Whether you’re in the middle of a deep slumber or tossing and turning in the early hours of the morning, a vivid dream can be a highlight of your sleep routine that you never expected. But as wild as dreams can be—fantastic adventures, terrifying nightmares or really strange mysteries—they’re notoriously hard to remember when you wake up. If you’ve ever wondered why you can remember dreams that feel unremarkable and not others, you’re not alone.
“We remember dreams when we wake up during a dream for long enough to think about it for at least a few seconds,” explains Jade Wu, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University. “Often, we dream, wake up very briefly, and that dream is gone forever because we never encode the memory of it into long-term memory.”
Believe it or not, many of your dreams occur in the early hours of the morning, adds Wu, as dreams almost always occur during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep periods. Many often drift in and out of REM sleep periods, a type of sleep where eyes dart around without sending any information to the brain all while your heart rate and breathing quickens. These periods of sleep get longer and occur more frequently after we have fallen asleep and remained asleep for an extended period of time.
Usually, those who are dreaming in the middle of the night “are likely just waking up after an earlier bout of REM and remembering their dream,” says Wu. And most times, the dream is nearly instantly forgotten. Why? “We don’t encode dreams into memory the same way we do real experiences. There are fewer sensory details and contextual clues,” she explains. “We also have less time to transfer those memories of dreams into long-term memory, usually [with] just a few seconds or less, since that’s usually how long we’re awake in between REM and other sleep stages.”
Why can I never remember my dreams?
As we’ve learned, REM sleep (lots of eye movement and heart-pumping breathing!) often leads to vivid dreams—in fact, nearly 80% of all dreams take place during this memory-boosting period of sleep, says Rebecca Robbins, Ph.D., an instructor at Harvard Medical School and researcher at nearby Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.
But as REM sleep causes our brain to halt processes associated with long-term memory storage, Robbins adds, there’s often not enough time for your brain to process a dream you’ve just enjoyed. Scientific American previously highlighted that the body produces near-zero levels of one crucial memory neurotransmitter, known as norepinephrine, during sleep.
Usually, a nightmare is more easily recalled because it may have jolted you awake, as the “body becomes immobile to stop you from acting out dreams,” she explains. You’ve spent a few minutes thinking about it, maybe even longer, as you try to return to sleep—or begrudgingly get up to start your day. That time spent helps you commit it to memory, especially if it is a recurring nightmare that wakes you up occasionally or routinely.
Remembering the details and scenarios of more pleasant dreams, however, is extremely challenging for a vast majority of humans, Robbins says. Unless it’s a recurring dream, you’ll need to remind yourself to take a few conscious steps to cement some details in your mind’s eye before the dream slips away.
How can I remember my dreams after waking up?
Robbins, who also serves as a sleep advisor to health technology brand Oura, first points out that the quality of sleep (and dreams!) can be dictated by a bedroom’s environment. “A warm sleeping environment—75°F or hotter—can increase risk of sleep fragmentation, and reports of disturbing nightmares, so turning your thermostat down can ensure a more restful slumber,” she says. Indeed, there are many considerations for your bedroom that you’ll need to take in for better sleep hygiene, including maintaining clean sheets and avoiding bright screens.
Data collected by surveyors at Oura using proprietary technology suggests that individuals are more likely to remember their dreams if they enjoy more REM sleep than previous nights, wake up later than they usually do or wake up in the middle of their REM cycles. Most importantly, however, they’re more likely to remember their dreams after avoiding alcohol or drugs.
“Alcohol, drugs and sleep deprivation may lead to worse sleep quality in general and may also lead to nightmares,” says Wu. “Wildly inconsistent sleep-wake timing can also throw off REM and disrupt dreams.”
It may not be super surprising, but the best ways to truly remember dreams often involve decisions you make before you even lay your head on the pillow at night. According to experts, these are must-do crucial strategies you’ll need to practice in order to set yourself up to remember your dreams:
1. Do your best to set a steady sleep schedule.
Since a majority of dreaming occurs during REM sleep periods, it’s best to enjoy long and steady sleep schedules that ensure you’re getting enough sleep. “The more time you spend sleeping each night, the more likely you are to get the ideal amount of REM, as this stage predominates in the latter half of the night,” Robbins says. Try to wake up consistently each morning to keep your REM periods as stable as possible to avoid disturbing your dreaming time.
2. Avoid alcohol and drugs before bed.
Since these serve as depressants for your nervous system, people often turn to a drink or a slew of medications or recreational drugs to help them become relaxed or fall asleep. But consuming these items in excess has been linked to bad sleep quality (as well as insomnia, according to experts), and thus, it can greatly interrupt your ability to dream. Try other natural sleep aids instead!
3. In the morning, don’t jump out of bed.
Don’t reach for your phone, and turn off any alarms without looking at devices. You want to “bathe” in your reflections about what you were just dreaming about, and a distraction from a device will often suck you in while pushing any fuzzy memories right on out.
4. Tell your partner about it.
If you share a bed, tell the person next to you about your dream, and recount as many details as you can. Doing so can be a great way to keep yourself thinking actively about the dream that’s woken you up, or about one that you had during the night.
5. Write it all down.
If you’re prepared by placing a pad of paper and a pen near your nightstand, take some time to write details down after you’ve stewed on the dream in question while laying in bed. “It doesn’t have to be a detailed description,” Wu adds. “The point is to get in the habit of spending a few seconds remembering a fresh dream so you will more automatically do so in the future.”
Can you train yourself to remember your dreams?
There’s more research that needs to be done, but Wu says it is indeed possible to train your brain to be ready to recall dreams by working on your intentions during the day.
“Simply by having the intention to remember your dreams at bedtime, someone can increase their dream recall,” she explains. “Say to yourself, before bed, ‘I’m going to remember my dreams tomorrow morning.’”
A mantra such as this one can indeed impact your sleep routine, as physically thinking about the dreams you’re having can also lead to change in the way your brain acts, Wu explains. This is especially true for those with nightmares, as a chronic or recurring scary or traumatic dream is a learned behavior by the brain.
“If you take a nightmare and change the script, and rehearse this script in your mind for 20 minutes during the day, you’re giving your brain an alternative option at night,” Wu says. “The more you practice during the day, the more likely your brain will play you the alternate movie at night.”
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