Can the human brain create faces in dreams?

In this post we are going to answer the question ‘’Can the human brain create faces in dreams?’’ We will explain how dreams are formed, what their functions are and whether or not the brain can invent new faces in dreams.

Can the human brain create faces in dreams?

No, the brain doesn’t create faces in dreams. Every person you dream of has been someone you have either known personally or merely came across.

Dreams are narratives that we visualize, experience and feel in the deep phase of sleep or REM state (rapid eye movements). During this phase, we can experience up to 30 or 40 dreams each night. Are you surprised? Why then do we only remember a few or even none?

During this phase of sleep, you are unconscious but your brain and your entire body continue to work to keep you alive. In the same way that your heart pumps and your lungs continue to breathe in and out, emotional and creative processes occur in your brain that help you learn and develop.

The brainstem then sends images, sounds and sensations to the brain in a random way, depending on the people you see the most, or the ones you think about the most, or what worries you the most.

Then the brain (the neocortex, to be more precise) tries to interpret all these images and build a coherent narrative. Since you are asleep, there are no usual limits that we create in our mind, so dreams are like a child’s imagination … creative, strange, full of possibilities; they go beyond the physical limits of our material world.

What are dreams for?

Not all its functions are known yet, but here are some:

  • For physiological regulation at an emotional level (in your dreams, you feel emotions that you repressed due to poor emotional management).
  • Learning (during sleep and with dreams, the knowledge that you tried to acquire during the day is assimilated … in such a way that you put it into practice in your dreams in some way).
  • Creativity (to find new solutions to new problems).
  • Decision making (to find ourselves facing problems in a more direct, emotional way, without escape, in such a way that we have to make quick decisions).

That is, if sleeping helps us to regulate the body’s homeostasis, rest, recover our energies and regulate them, dreaming helps us regulate our learning, manage our emotions (perhaps, feeling during sleep what we do not allow ourselves to feel during the day and must be felt and experienced), develop our creativity … in short, look for new ways of facing problems.

We never make up faces in our dreams

The people that appear to us in dreams are faces that we have ever seen. If in your dream you are an elite soccer player, each of the 100,000 faces in the crowd that cheers you belong to people who passed for old actors, fleeting classmates from school, a guy who rang the bell to sell an encyclopedia, a substitute teacher music that left the classroom crying, etc.

Sometimes I think that when we are left alone at a bar table, or standing in a corner watching the cars go by, distracted by the swaying of other people’s faces, without thinking about nothing but attentive to the human tumult, what we are actually doing is casting those faces that we are going to dream about next week.

In our dreams we will never see faces that we do not know, our brain does not invent faces.

Of course, it is likely that we will see some that we do not recognize because they are of people that we saw perhaps only once, but our brain saved it, as it keeps the hundreds of thousands of faces that we see during our visit, so do not worry, our dreams are not going to run out of actors fast.

How does our brain process faces?

Human beings are highly gifted to recognize the social information that faces providing us, not only that related to aspects of facial identities, such as sex or age, but also that related to the emotion that these faces express.

This ability to interpret other people’s faces is a basic aspect of human social interaction. In this sense, faces are one of the first stimuli we receive at birth and it is, from a biological, psychological and social point of view, the most significant visual object for the human being.

The study of patients with brain injuries or dysfunctions has revealed the important social impact that appears when there are difficulties in processing faces.

Thus, the inability to recognize faces can produce important limitations in communication with other people, contribute to isolation and, ultimately, cause a loss of quality of life.

It has also revealed the existence of a dissociation between the ability to recognize facial identity features (age, sex, etc.) and the ability to recognize emotional facial expressions.

To explain this phenomenon, various neurocognitive models have been developed regarding face processing. For example, the Haxby, Hoffman, and Gobbini model suggest that face information is processed in a distributed manner by two functionally independent systems called central and extended.

On the one hand, the central system seems to be involved in the processing of basic identity characteristics and facial gestures (such as emotional facial expressions).

To do this, after generating an initial representation of the face, the processing of identity and emotional facial expressions follows two separate and independent paths.

