After years of exploring the function of dreams, sleep scientist Mark Blagrove suspects human connection may be at the heart of our brain's unconscious storytelling.
"Humans may have evolved to have dreams that have lots of characters in them, lots of emotions in them, that are worth telling to other people," he tells Kim Hill.
Professor Mark Blagrove is the Director of Swansea University's Sleep Laboratory. He has a new book The Science and Art of Dreaming, co-authored with artist Professor Julia Lockheart. Videos of the public dream salons they host at the Freud Museum London can be seen on the Dreams ID (Dreams Interpreted and Drawn) YouTube channel.
Related: Dr Rosie Gibson on the science of dreams (Afternoons)
Blagrove tells Hill he had his own first experience of a dream-sharing group at a scientific conference. After finding it "incredibly meaningful" to share himself, he started to run dream groups.
In sessions held occasionally at Freud Museum London, people share their dreams for discussion as the imagery is simultaneously painted by Lockheart and projected onto a big screen at the front of the room.
After two years of hosting group dream-sharing discussions, Blagrove says he became interested in how the process seemed to build a sense of interconnection between people.
"We set up experiments at Swansea University in which people discuss their dreams with each other. And we tested them for how much empathy they had towards each other.
"What we found was that the people who were discussing someone's dream had an increased level of appreciation of the life of that person and an increased empathy towards them."
In a 2022 academic paper, Blagrove and Lockheart propose that the sharing of dreams encourages insight, understanding and empathy.
"Humans may have evolved to have dreams that have lots of characters in them, lots of emotions in them, that are worth telling to other people."
This is supported by human self-domestication theory, the idea that humans have domesticated ourselves in the same way we've domesticated cats, dogs and horses - by giving preference to those that are more docile and friendly.
"The theory goes that 200,000 or 300,000 years or so ago, we have chosen humans who are less reactive, less prone to anger, and more prone to empathy for each other."
Stories, including those our brains come up with during sleep, help us learn about and trust each other, Blagrove says.
It may be the case that early humans had "very rudimentary" dreams that, once shared, began to evolve into the complex dreams people have today.
"What we're proposing is that dreams are a type of fiction that we produce that discloses ourselves to other people, sometimes involuntarily. Sometimes we can't help but do it. Sometimes we don't know what's in the dream when we are telling it to someone else or what it might mean. But it's a way of the group bonding ... with each other. And it does seem to fit in with human self-domestication."
In the real world, to increase empathy on both sides, people would have to take turns sharing dreams, he says.
"This could be a way if it was done more often of hopefully increasing empathy and increasing people's understanding of other people's circumstances."
"Ordinary dreams" - in which we don't know that we're dreaming - may be more useful for personal growth than lucid dreams, the rare kind in which people have the ability to control what happens, Blagrove says.
Those who experience lucid dreams regularly seem to have an expectation of self-control that doesn't always lend itself to empathy, he says.
In a Swansea University study, people who had lucid dreams at least once a month scored very high on internal locus of control (control over their own circumstances) compared to people who had them rarely or not at all.
"If you score high on locus of control … you believe it's true for other people as well. [You believe] they ought to take responsibility and can take responsibility for their own lives … so it's a bit of an unforgiving personality trait in some respects.
"[These people] believe that things in their own life are under their own control and they are responsible for them. And that personality trait seems to carry over into their sleep and into their dreams."
While having a lucid dream, you may think of doing "obvious" things like flying but ordinary dreams reveal amazing metaphors that depict ourselves and our lives, Blagrove says.
"They may even show a way of looking at your life that you hadn't actually thought of already."
To better remember one's dreams, he suggests people have their phones on hand to grab upon waking.
"Keep your eyes closed and say into the phone what's happened to you in the dream. And above all, don't be judgmental about the dream, thinking 'Oh, I know what that's about' or 'it's too crazy to think about'. Just remember the whole dream without being judgmental about it. And that way, you get the full report of it."
Children's author Michael Rosen recounts a dream he had after becoming ill with Covid-19: