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Why do I Sometimes Remember my Dreams Vividly and Other Times Not at All?

Dana Hinders
Updated May 21, 2024
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Although you probably dream every night, it may seem like you seldom remember your dreams after waking up. Studies indicate that most people go through rapid-eye movement (REM) — the stage of sleep when most dreaming is thought to occur — four to six times during a full night's sleep, meaning that the average person over the age of 10 can have at least this many dreams. Most are forgotten, however. Scientists who study dreaming believe that people are more likely to remember dreams that involve strong emotions or events that a person might consider important when awake. When you don't remember your dreams, it's likely because they simply aren't very interesting.

Memorable Dreams

Studies of dreams have found that many of the dreams people have deal with everyday situations that are not particularly memorable. Since most people have multiple dreams every night, the commonplace ones may simply not be distinct enough to stand out. Most people don't remember every single detail of every moment of their lives; usually, only those experiences that are actively remembered and/or which elicit an emotional response really stick in the memory. The same may be true with dreams: people seem much more likely to remember very strange, distinctive, frightening, or otherwise emotionally charged dreams, just as they would with real life experiences.

Interrupted Sleep

When people wake up during REM sleep, they are more likely to remember their dreams. Although this is not the only stage of sleep during which dreams occur, it is one of the most common. During dream studies, this is when subjects are often woken and asked about their dreams, since they are fresh in the mind. There is evidence that people can also dream during the more active stage at the end of sleep, in the hour or two before waking. Interesting dreams during this time may also be more easily remembered.

Drugs and Dreaming

People who take certain medications — and some types of illegal drugs — often report having more dreams as well as ones that are more vivid. Certain drugs, like marijuana and cocaine, cause users to experience less REM sleep, and therefore have fewer dreams. When the drugs are discontinued, the body may increase the amount of time spent in the REM stage, and dreams may become more common and memorable.

Drugs that affect brain chemistry can also impact dreams. Varenicline, which is a prescription medication used to help people stop smoking, includes a warning about strange dreams and nightmares in its side effects, as do many antidepressants. Some studies suggest that, once antidepressant medications begin to work, many people's dreams become more positive, with fewer aggressive or unfriendly characters in them. L-dopa, a drug that increases the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain, is known to cause patients to have more bizarre and vivid dreams, often with more emotional content as well.

Why Do People Dream?

No one really knows for certain why people dream, although there are many theories. Some people have argued that dreams help people solve problems or compensate for parts of the personality that aren't fully developed while awake. Others suggest that they help an individual process the day's events or "clear out" the mind after a busy day. Many modern researchers believe that dreams have no real "purpose" at all, although they do seem to have meaning; in other words, although there may be no physical or psychological reason why people dream, those dreams can reveal a great deal about the person who has them. Stress and anxiety can often affect the content of dreams, as can romantic feelings and other interests.

Dreams seem to be connected to specific networks of nerves in the brain that develop over time; sleep studies reveal that children under the age of 10 seem to dream less frequently than older people, suggesting that these networks are still maturing. It seems likely that some people may simply not dream much or at all, even during REM sleep, and therefore don't have many dreams to remember. Injuries to certain parts of the brain can also prevent a person from dreaming, and these people seem to be as healthy mentally as the average person, even without dreams. Dreaming may simply give the mind something to do as people sleep, helping them to stay asleep.

Tips for Remembering Dreams

The easiest way to increase your ability to remember dreams is to want to remember them. If you believe that dreams are merely random brain stem activity, you have no real incentive to train yourself to remember the details of what you dreamt the night before. Just like actively trying to remember something while awake can help you memorize it, the desire to remember what you dream and a faith in your ability to develop this skill are crucial to success.

Experts recommend that people who want to remember their dreams more accurately keep a dream journal. Place a small notebook and pen beside your bed; then, when you first wake up, immediately write down as much of your dreams as you can remember. Don't worry about trivial things like spelling, grammar, or sentence structure — simply write down as much as possible, even if it's just a few words, phrases, or images. If writing proves too difficult, you can try drawing a quick sketch or supplementing your notes with a small tape recorder. After two or three weeks of this practice, you'll likely find that you can recall your dreams with a much greater frequency.

If you are bothered by a dream and want to increase your chances of remembering the specific details, try drinking several glasses of water before bedtime. This will often cause you to wake up in the middle of the night, disturbing your sleep cycle. When you awaken to use the restroom, spend some time writing in your dream journal while your mind is still focused on the details of your dream.

Many people who are interested in dream interpretation recommend that you make a habit of rereading your dream journal before bed each night. This will often make it easier to remember dreams that are related. Although there is debate about whether or not the symbols in dreams mean the same thing to different people, you may also wish to use a dream interpretation dictionary to look up possible meanings for specific images or thematic elements within your dream. This may offer new insight into the issue at hand, whether your dream is about a failed romance or work-related anxiety.

All The Science is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Dana Hinders
By Dana Hinders , Writer
With a B.A. in Journalism and Mass Communication from the University of Iowa, Dana Hinders brings a strong foundation to her work as a freelance writer. After discovering her passion for freelance writing following the birth of her son, Dana has been a vital part of the All The Science team. She also showcases her versatility by creating sales copy and content for e-courses and blogs.

Discussion Comments

By anon950760 — On May 12, 2014

Water doesn't help with remembering dreams. This is the first of dozens of dream-related websites that actually said drinking water before bed was a good thing.

