Why are dreams sometimes remembered and sometimes forgotten?

Why are dreams sometimes remembered and sometimes forgotten?

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Why is it that sometimes, when we wake up, we are able to remember what we were just dreaming, but sometimes we don't remember any of it?

Scientists say that people can have multiple dreams every night and the ones that are not very significant are easily forgotten. Only those experiences that elicit an emotional response (happy, frightened) seem to stick in memory. Suggestions have also been made that being anxious or depressed makes our dreams stick to memory too (reference). A study suggests that people woken up during REM sleep seem to recall their dreams more often (reference). Here is a link to some common questions about dreams.

Why Some Remember Dreams, Others Don't

People who tend to remember their dreams also respond more strongly than others to hearing their name when they're awake, new research suggests.

Everyone dreams during sleep, but not everyone recalls the mental escapade the next day, and scientists aren't sure why some people remember more than others.

To find out, researchers used electroencephalography to record the electrical activity in the brains of 36 people while the participants listened to background tunes, and occasionally heard their own first name. The brain measurements were taken during wakefulness and sleep. Half of the participants were called high recallers, because they reported remembering their dreams almost every day, whereas the other half, low recallers, said they only remembered their dreams once or twice a month.

When asleep, both groups showed similar changes in brain activity in response to hearing their names, which were played quietly enough not to wake them.

However, when awake, high recallers showed a more sustained decrease in a brain wave called the alpha wave when they heard their names, compared with the low recallers.

"It was quite surprising to see a difference between the groups during wakefulness," said study researcher Perrine Ruby, neuroscientist at Lyon Neuroscience Research Center in France.

The difference could reflect variations in the brains of high and low recallers that could have a role in how they dream, too, Ruby said. [7 Mind-Bending Facts About Dreams]

Who remembers their dreams

A well-established theory suggests that a decrease in the alpha wave is a sign that brain regions are being inhibited from responding to outside stimuli. Studies show that when people hear a sudden sound or open their eyes, and more brain regions become active, the alpha wave is reduced.

In the study, as predicted, both groups showed a decrease in the alpha wave when they heard their names while awake. But high recallers showed a more prolonged decrease, which may be a sign their brains became more widely activated when they heard their names.

In other words, high recallers may engage more brain regions when processing sounds while awake, compared with low recallers, the researchers said. While people are asleep, the alpha wave behaves in the opposite way &mdashit increases when a sudden sound is heard. Scientists aren't certain why this happens, but one idea is that it protects the brain from being interrupted by sounds during sleep, Ruby said.

Indeed, the study participants showed an increase in the alpha wave in response to sounds during sleep, and there was no difference between the groups.

One possibility to explain the lack of difference, the researchers said, could be that perhaps high recallers had a larger increase in alpha waves, but it was so high that they woke up.

Time spent awake, during the night

The researchers saw that high recallers awoke more frequently during the night. They were awake, on average, for 30 minutes during the night, whereas low recallers were awake for 14 minutes. However, Ruby said "both figures are in the normal range, it&rsquos not that there&rsquos something wrong with either group."

Altogether, the results suggest the brain of high recallers may be more reactive to stimuli such as sounds, which could make them wake up more easily. It is more likely a person would remember their dreams if they are awakened immediately after one, Ruby said.

However, waking up at night can account for only a part of the differences people show in remembering dreams. "There's still much more to understand," she said.

The study is published online today (Aug. 13) in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

7 Signs A Deceased Loved One Is Contacting You In Your Dreams

So many people feel that loved ones watch over us after they leave us here on Earth. When you awaken after a dream and have a sense that someone was in the room with you, it is possible that your deceased loved one is trying to let you know just that they are watching over you.

Although the feeling of being watched can be disturbing, in this case it should make you feel safe. You may have had a dream that someone was watching you too. Again, this could be your loved one letting you know that they are nearby.

