I've always been prone to bizarre, far-out dreams — think psychedelic caves, very casual strolls on the surface of the moon, and super awkward double-dates with Marilyn Manson — but lately, I've been noticing something even weirder when I wake up: I can't remember my dreams at all. Ever since a bout of severe insomnia a year ago, I've been on prescription sleeping medication — and in that time, I've remembered almost none of my dreams. No groovy caves, no outer space adventures, and only one date with an embarrassing '90s goth-pop star. What's going on in my skull? Am I still having dreams, and just not remembering them? Or am I genuinely not dreaming at all?
With a little research, I was relieved to find out that, whether or not I can remember them, I'm still having dreams — almost all people dream every night. In fact, the average person has several dreams a night, with two of our typical eight hours of daily sleep devoted to dreaming. So no matter how big an impact they make (or don't make) on your waking self, dreams are still happening between your ears while you sleep.
But why do we remember some dreams, and not others? Are people who usually remember their dreams somehow healthier than those of us who don't? Are we doing any kind of damage to ourselves by not remembering out dreams? And are there any compelling reasons to try to remember our dreams? Read on, sleepyhead, and find out what sweet dreams are made of.
Why Is It So Hard To Remember Our Dreams?
Scientists aren't completely in agreement about why dreams are so hard to remember. In fact, they're not even in agreement about why we dream, period.
While many psychologists and psychiatrists from Sigmund Freud onward have believed that we dream to express and solve problems, others believe that our brains neurons fire randomly during REM sleep as part of brain health maintenance, and dreams are simply our minds trying to make sense of these unpredictable firings. Others believe that dreams help us sort through all the memories we've made in the previous day, and sort the important from the trivial; researchers at Harvard Medical School found that the parts of our brains stimulated during dreams help our brains process new information, commit it to memory and "learn."What does this all have to do with how hard it is to remember dreams? Well, scientists are in agreement about one aspect of dreaming: its primary purpose is something besides creating brand new memories. Many scientists believe that we have a hard time recalling our dreams because the specific type of neuron-firing that helps us create new memories doesn't go on while we're asleep. Thus, we can only remember dreams that happen right before we wake up.
Do Some People Remember Their Dreams Better Than Others?
Yep. A 2013 study published in the science journal Frontiers in Psychology discovered that there is a specific type of person who can regularly recall their dreams. What's so special about them? They have more activity in the section of the brain that responds to stimuli around them.
These people were found to react more strongly to others calling their names while they were awake than those who usually forgot their dreams. They were also light sleepers, waking up each night for an average of 30 minutes because they had been awakened by a sound or other stimuli — and in the process, committed the dreams they had just woken up from to memory.
Why Do We Only Remember Some Of Our Dreams?
Like many of us, you might remember all of your dreams sometimes, and not remember a second of your dreams other mornings. What gives?
Some scientists think that when it comes to dreams we're more likely to remember something memorable — we only remember five percent of our dreams, period, so dreams where something truly novel or bizarre happens (i.e. a double-date with Marilyn Manson, a journey to the center of the earth, etc) stick out, while the many dreams we probably have each night where we don't do anything particularly interesting (i.e. mop the floor, do our taxes, etc) tend to get lost to the sands of time.
Are There Things That Can Stop Us From Dreaming?
Brain trauma and head injuries that cause memory issues can make it feel like we're no longer able to dream. But in reality, we are probably still dreaming — we just feel like we aren't dreaming because we can't recall the dreams. Typically, as the injuries heal and memory capacity returns, so does the sensation of dreaming.
Alternately, changes to our sleeping pattern — like those that come from using a prescription sleep aid like Ambien, or a CPAP machine for sleep apnea — can make us feel like we're not dreaming each night. But this is because these dream-time additions change the way we sleep, not the way that we dream. Someone using a CPAP machine is most likely sleeping deeply in the night, and thus not waking up (and recalling moments of of their dreams); and when a CPAP user wakes up, they are probably paying attention to the noise of their machine, rather than their dreams.
Similarly, Ambien can lessen our time in REM sleep, which can reduce the amount of time we spend dreaming deeply — and thus make it feel like we are dreaming less.
Is There Something Wrong With Me If I Can't Remember My Dreams?
Nope! Though some people like to try to remember or write down their dreams when they wake up because they feel like it gives them insight into themselves and their inner lives, you're definitely not dooming yourself to a life of emotional ignorance if you don't take pains to remember your dreams.
Remember, scientists aren't even in agreement as to whether dreams are anything more that the product of randomly firing neurons; and for every one dream you have might that might reflect on a real-life issue that you're struggling with, you might have a dozen more where you're just comparison shopping for an area rug. So if you can't ever remember your dreams, don't sweat it — honestly, you're probably just getting a better night's sleep than the rest of us.
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