Mind & Body

Want to Remember More of Your Dreams? Here's How

Whether they involve flying through the clouds with Danny DeVito, battling witches on broomsticks with Optimus Prime, or having a tearful heart to heart with a departed loved one, it's always fun to remember your dreams. Why is it that some people seem to always remember their dreams and others don't? And is there a way to get a better memory for your nighttime reveries?

You May Say I'm a Dreamer, but I'm Not the Only One

Dreams are still mysterious to scientists and dreamers alike, but research reveals that there could be some fundamental differences between those who remember their dreams and those who don't.

First of all, there's gender. Researchers aren't sure why, but Harvard psychology professor and author of "The Committee of Sleep" Dr. Deirdre Leigh Barrett told Mental Floss in 2018 that women tend to recall their dreams more often than men. This could be due to gendered differences when it comes to interest in dreams, or it could be due to hormonal or biological differences. Age is also a factor: Just like with déjà vu, dream recall tends to peak in your twenties and then drop off as you get older.

And then there's personality. "More psychologically minded people tend to have higher dream recall, and people who are more practical and externally focused tend to have lower recall," Dr. Barrett says. But some factors in dream recall might be less determined by who you are, and more influenced by how you sleep.

According to an article in "On the Brain" from Harvard Medical School, those who fall asleep and wake up slowly are more likely to remember their dreams. When you fall asleep gradually, you enter hypnagogia, a period of "dreamlike visual, auditory, and physical hallucinations that occur just at the onset of sleep." A more regular dreaming period occurs when a sleeper enters REM sleep, a dream-ready phase that comes with physiological changes in heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing. Near the end of REM, the body prepares to wake up or cycle through the sleep stages again. Those who wake up toward the end of a REM phase are more likely to remember their dreams.

For a study published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2013, researchers gave 36 people a questionnaire about dream recall, then analyzed their brain activity while they were awake and asleep. During the analysis, the participants listened to various musical tones and occasionally heard their own names. The results showed that "high recallers" (people who remember their dreams almost every day) and "low recallers" (people who remember only one to two dreams per month) might be different even when they're awake.

When asleep, both high and low recallers showed similar changes in brain activity in response to hearing their names. When awake, however, high recallers showed a greater decrease in alpha wave response to their names. Scientists think this decrease in alpha waves mean high recallers' brains become more active when they hear their names while awake, suggesting their brains might be more reactive to sounds and other stimuli overall.

Memory, All Alone in the Moonlight

If you want to remember your dreams and never have before, hope is not lost. Scientists think some simple tricks might help you become a high recaller.

In 2017, Harvard Medical School professor and sleep expert Robert Stickgold made some pretty bold claims about dreaming to the New York Times. By following his regimen for dream memory, Stickgold said, "I would predict that 80 percent of people who initially said they never dream would say they do now." Here are the three main things he recommended:

  1. Drink three full glasses of water — but not beer or wine since they suppress REM — and then go to sleep. You'll wake up more frequently, and as we know, that could help you remember your dreams.
  2. Put dreaming on your to-do list. Repeat the phrase "I'm going to remember my dreams" three times before zonking out. Your brain likes to work on important things before sleep, and this habit reinforces dreaming as a priority. Make sure you have a pen and paper next to your bed in case you need to remember what you just dreamed.
  3. Wake up slowly! The worst thing you can do is wake up, turn to your partner, and say, "I just had the coolest dream." Do that, and you might forget it forever. Instead, stay half-asleep and replay your dreams as best you can. Replaying will help you store the memory differently so you'll remember it for a long time.

If mantras and frequent wake-ups aren't your thing, science also shows you can make small changes to improve your dream recall. First of all, the most important part of dreaming is being asleep. The longer you sleep, the more REM time you have, and the more opportunities you have to dream and remember. Don't forget that REM periods get longer through the night, so if you sleep for four hours instead of eight, you're missing out on 80 percent of your dream time. Try waking up as late as possible and skipping an episode or two on Netflix before bed.

Dr. Barrett says becoming a high recaller can even be as simple as thinking about it. Read a book on dreams — or, hey! Just read this article. Looks like you're good to go!

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Read more from Dr. Barrett in her book, "The Committee of Sleep: How Artists, Scientists, and Athletes Use Their Dreams for Creative Problem Solving-And How You Can Too." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Kelsey Donk August 16, 2019

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