The Role of Dreams

Some of the more prominent dream theories contend that the function of dreaming is to:

  • Consolidate memories
  • Process emotions
  • Express our deepest desires
  • Gain practice confronting potential dangers

Many experts believe that we dream due to a combination of these reasons rather than any one particular theory. Additionally, while many researchers believe that dreaming is essential to mental, emotional, and physical well-being, some scientists suggest that dreams serve no real purpose at all.

The bottom line is, while many theories have been proposed, no single consensus has emerged on why we dream.

Dreaming during different phases of sleep may also serve unique purposes. The most vivid dreams happen during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, and these are the dreams that we're most likely to recall. We also dream during non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) sleep, but those dreams are known to be remembered less often and have more mundane content.

How to remember our dreams

What this then shows is that if you’re eager to remember your dreams more often, the key lies in making sure you wake up regularly in the night. The study’s conclusion was that time spent awake must be what allows the contents of our dreams to enter our long-term memory, meaning we then remember it once we wake up properly in the morning.

If you’re really eager to remember the content of your dreams perhaps making sure you wake up regularly in the night will be the answer you’re looking for. Here at The Sleep Matters Club, we like to encourage a good night’s sleep to all our readers, but if you’re looking for ways to wake up then simply employing some bad sleep habits should help you out in this endeavour.

Drinking too much before bed, having a poor sleeping environment and drinking alcohol before sleeping can all promote a restless night. Though we would never usually recommend these steps before bed, if you’re hoping to get a bad night of sleep, then doing things like this should make sure you have a better chance of remembering your dreams the next morning. You could also try making notes of your dreams as soon as you wake up, which could help you to piece together elements of your nighttime imaginations.

Do you forget your dreams or are you able to recall everything in the morning? Let us know about your experiences in the comments.

Tips for Dream Recall

If you’re a sound sleeper and don't wake up until the morning, you’re less likely to remember your dreams, compared with people who wake up several times in the night. Some tips may help you remember your dreams:

Wake up without an alarm. You’re more likely to remember your dreams if you wake up naturally than with an alarm. Once the alarm goes off, your brain focuses on turning off the annoying sound, not on your dream.

Remind yourself to remember. If you make a decision to remember your dreams, you’re more likely to remember them in the morning. Before you go to sleep, remind yourself that you want to remember your dream.

Dream playback. If you think about the dream right after waking, it may be easier to remember it later.

It’s probably a good thing that the dream life and the waking life are completely different – Francesca Siclari

The problem is, the more jumbled the imagery, the harder it is for us to grasp hold of. Dreams that have a clearer structure are much easier for us to remember, psychology professor and author Deidre Barrett said in a recent story on Gizmodo.

But there’s a chemical component at work which is crucial for making sure those dream images are retained: noradrenaline. Noradrenaline is a hormone that primes the body and mind for action, and our levels of it are naturally lower in deep sleep.

Francesca Siclari, a sleep research doctor at the Lausanne University Hospital, says there are clear definitions between our states of wake and sleep – and that is no accident. “It’s probably a good thing that the dream life and the waking life are completely different,” she says.

“I think if you remembered every detail like you can do in waking life, you would start to confuse things with what’s actually happening in your real life.”

Not being able to remember everything about our dreams is important, so that we don't confuse them with reality (Credit: Emmanuel Lafont)

She says that people suffering from sleep disorders, such as narcolepsy, can find it difficult to tell the difference between their waking and sleeping lives, and this can leave them feeling confused and embarrassed. “There are also people who remember their dreams too well, and they actually start exporting those memories into their day.”

It is no accident that the dreams we remember the most come from certain periods in our sleep cycle, affected by the chemicals coursing through our sleeping bodies. “Normally we dream most vividly in REM sleep, which is when the levels of noradrenaline are low in the brain,” she says.

We may find ourselves dreaming right before we wake up – but our morning routines actually get in the way of remembering the imagery. Often we are startled out of our slumber by an alarm clock, which causes a spike in our noradrenaline levels – thus making it harder for us to hang onto our dreams.

“Someone who asks me the question of why they can’t remember their dreams, I say it’s because they fall asleep too fast, sleep too soundly and wake up with their alarm clock,” says Harvard Medical School sleep researcher Robert Stickgold. “And their response is usually, ‘How did you know that?’”

