Everyone has had that moment when you wake up, knowing you had an important dream about something. But while we wish we could remember, we simply have forgotten what we dreamt of.
No wonder dreams can be so mysterious, as there are people who remember their dreams, while others forget the moment they wake up.
While some may think it’s because our dreams are actually an illusion of our real lives, or that there is some sort of spiritual connection, remembering versus forgetting dreams can be explained.
Does everyone dream?
Dream memories are still somewhat of a mystery. But what is clear is that all people and most animals have dreams.
The problem comes with the ability to remember what you’ve dreamed about. A study found that if awakened during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, up to 80% of people will remember their dreams.
REM sleep happens about 90 minutes after sleep starts. It is signified by rapid eye movement, increased heart rate, higher blood pressure, and shallow breathing.
This sleep stage is as close as you can get to being awake without actually being awake. The brain frequencies closely resemble brain activity that happens during waking hours.
A 2012 study found that men are more likely to forget their dreams than women. Age may also play a role in how high dream recall is. As our cognitive function declines, so does our strength of memory.
Other factors that impact one’s chances at remembering their dreams are openness, sleep patterns, brain activity, and exposure to external stimulus.
That same study showed that dreams are first stored as short-term memories. Some then move over to long-term memory.
Dreams help us with problem-solving, to store memories, and to process information and emotions. Unfortunately, many of us find that we forget dreams upon waking up.
This happens because the chemical signatures and electrical signals dissipate when you awaken. If the same region of the brain is reactivated later, the memory of the dream can come back.
Why do some people remember their dreams while others forget?
There are many reasons that some people seem to forget their dreams.
Our most vivid dreams happen when we are in REM sleep. People who have trouble getting into the ideal stage of sleep are less likely to recall their dreams.
Medications like antidepressants suppress REM sleep. But sleep disorders, stress, anxiety, substance abuse, health disorders, and pregnancy are a few of the other factors that influence dream memorization.
Disruptions to the sleeping brain — like alarm clocks, background noise, and light in the room — have also been known to affect your chances at remembering what you dreamt about.
A 2016 article on dream research found that dreams are forgotten, as levels of acetylcholine and norepinephrine change when you wake up. A 2018 study went a step further when researchers tried to understand whether the structure of a person’s brain has any influence on remembering the dream world.
The former study looked at connections between areas of the brain like the amygdala, hippocampus, the prefrontal cortex, and the temporoparietal junction, and wondered if they had anything to do with dream recollection.
It did conclude, however, that increased blood flow in the white and grey matter of the brain increased the participants’ ability to commit dream experiences to memory.
What does it mean if you remember your dreams?
There are a number of reasons you may be remembering your dreams. Being awakened during REM sleep is the most notorious reason for it.
Sleep apnea, involuntary limb movements like restless leg syndrome, and disruptive snoring can give you fragmented sleep and cause you to wake during REM repeatedly.
Of course, broken sleep is not a good thing, so if you are frequently awakened during REM sleep, look at the reasons and make sure you are getting appropriate rest every night.
If you are looking to improve your recollection of dreams, keep a pen and pad next to your bed and record them as soon as you wake up. These notes will help to improve your dream recall, capturing them before they’ve had an opportunity to fade.
Some people who want to control and recall their dreams can learn about lucid dreaming, a state where you are aware you are dreaming and may be able to control some aspects of it.
NyRee Ausler is a writer from Seattle, Washington, and author of seven books. She covers lifestyle and entertainment and news, as well as navigating the workplace and social issues.