Remembering Dreams: Why Some Do, But Others Don’t

I think my last article may have expressed it best – I’m obsessed with dreams. I love interpreting them, finding the hidden meanings, deciphering messages from my higher self, and sometimes even messages from family members who have passed. Very rarely, do I wake up and not have 1-3 dreams to recall, separate, and decipher.

Growing up, my friends and family had been the same. One of my aunts had a dream journal she kept, my nana gifted me a Dreamer’s Dictionary when I was young – essentially, I’ve always thought it to be normal that people always dream and remember most of their dreams. But of course, this isn’t the case. It wasn’t until college when my roommate casually mentioned she doesn’t dream – well she does, but she doesn’t remember them – ever. I remember being in shock and thinking, “What a boring night’s sleep you must have!”

It wasn’t until yesterday that I realized she wasn’t an anomaly.

Yesterday, I took a quick poll of our Instagram followers to see how many people remember their dreams – this was in an effort to send them to our post, and in the comments ask us what their dreams could mean. I had assumed most people would of course remember their dreams!

But nope.

Most of our followers don’t remember their dreams each night!

. . .

This sent me into a frenzy. I thought my college roommate was on the rare spectrum in terms of dream recollection, but it turns out I’m a bit more on the weird side of things. So how does this work? What sets “high recallers” like me, apart from the “low recallers” like my college roommate?

Factors that can play into dream recall:

  1. Amount of REM sleep

Mental Floss says, “People dream every 90 minutes during the REM (rapid eye movement) sleep cycle. However, those REM periods get longer throughout the night, meaning that you’re doing the most dreaming toward the morning — generally right before you wake up. If you only sleep four hours instead of eight, you’re only getting about 20 percent of your dream time. For this reason, some people report remembering more of their dreams on the weekend, when they have the chance to catch up on sleep.”

2. Personality traits

Various studies show that people who are more psychologically-minded and prone to daydreaming, creative thinking, and introspection tend to more frequently remember their dreams compared to those people who are more practical and focused on what is outside themselves.

. . .

3. Brain activity

A study in 2014, demonstrated that high recallers and low recallers ultimately use their brain differently when in a resting state. More specifically, high recallers have increased activity in their TPJ and mPFC which could be shifting their attention towards external stimuli and promote intrasleep wakefulness. Making high recallers more apt to encode their dreams in memory.

  • What the heck is TPJ?
    • TPJ stands for temporoparietal junction, and it’s a brain region that is important for numerous aspects of social cognition; such as perspective taking, language, motor control, mental imagery, episodic memory retrieval, and attention orientation.
  • And mPFC?!?
    • mPFC stands for medial prefrontal cortex and it’s up in the air what exactly (exclusively) it does, but it is typically active during tasks of cognitive empathy and perspective-taking. Some additional functions of the mPFC include mediating decision making, it’s selectively involved in the retrieval of remote long-term memory, mind representations, evaluations, supports memory and consolidation on time-scales ranging from seconds to days.

. . .

4. Response to external stimuli

Since high recallers have increased activity in TPJ and mPFC, this leads to them waking up a bit more frequently throughout the night compared to low recallers. It’s perfectly normal to wakeup throughout the night and quickly fall back asleep, but low recallers typically only wake up 15 minutes total throughout the night, whereas high recallers will have anywhere from 30 minutes to a full hour of waking up and falling back asleep periodically.

Waking up throughout the night is typically as a response to external stimuli, such as a neighbor bumping your shared wall, a car horn blaring, or maybe even softer noises like the wind or snowfall. High recallers are more apt to respond to these noises throughout the night (knowingly or not) and when woken up mid-dream, the brain is able to better commit that dream to long-term memory in that moment.

In an interview with Mental Floss, Dr. Deirdre Leigh Barrett, a psychology professor at Harvard Medical School and author of The Committee of Sleep, says there could even be an evolutionary explanation for essentially being a light sleeper: “Evolution wants us to get restorative sleep but it also wanted us to wake up to danger and check it out and be able to go back to sleep quickly afterwards,” she says. Think of the all the dangers our prehistoric ancestors had to deal with, and it’s clear that this response is important for survival. In essence, high recallers are “probably just a little more aware and watching during their dream, and that helps make it a long-term memory.”

. . .

Dreams are fragile things that are born in your short term memory, the people who more frequently remember dreams are able to commit them to long-term memory simply because they want to.

Dreams are fragile, but the science behind all of it is even more fragile. Sure, brain imaging shows the different parts of the brain that are more active for some and less active for others, but if personality traits can play such a common (and large) role in remembering dreams… maybe if you set the intention before you sleep, that you wish to remember a dream… perhaps a dream will be remembered the next day. Ultimately, becoming more introspective and asking yourself, “Why don’t I remember my dreams?” could turn you into a high recaller 😉

. . .

Sources: Mental Floss, NCBI, Live Science, Healthline, Science Direct

Published by

Emily Smith

Core Values: Adaptability, Empathy, Intuition, & Dedication. A creature of habit with a passion for the world, I spend an abnormal amount of time plotting my next vacay on google maps. I often yearn for adventure and to be anywhere other than where I am and with a strong drink in my hand. I currently hail in Brooklyn, but I've spent a greater part of my life in both Indiana and Kentucky and a blip of time living in Caen, France. I have an affinity for exploration and New Age practices, so feel free to reach out to me for travel tips, dream interpreting, mediocre palm reading, or just to have a candid conversation.

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