If you’ve ever woken up on the brink of a heart attack, drenched in sweat and convinced you’ll never live down the shame of sprinting nude through downtown Pittsburgh, you know that some dreams are more memorable than others. Most dreams, in fact, seem totally unmemorable—at least in the sense that we can’t remember them. And yet every now and then a dream will linger into breakfast and well into the day, or month, or year—will become a memory like any other.
Why do some dreams stick with us, while the rest disappear? For this week’s Giz Asks we reached out to a number of neuroscientists, psychologists and sleep researchers to find out when, and why, we’re more likely to remember a given dream. As it turns out, we have a fairly good sense of what causes dream recall, as well as how to enhance it—so if you feel like you’ve been haemorrhaging dreams lately, read on for some good retention techniques.
Postdoctoral researcher at University of Turku, Finland and senior lecturer in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Skövde, Sweden, whose research centres on altered states of consciousness and dream and sleep research
We usually recall only those dreams we had just before we wake up in the morning (or the middle of the night). This may be because during sleep, our brains do not seem to be able to transfer short-term memories into long-term memory, and thus dreams we had earlier in the night dissipate without leaving a trace. But lab studies show we dream in all sleep stages, across the night—we just need to be woken up to be able to recall the dreams.
The content of our dreams also affects what we remember. Very emotional, especially negatively toned dreams are better recalled than “mundane” dreams. This memory bias also exists for waking memories, and is not unique to dreams. Nightmares are often very well recalled, because they’re highly negative emotionally and they wake us up through being so frightening.
Some naturally have high dream recall, and remember their dreams almost every morning; others recall them poorly. This partly stems from interest in dreams: those most interested in their dreams also recall them better. Dream memory can be trained by paying attention to your dreams: start keeping a dream journal, and you’ll be surprised how many more dreams and how much more detail you can recall after few weeks.
Clinical Associate Professor, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and licensed clinical psychologist who specialises in behavioural sleep medicine
I like to think of dreaming as a way to figure out how to process all the information from the day. The brain is like a filing cabinet and, every night—especially during REM sleep—it is trying to make files to create memories, learn new skills and also figure out what papers to essentially shred. Dreaming is a jumbled up version of our daily lives, reflecting what’s going on as the brain attempts to encode the information and then store it away into the filing cabinet.
Most people struggle with remembering all of their dreams. Within the first five minutes of awakening, most people forget about 50% of them, with the remaining 50% gradually being forgotten over the next few hours as we begin the day.
Sometimes, we remember dreams simply because we wake up in the middle of them, if the dream was particularly distressing or upsetting, or if you’re more anxious or distressed.
Assistant Professor, Psychology, Harvard Medical School, and the author of The Committee of Sleep and The New Science of Dreaming, among other books
If we do not awaken immediately from a dream, it never makes it from our short-term memory into long-term storage. The most important neurotransmitter for this transfer—norepinephrine—is at a very low level during dreaming, as is electrical activity in the areas most important to long-term memory.
If we awaken straight out of a dream, we have some chance of remembering it. Even then, dreams are harder to recall than waking experience. This is partly because of their illogical, discontinuous, and sometimes vague events: one study found that less coherent dreams were harder for a listener to recall than ones with strong emotions and organised plot lines. The other issue is that, as the brain awakens, it is just starting to turn on areas necessary for long-term storage.
There are individual differences that predict dream recall. Getting plenty of sleep is the biggest determinant, and people who are more psychologically minded or specifically interested in dreams remember more. Looking at physiological differences, a 2014 study found that people with higher blood flow to the medial prefrontal cortex remembered more dreams.
There are techniques which can increase the number of dreams you recall. As mentioned, getting plenty of sleep is the most important one. Then, just as you are falling asleep, it is helpful to remind yourself that you want to remember your dreams. Let it be the last thought as you are drifting off. Keep a pad and pen by the bed or a phone with a dream recording app. When you first wake up, don’t jump up or even turn your attention to anything else. Even if you don’t think you remember a dream take just a minute to see if there is any feeling or image you woke up with—sometimes a whole dream will come flooding back at that point. Reading and talking about dreams tends to increase recall of them. Even just reading this column is raising the odds that you’ll recall a dream tonight.
Professor, Ophthalmology, Neurology, and Physiology & Pharmacology, State University of New York (SUNY) Downstate Medical Center, and the author of Champions of Illusion: The Science Behind Mind-Boggling Images and Mystifying Brain Puzzles, longlisted for the 2019 AAAS/Subaru Prize for Excellence in Science
One important part of remembering dreams is the fact that you happen to wake up at the time that you’re having a dream.
Everybody dreams every night—but people who tend to remember their dreams more often may be waking up during the REM (rapid eye movement) phase of sleep, which is where dreams with narrative content occur. If you have dreams in the middle of the night but then go on to have other phases of sleep without waking up, then those dreams are mostly going to be inaccessible to you.
Another element is the emotional impact of the dream. To be sure, often times we wake up and we can remember a dream we just had. But dreams, even when we do remember them, tend to vanish pretty quickly; we cannot hold on to most of their details, a good part of the time. If you think back on the dreams that you may have had over the course of your life, probably you can only describe maybe half a dozen. What you’re left with are the most vivid ones, the ones that were especially delightful or especially frightening—that had some emotional impact on you. And that tends to be true for our memories in general—we’re not likely to remember what we eat for breakfast ten years ago, but we definitely are likely to remember almost getting run over by a car.
Professor, Humanistic and Clinical Psychology, Saybrook University
Most dreams are recalled upon awakening in the morning. There are two reasons for this. One is the recency of the dream; the other is that the dreams which come later in the night dreams are often more dramatic and emotional, hence easier to remember.
Of course, dreams can be recalled at any time. Most dreams occur during REM sleep, but some type of mental activity goes on all night long. When this is especially dramatic and emotional, especially in the case of nightmares, a person might awaken suddenly and recall the dream.
However, children often experience a developmental phenomenon called “night terrors.” This does not occur during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep and almost never contains dream content. Parents, of course, do not know the difference between night terrors and nightmares, which children almost always recall.
When people are motivated to remember their dreams and keep a dream notebook or computer file on their dreams, dream recall tends to be more frequent, even before the morning dream period.