Science Projects

The scientific study of dreams is a challenge, as dreams are experienced subjectively. Perhaps dreams can never be studied directly, just people’s reports of dreams. Individuals differ in how well they can do this. Some people have difficulty remembering their dreams. How big a problem is this?

  • Personal Study of Dreams
  • Scientific Study of Dreams
  • Studying the Content of Dreams
  • Studying Dream Differences in Recall Ability
  • Influencing the Content of Dreams

Try an experiment

Have several of your friends watch a television program, then write down the story they have just seen. Compare the different reports in terms of length and details that are included or omitted.

Go a step further and ask your friends to write down the next dream they remember. Do the people who give long, detailed stories about television also give long, detailed dream reports? Even though it is difficult to study dreams, there are many reasons why researchers do so. Dreaming is a creative experience that we spend a third of our lives doing. Most people dream all night long. Some dreams are more dramatic than others and represent different stages of sleep.

If you are interested in studying dreams, several projects are described below. These suggestions are just ideas to get you started. The world of dreams, both personal and experimental, is rich with possibilities.

Personal Study of Dreams

One way of studying dreams is to keep a dream diary. Keep paper and pen beside your bed. Just before going to sleep,think to yourself that you want to remember a dream.

When you awaken, remain still and think about what was going through your mind just before waking. Record what you remember, even if it’s only a fragment. With practice, your memory will become better. If you awaken during the night, write down what you remember immediately because even vivid dreams will often be forgotten by morning.

Keep trying. It may take awhile to forge the connection between waking consciousness and dream consciousness. Just writing down your dreams over time can be fascinating without even trying to interpret them. Your family or friends may want to compare experiences.

If you want to do more with your dreams, many good books can help you. Avoid books which provide you with a “dream dictionary.” Dreams are unique and private creations same dream would have different meanings for different dreamers.

Scientific Study of Dreams

While keeping a dream diary can be personally rewarding, scientists often prefer to study dreams in ways that are more accurate than self-selective reporting and that represent a larger number of dreamers. It is very difficult to study ourselves accurately. Personal study will always be important, but it is not enough. For school science projects you will probably need to do something else.

Studying the Content of Dreams Analyses of Dreams

Collect dream reports from people by giving them the instructions under “Personal Study.” Look at the content of these dreams as they relate to some particular question you have in mind.

  • Do girls have different dreams than boys?
  • Are dreams influenced by what we eat or the type of television or movie we see before sleep?
  • Are dreams during school days different from dreams during other days?
  • When something important or exciting happens to us, do we dream about it?
  • If so, do we dream about it right away or some time later?

Have a checklist of things you are interested in and then check off whether or not the item is in the dream.

  • If you wanted to study whether students dream more about an examination before the test or after it, you would make up a checklist of things that might suggest the dream involved thought about the test, such as a test of any kind, school, classroom, teacher, studying, etc.
  • You might rate the dream more generally–for example, how emotional the dream is on a scale from 1(no emotion) to 5 (very emotional).

When scientists do content analyses, they usually have at least two people separately rate the dreams. The ratingscan then be compared to see how well they agree. The degree to which judges’ratings are the same is called “interjudge reliability.” One way of calculating interjudge reliability is to examine the percentage of dreams on which the raters agree. This is done separately for each item on your checklist.

In the study described above on dreams and classroom tests, you might find that your judges agree 7O% of the time on whether a test is mentioned, 90% of the time on whether school is mentioned, 95% on whether a classroom appears, etc.

When people tend to see what they believe they should see, it is called “observer bias.” If you believe that people will dream about a test before the test but not after, you will be inclined to miss references to tests and schools in dream reports after a test even if you are a very honest person. To correct for this, scientists use judges who do not know what the study is about or what the researcher expects to find.

To sum up, plan specifically what you want to look for and have someone in addition to yourself score the dreams. These people should not know what you expect to find. If you are studying two groups of dreams (such as dreams before a test versus after), your judges should not even know which group each dream belongs to.

