What It Really Means If You're Not Dreaming + What To Do About It, According To Experts
The dream world is fascinating—but not if you're someone who wakes up wondering, Why don't I dream? If it seems like you haven't been dreaming lately, here are a few potential reasons why—plus how to get your dreams back on track, according to experts.
Here's why dreams matter.
Dreams are as mysterious to the dreamer as they are to the experts. But what we do know is that dreams are a neurobiological process, just like thinking.
Dreams are the result of heightened activity in our neocortex1, the outermost layer of our brain, although researchers are still understanding how different types of dreams (like lucid dreaming) activate different regions.
We haven't yet pinned down why we dream or what our dreams mean—but we do have promising theories.
According to Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., board-certified sleep specialist, dreaming is all about data processing and data storage (and in that order). "One of the functional purposes of dreaming is moving information from your short-term to your long-term memory," he explains. "That movement of data, we think, is represented in your brain as this kind of fantastical imagery we call dreams." We all experience emotional events on the reg, and according to Breus, dreams are a reflection of processing, understanding, and storing these events.
And dream expert Leslie Ellis, Ph.D., agrees: "In dreaming, we appear to pull out those emotionally charged elements from the previous day or so and weave them onto our existing memories but also into a new kind of image or story," she previously explained to mindbodygreen.
Beyond emotional processing and memory consolidation, dreams have been a source of creativity and inspiration throughout the ages. But what if we don't dream or haven't had a dream in years? Do we miss out on these benefits?
Why don't I dream?
The fact of the matter: Everybody dreams. Your dream life may not rival the plot of Inception, but you're still dreaming. And you still have the ability to remember your dreams.
Most of our nightly dreaming happens during REM sleep, or the rapid eye movement sleep stage. According to Breus, about 80% of REM sleep is spent dreaming, although you can dream in the other stages of sleep. "Chances are that if you wake somebody up in REM, they're going to be in the middle of a dream," Ellis adds.
Those of us who think we "don't dream" are actually experiencing deep forgetting. "What happens to most people is that when they wake up, something causes an executive function to erase what's in their head," Breus says. Unnatural wakeups like an alarm or hungry doggo can easily impede dream recall. "Executive function takes over before memorial processing can continue to occur," he adds.
Now, there are a few scenarios that can inhibit REM sleep and, subsequently, dreaming. As Breus explains, "Medication, any kind of sleep, anxiety, depression, or even pain medication has a dramatic effect on lowering REM sleep." Less REM sleep means less dream material available to recall, and certain supplements, alcohol, and caffeine can also have a less-than-ideal influence on REM sleep.
Is it bad if I don't dream?
Dreams are quintessential to the human experience. Not remembering your dreams can feel eerie, or perhaps you feel like you're missing out. But "not dreaming" isn't bad or wrong.
"People measure what they think the depth of their sleep is based on whether they remember dreaming," Breus says. However, he finds the association between remembering dreams and quality of sleep problematic. "It's an irrefutable fact that every single person dreams," he says. So, assuming our sleep is poor because we can't remember our dreams is an inaccurate and incomplete assessment.
That being said—focusing on sleep hygiene and quality may carry the unintended benefit of improving dream recall. Neuroscientist and author of The Oracle of the Night: The History and Science of Dreams, Sidarta Ribeiro, Ph.D., previously told mindbodygreen some factors that interfere with REM sleep—and therefore, our dreams—include inconsistent sleep schedules, excess screen time, substances, and eating or exercising too close to bedtime.
Focusing on sleep quality may result in a more active dream life, along with other proven benefits of getting better sleep, like less stress2, a stronger immune system3, and a more positive mood4. But a word of caution from Breus: "There's a reason we don't always remember our dreams. Some of those dreams are not great to remember, at least from your subconscious standpoint."
How can I start remembering my dreams?
The lifelike hallucinations we call dreams are our chance to experience the impossible, transcend limitations, and (if we're lucky) commingle with a celebrity crush. Save for the occasional nightmare—they're downright fun. If we never or rarely remember our dreams—how can we start?
"Wake up at roughly the same time every day," Breus advises. "Circadian consistency allows your brain to know when to come out of REM sleep." If you wake up consistently at 7 a.m. over the span of three weeks, your entire sleep schedule will respond. Not only will you start naturally waking up at that time, but you'll also be fresh out of REM sleep with a high chance of remembering your dreams.
For Ellis, the key to remembering dreams is simply paying more attention. "The more we pay attention to our dreams, the more we recall them and the more helpful they are."
Both she and Breus say that recording dreams in a dream journal the moment you wake up is a great way to strengthen the muscle of recall.
And to that end, don't be so quick to get up! Ellis and Ribeiro both previously explained that allowing yourself a few moments to lie still when you first wake up will greatly improve your chances of dream recall as well.
Be sure to check out our full guide to remembering dreams for more helpful tips.
An extra benefit of remembering dreams.
In case you were wondering, there are actually some benefits to remembering our dreams, functioning as a sort of "report card" from our subconscious. Dreams can give us an idea of what's transpiring beneath the surface—and stress dreams are a prime example.
Stress dreams are "repetitive dreams that aren't necessarily scary but elevate your level of arousal or anxiety," Breus tells mindbodygreen. They're the dreams where you're getting chased, can't unlock your door, or have just walked onstage totally unprepared.
"Stress dreams can be a signal that something is going on in life that is stressful and not being recognized," Breus describes. They can be interpreted as helpful clues to prioritize stress management during waking hours.
Here's our full explainer on how to interpret dreams to start decoding yours.
Is it rare to not dream?
Shrouded in mystery, dreaming is a phenomenon that gets a lot of attention. Despite the hype, our collective ability to remember dreams is very small. In fact, only one in 10 Americans always remember their dreams. The most common experience is to sometimes remember them—which means we'd all benefit from keeping a dream journal handy.
What causes lack of dreaming?
Although we can dream throughout all stages of sleep, the majority of our dreaming happens during REM sleep. Thus, anything that interferes with our time spent in REM sleep will most likely lessen the time we spend dreaming. According to Breus, antidepressant medications "reduce REM and in some cases completely eliminate it." Studies indicate the same for sleep, anxiety, and pain medications. Drinking alcohol and caffeine too close to bedtime has also been proven to inhibit REM sleep.
Why can't I remember my dreams when I wake up?
To remember a dream, it has to move into our long-term memory. We tend to interrupt that process immediately upon waking—most often by an alarm and perpetual snoozing, so it's best to allow ourselves to wake naturally. "Relax, don't hop out of bed, and slowly awaken and think—what were you dreaming? It will slowly start to come to you," Breus advises.
Every night we enter a portal into the dream world, and the fact that you may not remember it makes dreaming that much more enchanting. Ultimately, remembering dreams is not just happenstance or a stroke of luck, it's a practice—and one that can be cultivated, at that—with better sleep hygiene, more intentionality, and of course, a dream journal.
Devon Barrow is a Branded Content Editor at mindbodygreen. She received her degree from the University of Colorado. When she's away from her desk, Devon is teaching yoga, writing poetry, meditating, and traveling the world. She's based in Boulder, Colorado.
Devon's first book, Earth Women, is coming soon. To learn more, join the mailing list, and receive updates, head to www.devonbarrowwriting.com.