Why Do We Forget Our Dreams?

4 min read

Last Modified 28 April 2021 First Added 10 May 2017

By Leigh Horan

Eight hours of sleep every night means we spend roughly a third of our life sleeping. With this in mind, it seems strange that we don’t remember any of this time, even if we spent the whole night dreaming the most fantastic dreams. But why is this? Why do we forget our dreams when we try so hard to remember them?

Creating dreams

We formulate memories while we’re sleeping, which is why making sure we’re getting enough sleep is so important for learning. While we sleep we consolidate what we’ve learnt that day into our long-term memories, but this process only occurs in a deep sleep. We spend the night moving in and out of different sleep phases, meaning at some points in the night we are more awake or more asleep, depending on what point in the sleep cycle we are in.

Image of woman waking in the night

It is the REM, or Rapid Eye Movement, a phase of sleep where we tend to do the majority of our dreaming. At this point, our bodies are paralysed to prevent us from acting out our dreams, while our eyes move in reaction to what it is we’re dreaming about.

Why we forget our dreams

There still isn’t a definitive answer as to why we forget what it is we dream about at night, though there are plenty of hypotheses. One of these is that we tend to filter out information that isn’t important or doesn’t grab our attention. This would mean that we tend to forget about our dreams because our unconsciousness registers them as irrelevant.

Another hypothesis was the focus of a 2013 study. The aim of this study was to show that there is an existing neurological difference between those who can recall most of their dreams and those who fail in doing so. Researchers used different levels and frequencies of sound, along with occasional and random first names, to encourage both excitability and wakefulness in the patients while they were sleeping.

Image of sleeping with earphones

What they then found is that participants who were awake more often in the night had a high percentage of dream recall. They also found that those participants who had already displayed a strong ability to recall their dreams were able to more deeply process the first names they heard while awake, though no difference existed between the different sleepers once they were in REM sleep.

‘In this sleep stage, the alpha waves increased and led the participants to wake up. In other words, the main difference between the groups was those who recalled their dreams woke up more periodically throughout the night. They were awake, on average, for 30 minutes during the night, whereas the low recallers were awake for 14 minutes.’

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.

Image of woman making notes so she won't forget

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.

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