I often wake up and take a moment to try and recall exactly what I was dreaming about – where I was, who was there and what was happening exactly. And then, of course, it’s time for the first coffee of the day.
But I often find that your dreams start to slip away as soon as you wake up, leaving just a pale impression of what you’d experienced.
If you’re interested in dreams and wish you could remember them better, scientists have started to unlock the secrets behind dream recall. And there are some practical tips that might help you remember your dreams a bit better.
I’ve written previously about what different scientists, psychologists and cultures think about why we dream and what dreams may mean. While these theories are fascinating, if you can’t remember your dreams in the first place, it’s hard to take much interest in them.
So in this article, I’ll be exploring how you can improve your chances of remembering your dreams. This could help you to better understand what’s going on in your subconscious while you sleep.
The science of dreaming and remembering
Age and dream recall
What do we know about dreams? Scientists tell us that young people tend to dream more often. Once you leave your teenage years behind, the number of dreams that you experience each night starts to decline.
That’s not to say that adults don’t dream, though. The adult sleeper still experiences dreams, just with less frequency. So if you’re interested in your dreams, as you grow older you might need to put a bit more effort into remembering them.
Brain activity when dreaming
A team of scientists from the University of Rome in 2015 identified the sorts of brain activity associated with the recall of dreams. They found similarities between the parts of the brain that are active when you dream and when your brain is processing events that occurred throughout the day.
What these results suggest is that your brain might be doing the same things to turn dreams and real events into lasting memories. This has allowed scientists to focus their research and explore the mysteries behind why some dreams stay with us whilst others disappear when we wake.
Sensitivity to sound affecting dream recall
In 2014, French researchers explored why some people often remember their dreams, whereas others struggle to recall any at all.
They found that there are two types of dreamer:
- ‘High dream recallers’ – those who remember their dreams on average 5 mornings per week. And these people had higher levels of brain activity during sleep than:
- ‘Low dream recallers’ – who typically remember their dreams just twice a month.
It seemed that the primary difference between high and low dream recallers was the extent to which people respond to sound during their sleep; high dream recallers had more brain activity in the parts of the brain that respond to sound.
Interestingly, these differences were also observable when the participants were awake. High dream recallers showed a greater sensitivity to external stimuli both when asleep and when awake.
Techniques to remember your dreams
Profesor Robert Stickgold, from the Harvard Medical School, provides aspiring dreamers with some practical advice for remembering their dreams.
In a recent article published in the New York Times, he discusses how dream free sleepers tend to nod off quickly and not wake throughout the night. While this might sound ideal, this kind of deep sleep isn’t conducive to dream recall.
Professor Stickgold recommends drinking three glasses of water before going to bed. Note that it’s important to stay away from alcohol, as this can suppress the sort of brain activity that leads to dreams.
Drinking so much water should force you to wake up during the night. And those periods of wakefulness are strongly associated with successful dream recall.
This could be because we dream multiple time during the night, so waking up at random points could increase the likelihood that the dream content will be on your conscious mind as you head to the bathroom.
Keeping a dream diary also appears to be an effective tactic. Being disciplined about writing accounts of your dreams shortly after you wake can, according to Professor Stickland, prime and motivate your brain to remember what happened during the night.
Your daily life appears in your dreams
Researchers have also investigated the factors that can influence the content of your dreams. In their study, they reviewed the contents of people’s dreams, taking note of the people, places and objects that were there.
Participants were then asked how recently they had seen these things in their waking life. The chart below shows the results, with the percentage of times people, places and objects showed up in dreams the day and week before, as well as the previous year.
What this shows is that you’re more likely to dream about people, places and things that were present in your waking life the day before. So tonight, you’re much more likely to dream about someone you’ve seen today than someone you haven’t.
Remembering more of your dreams could also lead to an increase in the number of nightmares you remember the next day. This is because your brain is primed to remember everything you experienced while asleep, not just surreal or pleasant dreams.
Women appear to suffer from more nightmares than men, and report being more distressed by the content of their nightmares. Scientists aren’t sure why this is the case, but these gender differences in dreaming have been widely observed.
Despite their unpleasantness, remembering nightmares could have some benefits. They could point to underlying causes of stress or anxiety in your waking life that, if properly addressed, could improve your sleep and general well-being.
Of course, not everyone want to remember their nightmares. So if this is something you experience a lot, but would prefer not to, you might find it useful to read my article about coping with nightmares.
Smell and Dream Recall
A team of researchers from Germany reported surprising results from a study of the effects of smells on dreams.
They exposed sleepers to the smell of sulfur, which has a distinct odor of rotting eggs, and the much more pleasant smell of roses.
Amazingly, 39 out of the 40 people taking part in the study remembered at least one dream the next morning.
What’s more, the smells seemed to impact the type of dreams they experienced. Unpleasant smells led to unpleasant dreams, whilst the smell of roses produced positive dreams.
You might have had the experience of dreaming about strange, repetitive noise only to wake up and realize it was your alarm clock, but this doesn’t seem to happen with smells.
The dreamers didn’t actually dream that they were smelling rotten eggs or roses, suggesting the impact of aromas on dreams is much more subtle than noise.
So sleeping in the presence of nice smelling plants (here are some ideal bedroom plants) may be another possible way to help you remember your dreams. They might also make your dreams that little bit sweeter!
It may seem counter-intuitive, but the evidence suggests that gentle stimuli present in your bedroom whilst you sleep could help you to remember your dreams.
Light audio and pleasant fragrances have been found to influence your dreams and help you to remember them.
And getting into the habit of keeping a dream diary every morning will help prime your brain to remember what you dreamed about.
Do you remember your dreams? Do you sleep with music, a noisy environment or complete silence? Do you have any bedroom fragrances, or keep a dream diary?
Let me know in the comments below!