In the year 2000, Finnish cognitive neuroscientist and psychologist, Antti Revonsuo, Ph.D. proposed what is now known as the Threat Simulation Theory (TST) of Dreaming, insinuating that dreams are our brain’s way of rehearsing survival strategies, without having to defend against an actual threat.
“Revonsuo’s theory suggests that the dream realm offers a consequence-free zone for the brain to practice social and behavioral strategies,” Sacks tells mbg. In doing so, the brain simulates our social reality “so that we can better navigate interactions, situations, threats, and relationships” in our waking lives.
Back in 2005, Revonsuo and a team of psychologists tested this theory by evaluating the dreams of children. The results showed that the children who experienced fewer negative events in their waking lives also tended to have fewer upsetting dreams. Coincidence? Revonsuo thinks not.
“Dreaming is like a world simulation,” Revonsuo explained in an episode of Shrink Rap Radio. “It’s like a virtual reality going on in the brain, like a biologically programmed virtual reality that gets activated every night for us.”
Revonsuo goes on to explain that he believes the brain’s simulation to be too complex to be random, like other dream theories might suggest. Rather, he equates the brain’s version of virtual reality to that of flight simulation, a kind of virtual reality technology used to teach pilots how to respond in emergency situations.
“I thought well, if dreaming really is a simulation, maybe the brain is using them in the same way; for us to go through very risky situations that would be too risky to practice and rehearse in real life,” he says.