How to remember dreams and improve dream recall
Everyone dreams multiple times per night. On the average morning though, the majority of people can’t recall more than scraps, despite the fact that they dreamed vividly for a quarter of the time they slept. During eight hours of continuous sleep, that’s two hours of dreams lost down the ol’ memory hole. Why?
Dreams are stored in short-term memory. If you don’t focus on remembering them as soon as you wake up—poof! They’re shuffled aside, still in your head but good as gone.
Also, many people don’t see the point of remembering dreams and aren’t in the habit.
And, sometimes you don’t want to remember them! Dreams can be unpleasant and uncomfortable.
Remembering your dreams is a simple proposition if it comes naturally for you, but for some people—the majority, in my experience—it’s difficult. They wake up and draw a blank. They might presume they don’t dream at all. Complete lack of dreaming only happens in cases of brain damage and rare clinical conditions. Otherwise, everyone dreams. Whether you are a natural or struggle to remember your dreams, the following tips for better dream recall will come in handy.
The two biggest factors are time and desire. Remembering your dreams requires time to keep your mind clear when you wake up. If you hit the ground running, fuh-get about it. The window of opportunity is small. Also, it helps if you really want to do it. The desire comes naturally if you know it benefits you.
Use the following tips and suggestions for how to remember dreams and improve dream recall.
1. Devote your first waking moments to it.
Studies have shown that if dreams aren’t remembered within ten minutes of waking up they will most likely recede beyond reach. In my experience, it’s more like a few minutes. If I wake up to a phone call before remembering my dreams, I might recall fragments later, but the nuances and details disappear. My head is too full of other thoughts.
Keep your head clear when you wake up. Look for the last thing you remember about your dreams. Grab hold and work your way back. You don’t need to start journaling right away. Usually it’s better to focus solely on tracking the memories, but I suggest experimenting.
2. Know it’s good for you!
Desire to remember your dreams comes naturally when you realize the benefits. Dreams give you insights into your mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual lives. They provide a different perspective of yourself. They promote inner harmony and well-being. They help process your feelings and emotions and learn from what you experience, and can even give previews of what is coming up in your life and help make important decisions.
Without the desire to remember your dreams you aren’t likely to devote the time and effort.
3. Record your dreams.
Keep a notebook and pen near your bed to jot down your memories. Use a voice recorder or computer if that’s your thing. I prefer pen and paper because something about the act of writing connects me with my subconscious. If you don’t remember any dreams when you wake up, write down your thoughts, impressions, and feelings.
Using a dream journal has the added benefit of reinforcing your dream memories and tracking trends. Even people with tremendous memory will forget details from their dreams over time. Also, reading your journal before going to bed brings your dreams to mind front and center and reminds you that they are important and that you want to remember them.
4. Remind yourself before going to bed that you want to remember your dreams.
Self-suggestion is a potent tool. By doing it before bedtime you are more likely to pay attention to your dreams while dreaming and when you wake up. It cues your mind, too, so you think about your dreams first thing after waking up. It can also promote more attention to your dreams while you are dreaming, which encodes the memories in long-term memory instead of short-term.
5. Remember dreams while in a sleep position.
When you wake up, stay in the same position. If you get up to use the bathroom or grab your dream journal, return to the same position as when you woke up. It’s a physical cue that jogs your memory. Some people remember old dreams when they go to bed at night. I know a guy who remembers dreams from weeks and months back when he lies down to sleep. Getting into a sleep position jogs his memory.
6. Get enough sleep—deep, restful sleep.
When people ask me how to dream more, I say sleep more! More sleep means more opportunity to dream. According to one sleep researcher, we have as many as 20 dreams per night, though the consensus falls between four and eight. The wide range might be explained by differences in how a dream is defined. The most dreams—full, separate, detailed dream-stories—I’ve remembered in a night is six. I find 20 dreams to be plausible considering that you can dream throughout the night and spend a quarter of that time in REM stage, when dreams are the most vivid.
However, the dreams that are the most memorable and engaging are also the most important. It’s not necessary to fully remember and analyze every dream—your unconscious mind, aka your “dream machine” knows how to prioritize. It knows when you have time to devote to dreamwork and when you don’t. In fact, before bombarding you with important dreams, your unconscious mind can wait for you to have the time and energy to process them.
For example, if it’s exam week or crunch time at work and you are crazy busy, you might have some vivid dreams and they might be important, but they will come around again if you miss the message. After a really busy stretch I make a point of spending time with my dreams and getting back into good recall habits. It is reassuring to know that my dreaming mind is patient and waits for me to pay attention.
