cortex
  • Cerebellum
  • Posterior cingulate cortex

Dreaming Serves As An Internal Therapist

“There are two parts to every event that happens to us during the day: 1) what actually happened and 2) how we perceived and emotionally reacted to what happened. If your emotional reaction was one of anxiety, pain, or depression, then it is a good chance you may dream about those unresolved feelings that night,” says Hoss. 

Dreams help us work through our emotional perception of events that happened to us when we can’t deal with it while awake. They help us work through how we feel about it because the brain’s emotional processing areas (limbic system) are highly active during REM sleep. 

When we dream, our brain does not have the anxiety-triggering molecule noradrenaline. This gives us the chance to deal with the things that generally upset us in an environment free of the stress chemical. Dreams are an important way we process emotions and trauma. 

I know what you might be thinking. My dreams make no sense; how could that possibly be my brain making sense of things. Hoss advises that you think about dreams as “pictures of how you felt” about an event rather than the actual event. 

“A dream is structured by the “association cortex” of the brain and therefore presents everything as picture “associations.”. Everything you see is pictures of your feelings or emotional perceptions of the event – and maybe only fleeting snippets, if any, of the event itself,” says Hoss. 

Maybe time doesn’t heal all wounds; it’s actually instances of restorative REM sleep. 

Dreaming Helps Us Create

Numerous artists and musicians have attributed some of their best works to their dreams. Paul McCartney claims that the melody for Yesterday and the hook for Let It Be came to him in a dream. I wish I could tell you that even one of your dreams is going to be as profitable as a hit Beatles song, but you’d be dreaming.

One study found that people who experienced REM sleep during naps were more likely to perform better on creativity-oriented word problems. REM sleep and dreams helped participants see connections between seemingly unrelated things. 

Dreaming Helps Us Remember 

According to a 2010 study, reactivation and reorganization of memories happen when we dream. One of the most well-known theories states that dreaming gives us the ability to store memories and solidify what we learn. The exact way that dreams help us do that is yet to be fully understood, so admittedly more research is needed. 

Our dreams also allow us to problem-solve during both REM and NREM sleep states. NREM sleep is reported to be essential for grabbing onto the overarching rules related to a set of memories. REM sleep, on the other hand, gives us the ability to make unexpected connections.              

Too Long, Didn’t Read?

Dreams will continue to fascinate the masses. For a good reason, sometimes dreams are bizarre and downright ridiculous. If they were a movie, they’d be a bust at the box office. But dreaming isn’t just a fun thing our brain does while we sleep. When we dream, our brain can deal with the things we experience. It helps us learn new things and resolve emotional trauma or conflict.