QUESTION

When I wake up in the morning, I never seem to remember my dreams. Is this normal?

ANSWER

Yes, people vary widely in their ability to remember their dreams. Even though you may not recall any details of your dreams, you can rest assured that you are dreaming. Everyone does it. In fact, research shows that most people dream for about two hours each night. Why some of us can recall our dreams better than others is a different question.

Many people assume that dreaming occurs only during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when your brain is most active and your leg and arm muscles become temporarily paralyzed. But that’s not true. Even though most dreaming does happen during REM sleep—a sleep stage that we spend less time in as we age—it also can take place during non-REM sleep.

The ability to remember our dreams appears to depend on the way our sleep process begins and how we awaken. When people are sleep-deprived and zonk out in less than 15 minutes, they bypass hypnagogia, a transitional period between sleep and wakefulness that sets the stage for dreaming. Similarly, if we awaken slowly, allowing ourselves to gradually emerge from our slumber, we are more likely to remember our dreams.

These processes—and our ability to recall our dreams—appear to be affected by our neurochemistry, especially our levels of noradrenaline, a brain chemical that  increases our heart rate and blood pressure…and helps regulate other important body functions. When our levels of noradrenaline are elevated, we’re more likely to forget our dreams. What would cause noradrenaline levels to spike during sleep? A screeching alarm clock that jolts you out your slumber. So if you use an alarm clock, you’ll likely have a much harder time remembering your dreams.

If you want to recall your dreams, here’s what I recommend…

  • Practice good sleep hygiene by keeping the same bedtime every night and getting seven to eight hours of sleep.
  • Don’t set an alarm clock. Instead, allow yourself to wake up naturally. There’s no real evidence on what might be a reasonable substitute for people who must use an alarm clock, but a dawn-simulation clock would likely be best.
  • Before falling asleep, spend about 20 minutes in bed simply relaxing and/or meditating. This prepares you to enter the hypnagogic state mentioned above.
  • Just as you’re about to drift off, repeat to yourself: I want to remember my dreamsI want to remember my dreams. No one is quite sure why this method helps, but it does seem to work.
  • When you first awaken, stay in bed and let your mind drift about for five minutes. Then write down anything you remember—even a single random image from a dream can sometimes trigger greater recall.

With practice, most people start to remember their dreams more completely. So relax, and don’t lose sleep over this. If you follow the steps above, you’re likely to have memories of plenty of nighttime sagas!

Note: It’s unknown how sleep medication and/or supplements may affect a person’s ability to recall dreams. However, many patients have told me that when they use sleeping pills they do not remember their dreams.