From PsychEvos Wiki


Dreams are a series of thoughts, images, and emotions experienced during sleep. They have been a subject of interest in various fields of study, including psychology, neuroscience, and biology. One approach to understanding the function and meaning of dreams is the evolutionary perspective, which examines how dreams might have served adaptive purposes throughout human history. Researchers within the field of evolutionary psychology have proposed several theories regarding the role of dreams in human evolution.

Threat Simulation Theory

One of the most well-known evolutionary theories of dreams is the Threat Simulation Theory (TST), proposed by Antti Revonsuo in 2000. TST suggests that dreams allow for the rehearsal of threat recognition and avoidance, providing an evolutionary advantage to individuals who experience dream-related learning. According to TST, dreaming simulates threatening situations and helps develop cognitive strategies to better recognize and handle real-life threats, thus increasing the chances of survival.[1]

The TST argues that:

  • Dreams are simulations of threatening events.
  • Dreams can be adaptive by providing a safe environment for individuals to practice threat recognition and avoidance.
  • Negative dreams, such as those involving fear or anxiety, serve a primary function in rehearsing similar real events.[2]

Cognitive Development

An extension of the evolutionary argument for dreams is their role in human cognitive development. Research suggests that dreaming may have influenced the development of human cognitive processes, such as problem solving, memory consolidation, and emotional regulation. This theory posits that dreams help individuals adapt to their environments and improve their cognitive abilities across a range of tasks.[3]

Key points in this argument include:

  • Dreams facilitate memory consolidation, which is essential for learning.
  • Dreams provide a space for practicing problem solving and decision-making skills.
  • Emotional regulation within dreams may help individuals cope with real-life challenges and stressors.

Social Bonding

Another proposed function of dreams from an evolutionary perspective is the promotion of social bonding among individuals. Through the act of sharing dreams, humans can strengthen their bonds with each other, which can be beneficial for group cohesion and cooperation. This theory suggests that discussing dreams with others may serve as a form of social communication that enhances interpersonal connections and fosters collaboration in goal-oriented tasks.[4]

Key aspects of this theory include:

  • Dream sharing and interpretation can serve as a social bonding tool.
  • Shared dreams may promote empathy and understanding between individuals.
  • Dream-related communication may foster collaborative problem-solving within groups.

Muscle Atonia and Evolution

During the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep, in which dreaming occurs, the body experiences muscle paralysis, also known as muscle atonia. This evolved trait protects muscles from acting out the visions in dreams, thus preventing potential injuries or disturbances within the sleeping environment. Some researchers hypothesize that this mechanism may have evolved as a way for early hominins to safely experience dreams and their potential cognitive benefits, without the risk of harming themselves or others in the process.[5]


Evolutionary psychology offers several theories that aim to explain the potential adaptive functions of dreams in human evolution. These theories encompass threat simulation and rehearsal, cognitive development, social bonding, and the role of muscle atonia in preventing physical harm during dreaming. While the precise roles and functions of dreams remain an area of ongoing research, the evolutionary perspective provides valuable insights into how dreams might have served adaptive functions throughout human history.