By anon328338 — On Apr 03, 2013

@anon313222: What terms or names did he give you to research? I have recently gone through something truly similar, and have been confused about why no one understands why my dreams appear even after I wake up.

By anon324503 — On Mar 11, 2013

anon139746/TXgirl21: I think you'll find that deep sleep is when your body gets its rest and recuperation and this occurs during NREM or the non-REM stage of sleep.

By anon313222 — On Jan 10, 2013

If you want to remember dreams, set your alarm for two hours before you are supposed to wake or on a weekend before you’d normally wake. Then when it goes off, hit the snooze and don’t think about dreaming; just hit snooze and go back to bed. If you are a dreamer, you will be able to remember your dreams.

I need some advice. Today I found out some very confusing information. I needed or felt the need to talk to someone for years, but never had the guts or was too prideful. I went today to a man who is a doctor at a local medical/sober house where I fix computers. When I met him months ago, I got a strange feeling like he was the one I had been needing to meet my entire life. I am super intuitive and caring and have always been everyone’s most loyal and true friend. I am a peace maker, and only violent if you hurt my friends, but never if you hurt me.

I put this feeling aside and watched him for months, not speaking. All this time past six months trying to get in with a therapist but was put on 8 to 12 month waiting lists. I spoke to him asked if he could refer me (he is a psychiatrist) to a colleague who takes mass health and he said he would do it for me for one hour per week at my home or in the center. I chose the office in the med center.

Well, I felt at ease and told him the things on the forefront of my mind, and my strange dream life that is ongoing and hyper-lucid to the point that I’m figuring out problems like computer functions and how to beat video games in my dreams, and when I wake up, they work. I can write them down daily but never seem to feel the need to.

I love going to bed-- love it. I always dream the same things. I even dream while awake. At night, I know I am going to fall asleep with while watching TV or on the internet, and a de ja vu feeling hits me and I instantly remember the dream and how it ended when I woke up and start actually dream and continuing the dream while I am still awake. Then I walk upstairs and lie down, think more about it and I am back in the dream.

I have felt for a long time like I live two lives but my dream one is the preferred life. When I am awake, I feel exhausted because I have just done what feels like hours of work and play in my dreams. I feel as if I can never actually shut off my brain and rest.

This doctor looked and me and with a serious face told me I was born on another planet. He had me write down some names and phrases which I researched, thinking he was a nut job but I am now more afraid of the things I have uncovered. If you know what I am feeling, how to help, have advice, or anything, please respond.

By anon312683 — On Jan 08, 2013

I have a question. When I was pregnant, I dreamed I had a little boy and I actually did have a boy (my son, Braedon). Now, just last night I dreamed that I was pregnant. I actually saw the ultrasound and all it also told me was I wouldn't find out until I was 5 or 13 weeks. What does this mean?

By anon307820 — On Dec 07, 2012

I used to dream a lot and I had great dreams, too. When I began working midnight shift 20 years ago, it stopped and never returned, even though I no longer work.

I can only recall remembering maybe a mere half dozen dreams in the past two decades. I don't take any medications, prescription, or any other type. I wish I still dreamed like I used to, and had, up until that point in time.

By anon280176 — On Jul 16, 2012

Keeping a journal does increase the chances of clearly remembering dreams. In fact, people who do and can recall them easily may rake take less time to learn how to lucid dream.(i have done some research on the subject) and waking up in the REM stage and going right back to sleep further increases chances of lucid dreaming.

By anon275757 — On Jun 20, 2012

To help dream recall, minimize or cease telling yourself, "It is just a dream..."

By anon202183 — On Aug 01, 2011

"Please research your information further before posting. -A 16 year old." Credibility goes *poof!*

By anon139746 — On Jan 05, 2011

I'm sorry, but this isn't a very accurate answer to the question.

When you remember your dreams, it is because you've woken up during an REM stage. Waking up during an REM stage of sleep isn't good, because you need as much REM sleep as possible to function well. Promoting that is awful.

I'd also like to point out that the 'subconscious' is nonexistent; the only levels of consciousness are conscious (awake), unconscious (asleep or other), and nonconscious (bodily functions, such as your heart beating). Dream interpretations are a load of crap. I am not on this site just to prove you wrong, but I'm researching the topic in order to perform a math project.

Please research your information further before posting. -A 16 year old.

By keyaunty — On May 18, 2010

Many thanks for sharing this useful information with people.

By horsen787 — On Jan 22, 2008

OMG!!!!!! that is sooooooooo cool! ever since i read this i have kept a dream journal and it works!!!!!!!!

By txgirl21 — On Aug 05, 2007

If you fall into a very deep sleep you are in REM mode. (Rapid Eye Movement) Based on books that I have read, you dream every night. Dreaming is a way of keeping your body at rest so you can sleep the entire night. Quite possibly REM sleep is when your eyes are moving so fast that they are possibly uncovering the details of your dream. Without dreams you would not be able to fall asleep. But scientists are still researching why dreams that you may have had actually come true. (Deja Vu) Further more, why actual people and places take place in your dream. Think about it, the brain is a very intellect creation that functions your entire body. How exactly does things like Deja Vu or nightmares occur?

Dana Hinders

Dana Hinders


With a B.A. in Journalism and Mass Communication from the University of Iowa, Dana Hinders brings a strong foundation to...
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