Reviewed by Jenna Gress Smith, PhD, sleep scientist in residence at Crescent.
Pretty much everyone dreams. Dreaming is believed to help foster problem-solving, memory consolidation, and emotional regulation.
But it is a myth that remembering your dreams is a sign of sound sleep. We dream four to five times a night, but not everyone remembers their dreams because ... they’ve slept through them. Their sleep wasn’t disrupted, so they weren’t awakened to recall the dreams (which is a sign of good quality sleep).
Forgetting your dreams is considered completely normal in terms of overall brain health and functioning. Scientists also know that women are more likely to remember their dreams than men.
So why don’t I remember my dreams?
Generally speaking, dreams tend to disappear quickly from our minds, especially if we’re distracted when we wake up and those fleeting images don’t imprint themselves in our long-term memory.
Though science is far from fully understanding the dream world; brain differences, personality traits, and the dream content itself may all play a role in who holds on to their dreams and who doesn’t.
For instance, pioneering research has shown that some personality differences affect dream recall (the theory being that certain aspects of our waking lives may influence our dream lives). Example: dreamers tend to be more anxious, but they are also more creative people, more open to experiences and creative thinking, according to Raphael Vallat, a neuroscientist specializing in sleep and dream research at the University of California, Berkeley Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab.
The analogy he makes is that dream recallers are the artists, whereas non-dreamers are the engineers.
Consequently, how you are wired may influence why you do or don’t remember your dreams.
Wired to dream
While we’re asleep, our brain’s default mode network takes over, allowing our minds to wander. We use this brain region when thinking about ourselves or others in the past or future, but also while we’re daydreaming — or dreaming during sleep.
In dreamers’ brains, the default mode networks are typically more active and connected during both waking and sleeping hours, Vallat said. This extra connectivity and activation may help dreamers remember their dreams. At the same time, it also may make them more prone to flights of fancy in general in their daily life.
Why some people recall dreams
When it comes to intellectual prowess, grey matter drives our performance. But when it comes to remembering things like dreams, lesser-known white matter may take over, as Vallat’s 2018 study found.
Gray matter and white matter each make up about half of our brains. If you think of your brain as a computer, the gray matter would be the information processing systems and the white matter the cables that connect the different components together, allowing brain communication to flow.
Vallat and a research team found that people who frequently remember dreams have more white matter in a region of the brain known as the medial prefrontal cortex, which is linked with processing information about ourselves Their findings support the idea that brain connectivity is somehow important in dream recall. Having more white brain matter may not just help you remember your dreams, it may also promote dream creation.
Light sleepers may have greater dream recall (and that’s *not* such a good thing)
The more you’re waking up during the night, the more likely it is that you’ll remember your dreams, at least in the short term, because waking up encourages memory formation. Even brief awakenings of around two minutes is enough time for dreams to be encoded into long term memory.
However, frequent nighttime awakenings and sleep disruptions are not signs of healthy, restful sleep. Whether they’re caused by stress, too much alcohol, an irregular sleep schedule, medications that impact your sleep architecture, or sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, if you’re waking up often, chances are, you're not getting enough sleep.
It’s probably worth a visit to a health care professional who can explore what’s causing your sleep disruptions and provide medical advice.
Most people have experienced those incredibly vivid dreams where you wake up with a start and wonder, “Was that real, or … was I dreaming?” And you've also awakened in the morning with no recollection of any dreams at all.
Dreams are still the great frontier of sleep science, one reason being that dream research is hard to conduct or measure. Our resident sleep medicine specialist feels that it’s likely fine if you remember your dreams … or you forget them. It's not a good or bad thing, so don’t get too invested or worried either way.