Why Are Dreams Hard to Remember?

Photo by Country Living Magazine

Pillows were thrown across the mattress, blankets hanging down on the floor from the bed. A young girl waking up at 9 am trying to remember what her mind just dreamt of, but instantly forgetting about it in the next few seconds. All the girl could remember was that she did have a dream but couldn’t recall anything about it. Some nights, the young girl had dreamt about flying through the sky chasing the stars with birds while they were chirping in the background, remembering every specific detail about it. Other nights, all she would remember was that she had some sort of dream of something related to going to school and taking a test. But why? Why on some nights did she barely remember parts of her dreams while on other nights she remembered every single detail about them? Dreams are vivid images, thoughts, emotions, or feelings that occur when we fall asleep. Dreams were first discovered centuries ago as an unknown concept, yet we still don’t know the true purpose of why we dream or why they are so easily forgotten. But with today’s new technology advancements, we have discovered more knowledge about dreams.

Dreams and Memory

According to Harvard Medical School, dreams usually occur during REM sleep.

“Stages one and two are periods of light sleep. Stage three is a transitional period between light sleep and the deeper, more restorative sleep achieved in stage four. The fifth stage is REM sleep, which accounts for about 20 percent of our sleep each night. We typically go through this sleep cycle several times a night, each lasting about 90 minutes.”

Scientists believe that we have around 4–6 dreams every night but only remember 5% of our dreams overall. Which leads researchers to elaborate theories and experiments to the question, why are dreams hard to remember? According to a 2014 study on Neuropsychopharmacology, a theory that is mainly believed to be the cause of forgetfulness about dreams when waking up is the lack of blood flow in the MPFC, medial prefrontal cortex, and in the TPJ, temporoparietal junction during REM sleep.

Video from The Washington Post

The medial prefrontal cortex has the role of correlating one’s personal behavior in comparison to others. The MPFC as well is in charge of reflecting on recent activities or thoughts, while the TPJ, has the role of processing emotional things and is what stores and collects memory from in and around the body. With a lack of blood flow through these regions in the brain, it is believed that the blood flow affects the TPJ. It causes people to forget the emotional parts in the dream while it also affects the MPFC by not being able to remember the main idea of the dream itself.

Purple highlighted is the MPFC, Medial prefrontal cortex
The red circled region is the TPJ, temporoparietal junction

Another theory researchers have created is that the reasons we may not remember some of our dreams is because dreams show the true pain and thoughts we hide throughout the day that we try to suppress. When the dreams come at night according to https://keziavida.com/2-main-reasons-you-dont-remember-dreams/, we forget them since we can’t handle the trauma of thinking about it when we are awake and conscious. Additionally, according to a 2016 article, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, memory loss of dreams when waking up can also be from the alternating levels of acetylcholine and norepinephrine. The acetylcholine is “a part of the autonomic nervous system that contracts smooth muscles, dilates blood vessels, increases bodily secretions, and slows the heart rate. It helps with the encoding of memory”. The Norepinephrine increases the blood pressure, heart rate, and increases blood pumping from the heart during sleep which may cause memory loss for dreams.

Most times dreams are based off passed events.

An 8th-grade student of Davie, Florida was interviewed on May 17, 2021, to see her perspective of dreams and her memory of them. According to the student, her last dream occurred last week about having an argument about a certain word in German with one of her friends. Many of her dreams in the past have been forgotten easily within minutes of waking up, as she tries to have some recollection of it but suddenly the thoughts and memory of her illusions were out of her range of grasp.

“I have a dream, but then I only remember it for the first few minutes that I wake up, after that I don’t remember what happened.”

According to Robert Stickgold, an HMS associate professor of medicine and director of the Center for Sleep and Cognition at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, what usually makes us remember our dreams more is the timing of when we wake up. The best timing to wake up is late at the REM stage period when our movements become less subtle and we are ready to go into a calm stage of sleep. Whenever we first fall asleep steadily or slowly, we reach stage one of our sleep, entering a hypnagogic state.

“Hypnagogia is characterized by dreamlike visual, auditory, and physical disturbances that appear shortly before sleep begins. When we awaken, whether at or at the conclusion of a sleep cycle, recollection is aided if we do so gently and with no movement.”

Oftentimes alarm clocks disturb our dreams as well causing it to either end the dream or have no recollection of the dream whatsoever, which has happened to the student in the past many times. Most of the student’s dreams have related to what she has done in the past day. She informs us that she has had dreams about conversations in real life or about arguments she has had in the past day. Sometimes there would be a lingering thought of deciding whether the dream was meaningful or meaningless, or that the dream ended mid-way by the alarm clock, not letting her remember much about it. Information from Harvard Medical School corroborates with the student’s memory of dreams when being woken up with alarm clocks since its states that we must wake up ourselves without an alarm clock so that the mind will be focused on other things than our dream once we wake up causing memory loss of our dream that just occurred.

Dream’s Meaning

All people dream, but only some remember. Dreams are an interesting topic to learn about since we don’t fully know the concept of it. It was believed years ago, and still is that dreams are given by God to communicate with us. In addition, there are interpretations of dreams that behind every dream there is a meaning. For example, falling: your life isn’t going well, being chased: you are trying to avoid something in your life, losing teeth: worried about your appearance or worried that you have said something embarrassing recently or worried about your skill of communication, etc. The interpretations of dreams are innumerable. Dreams are still a concept that is unknown, the only way we could learn more about them is if we continue researching and analyzing the parts of our brain that allow us to dream and to understand why we forget our dreams easily.

Jean Lecomte du Nouÿ, A Eunuch’s Dream, 1874. Courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

How to Remember Dreams More

Overall, memory loss from dreams is mainly theorized that there is a lack of blood flow in the MPFC and TPJ, trauma, or being interrupted by alarm clocks. To help increase memory, either seek a therapist to try to resolve trauma, or seek a doctor if not enough blood flow is occurring in the MPFC and TPJ. In addition, try to wake up by yourself so the alarm clock doesn’t disturb your train of thinking.

Dreams are truly a magical thing to experience, sometimes it can transport you into another world, create new stories, or show the meaning of your life experiences. But we can only experience this gift by learning new techniques on remembering our dreams and understanding why it is hard to remember them.

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Nicole Krinickas

Nicole Krinickas

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