Dreams are a universal part of the human experience. At some point in your life, you have dreamed, but the way people remember their dreams differs from person to person. Some people are able to remember their dreams after waking up, but many people have a difficult time remembering dreams. Understanding how dreams are connected to memories may help explain why it can be hard to remember your dreams.
What Are Dreams?
Dreams most often occur during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. You may also have dreams during other parts of your sleep cycle before you wake or when your mind and body have relaxed to the point that you feel like you’re starting to drift off. While sleeping, your brain remains active and uses this downtime to process information and store memories.
Dreaming can be sensory and emotional, manifesting as dreams that feel so real you can’t distinguish the dream from reality. At other times, dreams may seem more outlandish after you wake up, but that sensory and emotional component keeps you grounded in the internal reality of your dream.
Though everyone experiences dreams, scientists remain divided on what purpose they serve. There are many different theories about why we dream. Some scientists believe dreaming is a part of memory processing, and that it helps you organize and commit short term memory to long term memory.
Others view dreams as a method and means for processing traumatic or conflicted thoughts and emotions. Dreaming may be beneficial for your mental and emotional health.
Dreaming could also be a defensive feature that your brain uses to protect itself against uncertain and dangerous situations or to overcome some difficult task. When facing challenging situations, many people find solutions through dreams.
Why Are Dreams Hard to Remember?
On average, a person has at least four to six dreams per night. Often when you wake up, you may have the vague sense that you dreamed, but you can’t remember the specifics. It can be frustrating to feel like there’s some knowledge or information just out of reach, so why is it so difficult to remember?
The answer may be in the electrical signals your brain uses to communicate. Your brain creates four different kinds of brain waves: alpha, beta, delta and theta. Each type signifies a different electrical current, and when scanned, they can create a map of your brain’s electrical pathways.
In a study on dreaming, researchers discovered that people who demonstrated higher concentrations of low-frequency theta waves had higher instances of dream recall. They linked this theta wave activity with the formation of personal memories while you’re awake. So, it’s possible that people who have lower theta wave activity have a more difficult time forming autobiographical memories and recalling dreams.
When you wake up can also affect your recall of dreams. A normal sleep cycle proceeds through five stages before repeating. Because most dreams occur during REM sleep, which falls at the end of a normal sleep cycle, if you wake up before you reach REM sleep or during one of the other stages, you are far less likely to remember your dreams.
Are You Missing Out?
Because there is no unified decision on the meaningfulness of dreams, you have to decide for yourself if dreams are important to you. If you don’t recall your dreams, that may mean your brain works differently from others who do remember their dreams or that your sleep cycles are being disturbed, but it’s not necessarily a sign that something is wrong.
If remembering your dreams is important to you, you can try keeping a journal or recorder next to your bed and practice recording your first thoughts or impressions upon waking. In this way, you may be able to train yourself to remember your dreams.