Dream Big! Why We Dream and Set Goals According to Neuroscience

Dreams embody who we want to be, where we want to go, and what we want to see.

Maybe you dream of traveling the world.

Maybe you dream of meeting a famous person and getting their autograph.

Maybe you dream of skydiving.

Regardless, we all dream; we all have hopes; we all want success in our lives. This feeling is universal. Yet, what causes it? Why do we dream?

To clarify, I am not talking about the sleep dreams… i’m talking about the goal-setting dreams. The “dream” school. The “dream” house. The “dream” job.

Today on The Neuro Bureau, dreams: their cause and impact. 

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Goal setting specifically occurs in the prefrontal cortex and works closely with the brain’s dopamine systems. This makes logical sense. The prefrontal cortex is the site of planning, executive control, and decision making. As I indicated in one of my first posts, the prefrontal cortex develops at a striking rate during adolescence. In some instances, the brain’s prefrontal cortex only fully develops by the mid 20s.

Adolescent prefrontal cortex development by age modeled by percentage of gray matter in the brain

In a study conducted by Dr. Jonathan Cohen and his team in the Neuroscience Institute, they created a computer game to model goal setting.

If the participant saw the letter A, they had to click button 1. On the other hand, if the participant saw the better B, they had to click button 2.

In this case, the participant had to constantly evaluate their goals. Did they want to click button 1 or 2? In this study, though, it is important to note that the participants were conditioned to want a certain goal. Theoretically, they could have easily picked button 1 or 2. The buttons has no inherent value or reward. The only reward was picking the choice the participants were told to. The researchers specifically conditioned the participant – on a small scale – to strive for a goal. This could have influenced the study. Most goals humans make are on their merits, not due to external stimuluses. Although, societal expectations and values do influence future decision making.

Ok, back to the study! Using an fMRI, the researchers found the right prefrontal cortex activated when the participants had to remember their goal and pick viable next steps. In addition, the researchers even found a spike in prefrontal cortex activity (with an EEG measuring the activity) 150 milliseconds after seeing the letter A or B! This is fascinating for numerous reasons. For one, it shows how quickly the brain can process information. 150 milliseconds is barley a blink of an eye (in fact, it takes us a tenth of a second to blink)! Secondly, it sheds light upon the fast-paced, informative technology scientists can now use to access quick brain activity.

fMRI machine

Secondly, dopamine plays an important role in goal setting. Again, this makes logical sense. Dopamine is one of the “happiness neurotransmitters” in our brain. Your brain uses dopamine to send messages between nerve cells. It helps us form associations with the outside world. If an action makes us feel good, we will continue to seek out those experiences. Exercise releases dopamine and so does music (see this previous post for more information on that). No wonder Spotify is so popular!

A dopamine molecule

Dr. Cohen scanned the dopaminergic nuclei, a specific bread of nerve cells that help send dopamine signals in the brain. The researchers found a strong association between dopamine signals and prefrontal cortex activation. Wow!

While this research by Dr. Cohen and his team was interesting, I was curious to learn about more of the nuances of goal-setting.

A scientific report published by Nature Neuroscience (the holly grail of scientific journals), explained that identifying the brain regions associated with goal setting can be “elusive.”

Rat and mouse studies have shown that the striatal systems are involved in goal setting. For context, the striatal systems, a part of the basal gangila, a group of nuceli involved in the reward system of the brain. Again, no surprise goals are related to the reward system! Plans are modified in the striatal systems before being sent to the cortex. The brain is a complicated, communicative organ, and it is important to think of the brain as a whole, rather than breaking down each part.

In addition, it is important to highlight to work of Dr. Edward Tolman, the founder of the branch of psychology known as “purposive behaviorism.” In his famous study, Dr. Tolman proved that mice could more easily move through a maze, if they achieved a award at the end. This shows that animals can taught to want a goal, the more we get the goal, and the more we practice it. Tolman proved that mice built a “cognitive map” of the maze but did not actual solve it until cognitive reinforcement.

More research on humans is needed overall, though, as always.

From a less psychological perspective, goal setting can be beneficial… and detrimental. For one, some humans can suffer from “the arrival fallacy,” a common belief that obtaining a goal will achieve happiness. This is ultimately not true (for most people). No goal can bring complete fulfillment in life. Humans are surprisingly bad at being able to predict their future emotions. But, goal setting is still important to living a functioning life. We need to set goals all the time, even ones as small as deciding when to sleep or what to eat. Humans ability to think to the future, and set goals, has made us a very unique species.

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

In conclusion, there are still more questions to answer about goals. Specifically, why do develop the goals we do? We all have similar brains, but very different goals. In many of the studies I highlighted today, the researchers established the goal for the participants. But, as humans, we often develop goals ourselves. Why do we crave a certain job, house, or college acceptance? Is it reinforcement of an outside stimulus such as family or friends or ourselves? Is it in pursuit of a certain source of knowledge or experience? How can scientists specifically map this kind of goal in the brain?


[1] http://dujs.dartmouth.edu/2011/02/science-of-daydreaming/#.WpXeLRPwbR0

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3807793/

[3] https://psychcentral.com/news/2012/12/20/how-the-brain-plugs-new-information-into-goal-setting/49368.html

[4] https://www.google.com/search?ei=hxWpXbnhOvLc5gL_lpCgCw&q=how+long+does+it+take+us+to+blink&oq=how+long+does+it+take+us+to+blink&gs_l=psy-ab.3..33i160.2809.6083..6243…0.2..0.182.4508.0j32……0….1..gws-wiz…….0i71j0i67j0j0i70i251j0i22i30j33i22i29i30.ubaPU7C0p_E&ved=0ahUKEwj5wKem1KTlAhVyrlkKHX8LBLQQ4dUDCAs&uact=5

[5] https://www.neuroscientificallychallenged.com/blog/know-your-brain-striatum

[6] https://www.cell.com/neuron/fulltext/S0896-6273(13)00805-2

[7] https://banfield.agency/our_blog/success/

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