How to Remember Your Dreams


Written by Dr. Michael Breus

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Dreams are thought to be reflections of the events, experiences, and emotions from the time we spend awake. A dream is not an exact replay of a memory, but an imaginary scenario that incorporates fragments of information from waking life. Although dreams can sometimes offer vivid experiences and provoke strong emotions, most people forget the content of their dreams soon after waking.

Most dreams occur during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which typically happens about 90 minutes after falling asleep. REM sleep is also the time when your brain is consolidating memories. Important memories are retained and less important details are forgotten.

A great number of philosophers and scientists have attempted to help us better understand the nature of dreaming, what dreams mean, and why we tend to forget them soon after waking up. Although many questions remain unanswered, there are some steps you can take to increase the chances of remembering your dreams. 

Why Can’t We Always Remember Our Dreams?

Like many questions about the nature of sleep, experts aren’t able to explain exactly why we can’t always remember our dreams. Some suggest the process of forgetting is because of natural changes in brain activity during sleep. Others have tried to identify whether people who remember their dreams have certain traits that set them apart from those who usually forget. 

Brain Chemistry

Some researchers believe one reason people tend to forget dreams is due to changes in brain chemistry that happen during the different stages of sleep. Neurotransmitters are chemical signals that enable brain cells to carry out a wide range of functions, including learning new information and making memories.

Two neurotransmitters, called acetylcholine and norepinephrine, are especially active during periods of wakefulness. These neurotransmitters are believed to play an important role in memory consolidation, or how the brain stores long-term memories. During sleep, particularly the REM stage of sleep, norepinephrine activity decreases drastically, which may be why it is so hard to remember dreams. 

Other studies have found evidence that a chemical called melanin concentrating hormone (MCH) also plays a role in how the brain makes memories. During wakefulness and sleep, MCH sends signals to the hippocampus, the part of the brain that stores long-term memories. 

MCH signals actually block new information from being stored in the hippocampus, allowing the brain to forget unimportant details. In fact, researchers have found that in mice, the majority of MCH activity occurs during the REM stage of sleep. This may be what prevents the content of dreams from being remembered. 

Individual Characteristics

In an attempt to better understand dream recall, many research studies have investigated whether people with certain characteristics are more likely or less likely to remember their dreams. 

  • Age: People are more likely to forget their dreams as they get older. Memory issues that are common in old age may be a factor. But some suggest this decline in dream recall is because older adults tend to have less of an interest in dreaming or interpreting the content of their dreams. 
  • Sleep behavior: People who remember their dreams tend to exhibit different sleep behaviors than those who forget. Deep sleepers, or those that are harder to arouse from NREM sleep, tend to sleep longer and are less likely to remember whether they dreamed after waking up. 
  • Personality: Creative people and those who daydream are also more likely to remember their dreams. Researchers have observed that the part of the brain that is responsible for creative thinking is more active in high dream recallers while they are awake and asleep. 

How to Remember Dreams

Taking an interest in remembering your dreams is an important first step in successfully doing so, as research has found that a person’s attitude toward dreaming can influence how frequently they recall their dreams. However, there are several additional things you can try to improve your chances of remembering your dreams. 

Don’t Jump Out of Bed When You Wake Up

Having a more leisurely rise out of bed in the morning may help you remember your dreams. During REM sleep, the amygdala becomes more active. This is the part of the brain that is also involved in processing emotions when you are awake. Setting aside some time after you wake up can give the amygdala the chance to access and process the emotions experienced while dreaming. 

Before getting out of bed to start your day, consider pressing snooze, spending a few minutes lying there, falling in and out of sleep, before getting up. It might help you recall some of the dreams you have experienced the night before. 

Take a Long Nap

In most cases, a daytime nap should be no more than about 30 minutes, or just long enough to let you wake up feeling refreshed and ready to get on with the rest of the day. However, if you want to remember your dream, you may need to stay asleep long enough to move through the NREM and REM stages of sleep, which could take between 90 and 120 minutes. 

Researchers have observed that people are more likely to remember the contents of a dream they had during a nap than to recall dreams after a full night of sleep. They also found that when awakened from lighter REM stage sleep, the report of their dream was nearly twice as detailed as when awakened from deeper NREM sleep. 

Journal What You Remember 

When you wake up, journaling what you remember from a dream might help you recall the details. Studies have shown that those who keep a dream journal recall their dreams more often than those who don’t. Journaling can also help you look back on past dreams you may have otherwise forgotten. 

Journaling, as a practice, allows you to explore emotions and reflect on potential themes surrounding the content of your dreams. 

Consider Your Diet 

Taking vitamin B6 supplements before bedtime has been shown to improve an individual’s ability to remember their dreams. Vitamin B6 helps the body perform optimally, break down proteins, create antibodies, and balance blood sugar levels. In addition to supplements, vitamin B6 can be found a variety of foods, including:

  • Tuna and salmon
  • Bananas
  • Nuts
  • Whole grains
  • Beans, peas, and lentils

Before taking any vitamins or supplements, make sure to check with your doctor. Vitamin B6 supplements might cause side effects for some people and can interact with certain medications.

Sleep Hygiene

Some suggestions on how to remember your dreams can conflict with healthy sleep hygiene practices. For example, hitting snooze to allow extra time to process a dream or taking a long afternoon nap may be incompatible with some expert recommendations for good quality sleep. 

Make sure that when you are exploring remembering your dreams, you are keeping in mind the importance of sleep hygiene in maintaining overall health. There are many steps for improving sleep hygiene, including: 

  • Limiting caffeine intake before going to bed
  • Avoiding bright lights or sounds in your bedroom
  • Having a consistent bedtime and morning routine
  • Getting exposure to natural light outside every day
  • Exercising about 30 minutes per day

About The Author

Dr. Michael Breus

Clinical Psychologist, Sleep Medicine Expert

Michael Breus, Ph.D is a Diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a Fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and one of only 168 psychologists to pass the Sleep Medical Specialty Board without going to medical school. He holds a BA in Psychology from Skidmore College, and PhD in Clinical Psychology from The University of Georgia. Dr. Breus has been in private practice as a sleep doctor for nearly 25 years. Dr. Breus is a sought after lecturer and his knowledge is shared daily in major national media worldwide including Today, Dr. Oz, Oprah, and for fourteen years as the sleep expert on WebMD. Dr. Breus is also the bestselling author of The Power of When, The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan, Good Night!, and Energize!

  • POSITION: Combination Sleeper
  • TEMPERATURE: Hot Sleeper

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