The Neurocognitive Theory of Dreaming

The Where, How, When, What, and Why of Dreams

G. William Domhoff

MIT Press (Open Access), 2022

American Association of Publishers PROSE Awards: Category Winner in the Biological & Life Sciences section.
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A comprehensive neurocognitive theory of dreaming based on the theories, methodologies, and findings of cognitive neuroscience and the psychological sciences.

G. William Domhoff's neurocognitive theory of dreaming is the only theory of dreaming that makes full use of the new neuroimaging findings on all forms of spontaneous thought and shows how well they explain the results of rigorous quantitative studies of dream content. Domhoff identifies five separate issues — neural substrates, cognitive processes, the psychological meaning of dream content, evolutionarily adaptive functions, and historically invented cultural uses — and then explores how they are intertwined. He also discusses the degree to which there is symbolism in dreams, the development of dreaming in children, and the relative frequency of emotions in the dreams of children and adults.

During dreaming, the neural substrates that support waking sensory input, task-oriented thinking, and movement are relatively deactivated. Domhoff presents the conditions that have to be fulfilled before dreaming can occur spontaneously. He describes the specific cognitive processes supported by the neural substrate of dreaming and then looks at dream reports of research participants. The "why" of dreaming, he says, may be the most counterintuitive outcome of empirical dream research. Though the question is usually framed in terms of adaptation, there is no positive evidence for an adaptive theory of dreaming. Research by anthropologists, historians, and comparative religion scholars, however, suggests that dreaming has psychological and cultural uses, with the most important of these found in religious ceremonies and healing practices. Finally, he offers suggestions for how future dream studies might take advantage of new technologies like smartphones.

Download the book

MIT Press has made The Neurocognitive Theory of Dreaming available as an "Open Access" publication under a Creative Commons BY-ND license, so you can download a PDF of the entire book.


"A comprehensive and up-to-date survey of research findings on dreams and dreaming, this book deals with important questions and provides intriguing answers."
Dr. Kalina Christoff, Professor of Psychology, University of British Columbia
"This is a veritable encyclopedia of the psychophysiological underpinnings of dreaming. Painstakingly researched, this exhaustive overview offers the reader unprecedented insight into one of the most perplexing and fascinating fields of study."
Anna Abraham, author of The Neuroscience of Creativity
"G. William Domhoff is a force of nature.... One might have said of any of his last several books, this is it, this is his summa, the crowning work of his career. And then he goes on to surpass that text and write something new."
Kelly Bulkeley, dream researcher
"In a tour de force, Domhoff uses contemporary research data to compare his neurocognitive theory of dreaming to its competitors, finding that claims of the latter are poorly grounded, whether they be psychoanalytic, activation-synthesis, or adaptive.... Among this book's many contributions are Domhoff's use of content analysis to explore national and gender differences in dreams, his observation of the continuity between dreaming and waking thoughts, and his masterful charting of the development of dreaming over one's life span."
Stanley Krippner, California Institute of Integral Studies
"Domhoff's book is an invaluable resource that will elevate the scientific work on dreaming as well as cognitive science in general."
Emrah Aktunc, Arizona State University

Buy the book

The Neurocognitive Theory of Dreaming is available for purchase from the usual booksellers, such as Amazon.com. You can also order it directly from Penguin/Random House (MIT Press' distributor) and get 10% off with promo code MIT10.

The neurocognitive theory of dreaming in a nutshell

For a quick overview of the theory and links to relevant references and videos, you can download a 12-page PDF handout; it was originally created for a presentation to the 2019 meeting of the Society for the Neuroscience of Creativity, but has been updated as of September 2023.

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