The quality of your sleep might vary, which affects how much you dream. Light and sound are disruptive. Blue LED light in particular—common to many electronic gadgets—is known to mess with the production of the sleep hormone melatonin, which in turn leads to lighter sleep and less dreamtime. Wireless phones are disruptive, especially when they beep and flash with alerts. I place my phone away from my bed so I won’t think about it or be awakened by incoming messages or notifications.
A good sleeping environment is a big factor, too. You need a dark, quiet room in which to sleep, and it needs to be dedicated to that purpose. If you do other things there—especially in your bed—such as study or watch television, you create an expectation to remain awake, causing you to take longer to fall asleep and sleep lighter.
7. Know your sleep cycle.
You can use knowledge of your sleep cycle to wake up with a head full of dream memories. Assuming your sleep cycle runs the average of 90 minutes, you can time when you wake up to coincide with the end of REM stage. REM stage can last for 45 minutes to an hour, depending on which study you read. For example, rather than sleeping for seven or eight hours, sleep for 7.5 hours, because at that point you are likely to wake up at the end of your fifth sleep cycle (5 x 1.5 hours = 7.5 hours). Or sleep for six hours because it is enough time to complete four sleep cycles. Remember that the length of the sleep cycle varies, so determining when is the best time for you to wake up might require experimentation.
If you take a nap, an ideal amount of time to sleep is 1.5 hours because it completes one cycle. Waking up naturally after a nap or full night of sleep is preferable to waking up to an alarm.
8. A great time to recall your dreams is when you wake up briefly.
Do you ever awaken in the middle of the night with a head full of dream memories? I do, and on those occasions I can remember more dreams with more detail than in the morning. Studies have found that “high dream recallers” have more periods of wakefulness during the night and are more sensitive to environmental stimuli while sleeping. They might hear a sound and wake up briefly, whereas “low dream recallers” are more likely to sleep through it. By waking up periodically you give yourself opportunities to encode dream memories in long-term storage.
When I wake up in the middle of the night with dream memories in my head, a quick review helps me remember them in the morning. Though if I don’t jot notes I don’t recall all the details later. If you don’t want to fully wake up, write down a few key words and phrases in your journal and go back to sleep. The notes will jog your memory when you are ready to fill in details.
The more you practice remembering your dreams the better you get. It is commonly reported that people who consistently put effort into remembering their dreams remember more dreams with more detail. Your effort multiplies the benefit. In a short time you can go from remembering virtually nothing to remembering many dreams in vivid detail. Having plenty of details to analyze helps you piece together the meaning of your dreams.
10. Clear your mind before going to sleep.
Your dream recall can be affected by how much attention or energy you have at bedtime. On nights when I go to bed with a clear mind and calm feelings I remember more dreams and more detail from those dreams. When I go to bed psychologically exhausted I tend to sleep like a rock and have few if any dream memories when I wake up. Of course, what applies to me might not apply to you.
A few minutes of light meditation before bed or even just a cup of herbal tea puts me in the right state of mind. It is another way that preparation before going to sleep helps you remember more dreams.
Preparation creates the expectation that you will remember your dreams. Some people open their journals at bedtime and write the date for the following day, expecting to have something to write down when they wake up.
If you have difficulty remembering dreams even after making a good effort and applying the tips discussed here, consider if other factors are hindering you. For example, cannabis is a well-known inhibitor of dream memory. THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis, is also known to affect short-term memory, where dream memories are stored. Alcohol can affect dreams by making sleep lighter, preventing you from getting as much REM-stage sleep.
Some prescription drugs, especially sleep aids, affect dreams. In my experience, rather than inhibit dream memories they make dreams nonsensical and even terrifying. Withdrawing from Cymbalta and other SSRI drugs can produce horrible nightmares that have no symbolism or message.
Avoidance might come into play for people who don’t remember their dreams. Dreams are challenging. They reveal what is going on beneath the surface of your mind and bring up uncomfortable subjects. Dreams can be like a hard look at yourself in the mirror, and if you don’t like what you see you might try to avoid it. Willingness to examine yourself is needed. You do want to know what’s really going on inside you, right?
If your dreams make you uncomfortable, take note of something Dr. Carl Jung said about them: Dreams are always for your benefit. Nightmares too. The basic purpose of dreams is to promote the health and well-being of the individual. Even when they scare you or jar you or bring up uncomfortable subjects, they are trying to help. They are a self-regulating mechanism of the psyche. The more you open up and allow the process to happen and work at remembering and understanding your dreams, the better off you will be.
Use these tips for better dream recall. And explore further by watching this short TED-ed video about why we dream.