The processing of facial identity features involves the perception of stable or unchanging features of the face, while emotional facial expressions require the perception of its variable (or changing) aspects.

In both types of analysis, the inferior occipital cortex participates, generating the initial representation of the face.

Furthermore, and in a distinctive way, the fusiform gyrus is involved in the recognition of facial identity, while the superior temporal sulcus participates in the recognition of emotional facial expressions.

After this initial perceptual analysis by the central system, the extended system carries out a set of processes that, in synthesis, contribute to providing meaning to both identity traits and emotional facial expression.

Thus, for example, biographical data relating to the person can be retrieved and connected for the recognition of her identity or information about the affective value of a certain expression for the recognition of her emotional state. The structures that participate in both processes are also different.

Thus, in the case of identity, the anterior temporal cortex is involved and, in the case of emotional facial expression, the insula, the amygdala and the limbic system.

Therefore, it seems that our brain is highly specialized in the recognition of faces, with structures specially designed for the processing of the same (both aspects related to facial identity and emotional facial expressions).

How many different faces can the human brain recognize?

Some 5,000 different faces. That is the average number of faces that a person is capable of registering and remembering, according to research led from the University of York (UK) and published this week in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

To reach this conclusion, the authors recruited 25 volunteer college students. They were asked to write down on a computer for an hour all the people they personally knew and whose faces they were able to remember, from family members or friends to passers-by whom they had met somewhere, even if they did not know their names.

Then they repeated the same procedure with famous people.

At first the participants remembered many faces every minute, but the pace was steadily decreasing throughout the hour that the exercise lasted.

By extrapolating when they stopped remembering new faces, the researchers calculated the total number of faces they were able to remember.

In a second experiment, volunteers were required to declare whether they recognized the faces of famous people in photographs from a database of 3,400 personalities. The researchers considered the result as good if the students were able to recognize two different images of the same person.

By combining the results of both experiments, the scientists estimated that on average the volunteers were able to recognize 5,000 different faces.

However, the figure is highly variable between people: among the 25 participants it ranged from 1,000 to 10,000 faces. It is the first time that an investigation offers an estimate supported by experiments.

The researchers say that a better understanding of how the human brain is able to recognize different faces can aid the development of facial recognition algorithms.

FAQS: Can the human brain create faces in dreams?

Are dreams influenced by thoughts?

This may be because, rather than the rational centers, the cognitive centres of the brain induce dreams. Dreams are typically autobiographical reflections based on your current activities, conversations, or other difficulties in your life, even if there is no definitive proof.

Can you influence someone’s dreams?

Occasionally, via waking suggestions or during sleep via sensory inputs that trigger the dreams, there are several ways that one might control someone else’s dream material ahead of time. Auditory things tend to work well, such as water or a sound that says something. A very effective stimulation wakes us up.

How does our brain create dreams?

Dreams occur as the result of a complicated process that involves memories and the hippocampus, a region of the brain associated with memory, according to research by Canadian scientists.

What chemical in your brain makes you dream?

The only chemical compound that defines our sleep schedule is not melatonin. A significant function is also played by adenosine: it slows down the development of neurons. When we are alive, it slowly builds up in our bodies and makes us feel exhausted by the end of the day.

Why do we forget dreams?

Since dreams are believed to primarily occur during REM sleep, the stage of sleep when MCH cells are activated, the activation of these cells can prevent the content of a dream from being stored in the hippocampus, hence sleep it is quickly forgotten.

In this post we answered the question ‘’Can the human brain create faces in dreams?’’ We explained how dreams are formed, what their functions are and whether or not the brain can invent new faces in dreams.

If you have any questions or comments please let us know!


Calder, A. J., & Young, A. W. (2005). Understanding the recognition of facial identity and facial expression. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 6(8), 641-651. doi: 10.1038/nrn1724

Haxby, J. V. & Gobbini, M. I. (2011). Distributed neural systems for face perception. In G., Rhodes, A., Calder, M., Johnson and J.V. Haxby (Eds.) Oxford Handbook of Face Perception (pp. 93-110). Oxford: Oxford University Press.