Can't Remember Your Dreams? We Asked Experts Why & What You Can Do
Dreams are as fascinating as they are mysterious, especially if you're someone who struggles to remember them. It turns out, there are lots of factors that influence both the quality of your REM sleep—the sleep stage in which dreams happen—and your ability to remember those dreams once you wake up.
Here, sleep experts unpack the factors that affect dream recall and share tips on how to remember more of your dreams going forward.
First of all, what is a dream?
There are a few theories about what the function of dreaming actually is, but the generally accepted theory is that dreams play an important role in memory consolidation.
According to research, the sleeping brain reactivates or "replays" new learning and memories1 while we dream, as a way to reorganize the new data and integrate it into our long-term memory. So, what does that mean for people who can't remember their dreams? Well, first you need to identify why you're not remembering them.
8 reasons you don't remember your dreams.
If you struggle to remember your dreams, any of the following reasons (or even a combination of reasons) could be contributing to your difficulty with dream recall:
- Stress: Consider one of sleep's worst enemies; stress has been found in research to not only disrupt and reduce REM sleep2 but also increase the number of awakenings during the night. Both of these things can make it harder to remember your dreams.
- Your diet: That's right, your diet isn't only affecting your body while you're awake. Research shows a diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, fiber, and limited vegetable oils is conducive to a good night's sleep. (Here are 10 more foods to eat to support a good night's sleep!)
- Trauma: You can think of trauma like stress but much more intense. This can lead to insomnia but also a total suppression of dream recall in an effort to forget painful nightmares.
- Substances: Bad news for anyone who enjoys a glass of wine before bed—it's likely messing with your sleep. Research shows alcohol before bed, as well as marijuana3, negatively affect REM sleep and dream recall.
- Certain medications: According to sleep expert and NYU professor Girardin Jean-Louis Ph.D., "Certain medications could affect REM cycles—or induce nightmares."
- Sleep disorders: Everything from insomnia to sleep apnea to narcolepsy can negatively affect a person's REM cycles.
- You're waking up too fast: According to psychologist and dream expert Rubin Naiman, Ph.D., your painfully early alarm clock might be making you forget your dreams. "Grogginess is an exquisite hybrid state of consciousness," he previously tells mbg, so that period where you're just easing out of sleep seems important for dream recall.
- You're not paying attention: Lastly, in a previous interview, author and lucid dreaming expert Robert Waggoner mentioned that some people are simply more interested in dreaming and dissecting the dream world than others.
Is not remembering dreams a sign that you're unhealthy?
This question might get different answers depending on who you ask, but the short answer (and clinically speaking) is no.
"It is a myth that remembering dreams is a sign of good or bad night's sleep," sleep researcher and co-author of Sleep for Success! Rebecca Robbins, Ph.D., tells mbg. Additionally, Jean-Louis adds, "Most people experience the REM cycles several times nightly. Thus, the issue is a failure to remember dreams rather than a suggestion of being unhealthy."
Jean-Louis notes that while some individuals are better able to remember their dreams, "with practice, the art of dream recall can be mastered." Here's how.
6 steps to remember your dreams:
Set yourself up for a good night's sleep.
Before you think about anything else, set yourself up for a good night's sleep. Get exercise during the day to tire your body and mind, and eat a healthy diet that won't disrupt your sleep. Skip the cocktail or glass of wine after dinner. Consider swapping it out for a sleep-promoting supplement or doing something else to unwind and settle in before bed instead.
Jean-Louis adds it's also a good idea to "set the alarm clock around the time one usually wakes up, as one is likely to wake after an REM cycle," to ensure you wake up right after a dream. (Here's a more in-depth guide to deciding when to wake up.)
Set the intention to remember your dream.
Sometimes the power of suggestion is all we need when it comes to dream recall. Jean-Louis notes it can help to remind yourself that not only are dreams important, but they can "provide important insights about personal or professional matters," he says. Make it your goal before bed to tune into your dreamworld.
Try lucid dreaming.
To that end, lucid dreaming makes dreams easier to remember, according to Jean-Louis and Waggoner. And while it's a whole other skill to master lucid dreaming, simply becoming aware you're dreaming will help you bridge the dream back into reality. Waggoner suggests prompting yourself by saying before bed, "Tonight in my dreams, I'll be more critically aware, and when I see something strange, I'll realize I'm dreaming."
Wake up slowly.
According to Naiman, Jean-Louis, and even Harvard research, when it comes to dream recall, how we wake up might actually be the most important factor for remembering our dreams. "Linger in your morning grogginess and purposefully stay in that half-awake, half-asleep state for longer," Naiman recommends. "Most people jump into their day when they wake up, immediately pushing the dreamy mind away. To remember dreams, we simply have to linger."
Write it down.
Once you've woken up and bits of your dream do start coming back to you, Robbins, Naiman, Jean-Louis, and holistic psychiatrist Ellen Vora, M.D., all agree that writing down what you can remember will go a long way. "If you find yourself waking up from a dream and you have a faint sense of the content," Vora says, "jot down notes before you do anything else."
"Our ability to recall dreams can be improved by simply drawing more attention to dreams," Robbins adds. "Another strategy is starting a habit of talking to a loved one in the morning immediately after you wake up about your dreams."
Be patient and consistent.
And lastly, Jean-Louis notes you'll want to be patient and consistent if you're just starting to work at dream recall, "as it takes some practice before mastering the art of remembering one's dreams."
We spend nearly a third of our lives asleep, and a good portion of that time dreaming—it's no wonder we're ever curious about what dreams mean and how to remember them more. So try taking some of these steps; with any luck, your bedside dream journal will be filling up in no time.
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, a registered yoga instructor, and an avid astrologer and tarot reader. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from State University of New York at Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.