Studying Differences in Dream Recall

Throughout our sleep we are thinking or dreaming and yet upon awakening we tend to forget most of it. Something about the way the brain/mind functions during sleep makes recall difficult. Why are we sometimes able to remember dreams while most of the time we cannot? Why do we remember dreams some night and not others? Why do some people recall more dreams than others?

Most remembered dreaming occurs during a phase of sleep called Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, which occurs about every hour-and-a-half. During it our eyes move rapidly under their lids. observe this for yourself if someone is willing to let you watch them sleep. We are also better able to recall dreams if we awaken during REM sleep. You could test this by awakening someone who is willing to be awakened or by setting (and resetting) your own alarm to awaken you every hour or two during the night. It is important to pay attention to a dream immediately upon awakening if it is to be recalled.

Tell some people to lie in bed for five minutes after awakening and think about any dream they can recall. Tell another group to do something else for five minutes when they wake up. Then have both groups write down whatever they can remember. You can also do this just with yourself by alternating mornings.

Wanting to remember dreams is also important. Try telling one group of friends that dreams are very important and people can learn a lot from them. These people are your experimental group. Tell another group something not related to dreams to make sure that it is not the fact of merely being talked to that changes the level of recall. This is a control group. Then have both groups see whether they recall a dream the next morning.

As to why some people remember more dreams than others, high recallers may be more motivated to recall dreams, or they may have a better memory for things they see (visual memory) rather than memory for words and numbers.

You can make up a series of simple pictures, show them to people, and have them draw the pictures from memory. Then give them a list of words, which they would write down from memory. other research suggests that high recallers may be more imaginative or may even have more exciting dreams. Think of ways to test these theories.

Influencing Dream Content

Some people are able to influence their dreams in various ways. Some know they are dreaming while they are dreaming, which is called lucid dreaming. others may decide before sleep what they want to dream about (see below). Still others change their dreams while the dream is going on, even without actually knowing that they are dreaming. Some people can awaken from a dream when they want to–for example, from nightmares.

Do a survey to find out how many people can do each of these things and how frequently they are aware of doing it.

Look at people’s dreams after they have been given an instruction to dream about a specific topic. Tell them to spend several minutes thinking about the instruction just before sleep. It is always important to compare the dreams following instruction (the target dreams) with control dreams from before the instruction or even dreams from another person. People told to dream about a farm might have dreamed about that anyway you must compare the dream to a control dream. You could have one group dream about a farm, another about a city, and a third group given no instruction.

If you are only studying yourself or a small group of people, compare dreams written prior to instruction with dreams written after instruction. Either way, examine the dream content using content analysis. Look at whether some instructions affect dreams more than others. Compare a neutral or uninteresting instruction to a personally important instruction such as, “Dream about being very successful on the next test at school.”

Scientists start to disagree, though, when they try to pin down the actual role of dreams in your sleep.

Some argue that dreams have no use whatsoever. Others say this is an easy excuse to stop poking around something that's difficult to understand. Ernest Hartmann, a professor of psychiatry at Tufts, argued in Scientific American that dreams are the key to the unconscious mind:

He's got a point. Dreams are like this massive bin of puzzle pieces that could prove to unlock endless information about the human psyche. At least, this is what Naiman thinks, and that's why he published a study arguing our dreamless sleep is something we should definitely be concerned about.

If you're not having and remembering dreams, Naiman explained, you're probably not experiencing the correct type and level of REM sleep. And if you're not experiencing proper REM sleep, you're opening yourself up to a whole host of emotional and physical health issues, including irritability, depression, weight gain, hallucinations, memory troubles, immune system breakdowns, and even a loss of spirituality, just to name a few.

6 Factors That Determine Whether or Not You Remember Your Dreams

Within the scientific community, dreams are still something of a mystery. Many experiments have been conducted and many theories have been put forth, but researchers still don’t fully understand why or how we dream. Further complicating matters is the fact that everyone dreams, but some people never remember their subconscious escapades.

