Why Do You Only Sometimes Remember Your Dreams?

We dream every night, yet few of us consistently remember these dreams each morning. This begs the question, why do you only sometimes remember your dreams?

By Nicole Gleichmann

Mar 22nd, 2021

Have you or your friends ever flipped through a dream interpretation book to see what your dreams mean? I remember doing so when I was younger, trying to tell my future with my dreams. Yet, there are many adults who will read their dreams in a different way, rather as a form of self-discovery and self-help than of future telling.

But there’s one problem: I almost never remember my dreams. I wake up with a vague recollection of having one, but not of what specific adventures my consciousness undertook while my body rested. Yet, a few times each month, I too will recall my dreams – sometimes in snippets and generalities, and others so vividly I could swear it was real life.

Sleep medicine experts and psychologists have long been at work trying to unravel the mysteries of our dreams. What do dreams mean? Why do you dream? And why do you only sometimes remember your dreams? As science progresses, we’re understanding more about this interesting realm of consciousness.

Everybody Dreams

Whether or not you wake up with any recollection of dreamland, you spend time there every night that you sleep. When you sleep, your brain cycles through different stages of sleep every 90 minutes, with rapid eye movement, or REM sleep, being the final stage. The vast majority of dreaming happens during REM sleep, but you will also dream some in the three other sleep stages, from light sleep to deep sleep.

Related: The function of dreams

Yet, it’s dreams during REM sleep that are exceptionally vivid. They tend to be highly hallucinogenic, meaning that you feel as if your dream is really taking place. These periods of brain activity are even more energetic than when we’re awake, showing up to 30% greater activity in the hippocampus and amygdala, the regions of the brain controlling our emotion and memory.

As the night progresses, you end up spending more and more time in the REM stage of sleep, meaning that you dream more the longer you sleep.

Why Some People Remember Dreams and Others Don’t

Given that all of us dream nightly, there must be some reason why there are those who seem to always remember their dreams and others who almost never do.

One underlying factor in whether or not you remember your dreams is when you tend to wake up during the night and in the morning. If you wake up during REM sleep, you’re more likely to remember your dreams than if you wake up at any other time during your sleep cycle. Who would be more likely to wake up in the middle of REM sleep? People who are easily woken by external stimuli, like noises.

Related: How dreams occur

This factor is supported by research showing that low dream recallers (those who reported remembering only a couple of dreams each month) remember their dreams when they’re woken up in the middle of REM sleep.

But, physiologically speaking, why is there a difference? It may be thanks to differences in alpha brain wave activity between high and low dream recallers. High recallers might experience a large increase in alpha brain wave activity when they hear a noise during sleep, snapping them out of sleep during REM dreams.

Related: Types of dreams

It’s not only waking up during the REM stage of sleep that influences whether or not you remember your dreams. Another factor is how emotionally charged your dreams are. The more emotional, the more likely you are to remember them.

Improving Your Dream Recall

What should you do if you want to remember more of your dreams? There are a few things that can help.

Keep a dream journal

Researchers have found that keeping a dream journal right after you wake up can help you remember your dreams. When you write down what you remember right when you awake, the time when you’ll remember the most, you move the memories of your dream from temporary short-term memory storage into long-term memory storage.

To start the process of dream journaling follow these steps.

Step 1: Think of the dream journal as a gift to self.

There is really no other reason to do it. The process is a way of knowing yourself better, improving your memory, improving your psychological functioning, and possibly bringing to light unresolved issues. It is good self-care.

Step 2: Find a journal you love.

Although a voice to text or digital platform can work, it is highly recommended that you record your journal by hand, pen on paper. This process connects you with the creative side of your brain, the place where dreams come from, and allows for better recall. Writer/producer David E. Kelley writes his scripts longhand with a ballpoint pen for better access to creative inspiration. Find a journal or notebook that you love to write in and have it be exclusive, only for dreams. There are many journals to choose from online and in stores.

Step 3: Keep your journal next to your bed.

Your journal should be within reach without you having to move dramatically or get out of bed. Keep it on the bedside table.

Step 4: Do a retro section.

Start your journal by writing down any significant dreams you remember from childhood or earlier in your life—especially if you have had any recurrent dreams. Even record small snippets of dreams or occasional nightmares and how they made you feel. Also, write down anything you can remember from over the years, especially good dreams. They will all help give you a base for better understanding what you record in your dream journal.

Step 5: Set an intention.

State out loud or write in your journal, “I intend to remember my dreams.” Say this daily until you feel comfortable that you will remember.

Step 6: Wake up and think.

Spend the first few seconds when you wake up reliving the dream. Then turn to your journal and write.

Step 7: Write immediately.

Don’t get out of bed and use the bathroom, just grab your pen and start writing. Memories are freshest right away. We all know how quickly dreams fade after we get up.

Step 8: Give your dream a title.

It could be something about the way the dream felt, “Scary Dream,” or something about the theme, “Dream in an Amusement Park.” Giving it a title will help with both recall and interpretation.

Step 9: Keep your recording in present tense.

Write your entry like it is happening now: “I am walking down a road,” verses “I was walking down a road.” This helps to keep the dream in your consciousness and makes for better recording.

Step 10: Ask yourself questions.

As best you can, find the answers to a series of qualitative and quantitative questions like, “Was it day or night?” “How did I feel?” “How old was I in the dream?” Then again, write them in the present tense: “It is night, and I am tired. I am only six years old…”

Step 11: Look for dream symbols.

Dream symbols are things in dreams that have other meanings or additional meanings. For example, if you dream about your teeth falling out, it could be a symbol with a hidden meaning. Teeth represent decisions and indecisiveness. It could point to your need to make a decision. There are books on dream interpretation, and they can help with whether a symbol in a dream has significance or not.

Step 12: Put structure to your recording.

Some people find it helps to have a template page. This is a page at the beginning of your journal that reminds you of the kinds of things you want to record and the questions you can ask yourself as prompts. Good luck recording!

2. Drink water before you fall asleep

If you have to wake up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, you’re more likely to be wake up during REM sleep and remember your dreams. We don’t recommend this option, however, because it will negatively impact your sleep health.

3. Tell yourself you want to remember

Interestingly, just reminding yourself that you want to remember your dreams before you go to bed increases the likelihood of remember them.

However, you don’t need to be concerned if you cannot remember your dreams. You’re still having them, and they’re still doing their mysterious work on your mental health and memory as you slumber the night away.