The other night I woke up at 3:37 am. I’d been dreaming about a mass murder in Barnes & Noble, staged by a woman with bright red hair named Caitlin. She stood in the corner of the store with a big, black rifle, and when she fired the first shot, a crowd of panicked customers went running toward the doors. I opened my eyes and the dream ended, my heartbeat pounding in my ears.
In the days leading up to the nightmare, I’d been researching an article on dream recall. As someone who remembers disturbing dreams almost nightly, I was curious why some people rarely remember them at all. Still cowering under the covers, I wondered if the wine I’d drank at dinner that evening had anything to do with the nightmare. By 4:10 am I’d come up with a series of questions about the factors that affect dream recall and wondered if I should get up to write them down. At 4:15 I wondered if, perhaps, I should get a life.
Remember, Remember — Why We Recall Our Dreams
It’s not clear that everyone dreams. Many researchers say people always dream while sleeping—even if they don’t remember them. On the other hand, some research suggests there really are people who never wake up in a sweat after showing up to class nude. In one study, researchers woke supposed “non-dreamers” at several points throughout the night — and still, they reported no memories of dreams
Over the last half-century, researchers have identified a few factors that might influence dream recall, from age and gender to specific personality traits. Studies on the biological basis of dreaming have found people with high dream recall show different patterns of neurological activity than their forgetful friends
Studies also help explain why Alice took a virtual trip down the rabbit hole — people who are creative, open to new experiences, and prone to fantasizing tend to have the highest rates of dream recall. My initial interest in writing this article was to find out if waking up with memories of terrorist attacks and blowouts with BFFs meant I wasn’t sleeping deeply. But perhaps surprisingly, there isn’t much evidence of a relationship between dreams, dream recall, and sleep quality. There is some research suggesting we remember more dreams when we sleep longer, simply because there’s more time to dream
During sleep, people dream about every hour and a half (as the brain cycles in and out of REM sleep), and each dream period gets progressively longer. So more snooze-time means more opportunity for memorable dreams. On the other hand, sometimes people who don’t sleep well remember more dreams than others because they wake up so often during the night. Dr. Mark Mahowald, director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center, told me waking up during a dream is probably the best predictor of whether you’ll remember it. One dream researcher advocates guzzling water right before bed so you’ll interrupt a dream every time you get up and race to the bathroom. (I personally was hesitant to try this technique, fearing I would only dream about using the toilet.) And it’s unclear how dream recall relates to specific sleep disorders.
Studies have found people who suffer from conditions like insomnia, narcolepsy, and sleep apnea remember dreams more often than the rest of the population
Perhaps the most important factor in whether we remember our dreams is having some motivation to remember them — whether that’s a fellow dreamer to share with or a (hypothetical) looming due date for an article on dream recall. “Absolutely number one is do you want to recall your dreams,” said Dr. David Kahn, a physicist in the department of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School and former president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams.
On the phone, Kahn told me he remembers his own dreams if he plans to discuss them with someone the next day, leaving a pencil and pad at his bedside to be extra-prepared. “When I’m motivated to remember my dreams,” he said, “I almost always remember.” People who couldn’t care less what they dream about, as long as they get some shut-eye, probably won’t remember much. “If you’re interested in dreams or think they’re important, you’ll remember them more,” Levin said. (Of course, it’s unclear whether people remember dreams because they find them important or whether they’re interested in dreams because they recall them.)
Of all the theories about dream recall I came across, I was most intrigued by the idea that the mind isn’t set up to remember dreams at all. Bob Hoss, director of the DreamScience Foundation and author of “Dream Language: Self-Understanding Through Imagery and Color,” suggested it’s possible dreams are supposed to disappear upon waking. “Dream recall is not something the brain was necessarily designed to do,” he said. The brain is in two very different states when we sleep and when we’re awake. While the waking brain is set up to remember details (except, perhaps, our best friend’s birthday), the sleeping brain is not.
All I Have to Do Is Dream — Remembering Our Dreams
There’s no reason for people who don’t remember their dreams to worry. “It’s not a problem if you don’t remember dreams,” said psychiatrist and Greatist Expert Dr. John Sharp. In fact, even people who do remember their dreams probably don’t recall the majority of what they dream about. But, for people who want a glimpse into their nocturnal fantasies, sleep experts typically give a few practical tips for remembering dreams.
It’s important to stay lying down and keep your eyes closed without turning on the light, Levin said. “When you open your eyes, you get a flood of information that wipes out everything before it.” One strategy for holding onto dreams is to write them down as soon as you wake up. It’s also possible to do it dreams-on-tape style and keep a voice recorder by the bed. Levin also said it can be extremely helpful simply to tell yourself that you’re going to remember your dreams tonight. (Perhaps don’t try that one with a new bedroom buddy around.)
I asked the Greatist Team and some friends to help with my research by keeping nightly dream logs. Over the course of two weeks, I heard about alien invasions, murder, and intruders in the night. (Good thing I wasn’t aiming to make judgments about anyone’s sanity in this article.) I got into the habit of recording my dreams, too, writing them down in such a flurry of excitement that they almost inevitably turned out illegible.
During the two-week period, one friend ended a relationship with a man she’d been seeing. Twice, she said, she woke up in the middle of the night from a panicked dream about her former flame. When she told me about the nightmares, I thought again about the possibility that we’re not supposed to remember our dreams at all. If there was value in my friend jolting herself awake at 2 am just to learn that she was still, in fact, single, I couldn’t find it. The extra sleep would probably have done her better.