However, improvements in brain imaging and recent physiological studies have brought us one step closer to answering the question of why some people remember their dreams more than others. There’s no simple, definitive explanation, “but there are a number of things that correlate,” Dr. Deirdre Leigh Barrett, a psychology professor at Harvard Medical School and author of The Committee of Sleep, tells Mental Floss. Barrett shared a few of the factors that can affect your dream recall.

1. SEX

Women, on average, recall more dreams than men. Researchers aren’t exactly sure why, but Barrett says it could be a biological or hormonal difference. Alternatively, women might be more cognizant of their dreams because they tend to be more interested in dreams in general. However, Barrett notes that differences between men and women in regard to dream recall are “modest” and that there are greater differences within each sex than between the sexes. In other words: There are plenty of women with low dream recall and plenty of men with high dream recall.

2. AGE

As we get older, it often gets harder to recall our dreams. Your ability to remember dreams improves in late childhood and adolescence, and tends to peak in your twenties, Barrett says. After that point, people often experience a gradual drop-off in dream recall. However, there are exceptions, and people sometimes experience the opposite.


Again, this is by no means a prescriptive rule, but there seems to be a correlation between certain personality traits and high dream recall. "More psychologically-minded people tend to have higher dream recall, and people who are more practical and externally focused tend to have lower recall," Barrett says. In addition, better dream recall has a “mild correlation” with better recall while completing certain memory tasks during waking hours, according to Barrett.


The amount of sleep one gets on average is one of the most important factors related to dream recall. 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.


Thanks to brain imaging, scientists now have a better idea of which parts of the brain are associated with dreaming. A part of the brain that processes information and emotions is more active in people who remember their dreams more often, according to a 2014 study. This region toward the back of the brain, called the temporo-parietal junction (TPJ), may help people pay more attention to external stimuli. In turn, this may promote something called instrasleep wakefulness.

"This may explain why high dream recallers are more reactive to environmental stimuli, awaken more during sleep, and thus better encode dreams in memory than low dream recallers," Dr. Perrine Ruby told the International Business Times. "Indeed, the sleeping brain is not capable of memorizing new information it needs to awaken to be able to do that."

Higher activity in the TPJ and another region of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) might also "promote the mental imagery and/or memory encoding of dreams," researchers wrote in the study's abstract.

More recently, in 2017, researchers discovered that high dream recall is also linked to higher activity toward the front of the brain. The pre-frontal cortex is the part of the brain that deals with abstract thinking, so it makes sense that it has been linked to dream recall and lucid dreaming (being aware that one is dreaming), Barrett says.


In a similar vein, people who remember their dreams more frequently also tend to exhibit more brain activity after hearing their name spoken aloud while they’re awake, according to a 2013 study. Upon hearing their names, a group of “high recallers,” who remember their dreams almost every night, experienced a greater decrease in a brain wave called the alpha wave than a group of “low recallers,” who remember their dreams once or twice a month. This decrease in alpha waves is likely preceded by an increase in brain activity upon hearing their names. Essentially, people with greater dream recall tend to experience activity in more regions of their brain in response to sounds. According to Barrett, there may be an evolutionary explanation for this.

“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.”

So what can you do to help you remember your dreams? It may sound simple, but before you go to bed, think to yourself, “I’m going to remember my dreams tonight.” The very act of thinking about dreaming can make a big difference.

“You could say that just reading this article is somewhat more likely to make you recall a dream tonight,” Barrett says. “People who are taking a class on dreams or reading a book on dreams—any short-term intervention of paying more attention to them—tends to create a short-term blip in dream recall.”

When you first wake up, don’t do anything except lie in bed and try to recall any dreams you had. If something comes back to you, write it down or use a voice recorder to crystallize your thoughts. Dreams are still in your short-term memory when you wake up, so they’re fragile and easy to forget.

If you don’t remember anything, Barrett says it’s still helpful to assess how you feel when you first awaken. Are you happy, sad, or anxious? “Sometimes if you just stay with whatever emotion or little bit of content you woke up with,” she says, “a dream will come rushing back.”