Are our dreams and memories related?

Studying the dreams of patients with amnesia highlights a possible link between memory and dreaming.

Image credit: Public domain (CC0)

Dreaming has intrigued humans for thousands of years, but why we dream still remains somewhat of a mystery. Although dreams are not a precise replay of our memories, one idea is that dreaming helps people process past experiences as they sleep. If this is true, then part of the brain called the hippocampus that is important for memory should also be necessary for dreaming.

Damage to the hippocampus can cause a condition called amnesia that prevents people from forming new memories and remembering past experiences. However, studies examining dreaming in people with amnesia have produced mixed results: some found that damage to the hippocampus had no effect on dreams, while others found it caused people to have repetitive dreams that lacked detail. One reason for these inconsistencies is that some studies asked participants about their dreams the next morning by which time most people, particularly those with amnesia, have forgotten if they dreamed.

To overcome this limitation, Spanò et al. asked participants about their dreams immediately after being woken up at various points during the night. The experiment was carried out with four people who had damage to both the left and right hippocampus and ten healthy volunteers. Spanò et al. found that the people with hippocampal damage reported fewer dreams and the dreams they had were much less detailed.

These findings suggest that a healthy hippocampus is necessary for both memory and dreaming, reinforcing the link between the two. Hippocampal damage is associated with a number of diseases, including dementia. If these diseases cause patients to dream less, this may worsen the memory difficulties associated with these conditions.