We spend about 20 percent of our nights dreaming — but even as we’ve come to appreciate the importance of sleep, most of us still dismiss our dreams.
Once upon a time, though — not so long ago — Americans took their dreams seriously, and so did their newspapers.
In the 1880s, the popular New York World announced a nationwide “best dream” competition, challenging the paper’s hundreds of thousands of readers to write in with their most spectacular visions. Other papers published cautionary tales of fools who failed to heed their dreams. New Hampshire’s Freeman’s Oracle told of a young sailor’s wife who dreamed of seeing her husband’s corpse bobbing in the sea and begged him not to join his captain for dinner on deck; he ignored her warning and drowned.
I’ve spent three years studying what dreams mean and why we have them. I’ve learned about why we often forget our dreams, and I’ve argued that we should try not to. By paying attention to our dreams, we can access ideas that would otherwise vanish into the night. We can become aware of mental and physical issues that might otherwise fly under the radar.
I was inspired by the New York World: I’d like to revive the tradition of asking newspaper readers to send in their dreams (though, unlike New York World dream judge Julian Hawthorne, we won’t anoint a “champion dreamer”). Send in a dream you can’t stop thinking about — a recurrent nightmare; a dream that helped you heal from a loss; a dream you think predicted the future; a “lucid dream” in which you knew you were dreaming. I’ll pick a few, and at my workshop at the Tucson Festival Books, I’ll tell you what can be said about your dream from a scientific perspective, and how to approach the interpretation of your own dreams.
Don’t worry if you only remember dreams occasionally. Dreams, by their nature, are difficult to hold on to. They often lack any kind of cohesion, and a chaotic series of images will always be harder to reconstruct than a tidy story (just as it’s harder to remember a string of random letters than a word). Memories tend to be encoded through repetition, but each dream is unique.
Even so, dream recall is a skill that most people can improve through minimal effort. For many, the desire to remember dreams is enough; reminding yourself of your intention as you fall asleep can yield a bounty of memories in the morning.
“The single most important step in encouraging and enhancing dream recall is deciding cleanly and wholeheartedly that you really are interested and really do want to remember your dreams,” dream researcher Jeremy Taylor wrote in “The Wisdom of Your Dreams.”
“Focusing conscious attention on the desire and decision to recall dreams, particularly as you are falling asleep, will almost always increase the number and quality of dream memories upon awakening.”
The easiest way to boost dream recall is to keep a dream journal and write in it first thing in the morning. In the 1970s, psychologist Henry Reed assigned a group of 17 college students to log their dreams in a daily journal and attend twice-weekly classes on the meaning of dreams. Over the course of the 12-week study, the students’ memories of their dreams became much more vivid: 58 percent of their entries in the first half of the project included visual details, but in the second half, that number rose to 73 percent. Meanwhile, the proportion of dreams that mentioned colors rose from 33 to 52 percent. And the students enjoyed the improvement so much that they kept up with their diaries even after their teacher had stopped paying attention: three months later, 12 of the 17 were still recording their dreams.
It’s best to write in the dream journal as soon as you become conscious — before making coffee, before looking at your phone, before getting out of bed; even, if possible, before opening your eyes. Any bodily motion or engagement with the physical environment can jolt you out of your internal world and erase your memories from the night.
It doesn’t matter whether you write your dreams in a notebook, type them up on your laptop or phone, speak them into a voice recorder, or draw them on a sketchpad. Consistency is more important than method; whichever technique is easiest to stick with is best. Handwritten entries can be typed up, and voice memos can be transcribed. The dream journal should be reread and referred back to, engaged with as much as possible, searched for repeating themes and reflections of real-life experience.
Waking up naturally, rather than with an alarm, can also help you hold on to your dreams; psychologist Rubin Naiman compared waking up with an alarm to “being abruptly ushered out of a movie theater whenever a film was nearing its conclusion.”
If you have to set an alarm, it’s best to time it to go off at the end of a REM stage (so a multiple of 90 minutes after going to sleep). When researchers wake people during REM sleep, they can usually remember their dreams; the more time that elapses between a REM period and waking up, the harder it gets. Thanks to the same logic, waking up at strategic intervals throughout the night — toward the end of REM phases — can maximize the number of dreams you recall; if you sleep for eight hours, you might set an alarm to go off after three REM cycles (about 4½ hours) or four (about six hours into the night). Robert Stickgold recommends a more natural method: drink a couple of glasses of water right before bed.
Every time you wake up — even in the middle of the night — you should record notes on the most important elements of your recent dream; if you fall back to sleep without recording it, the memory is likely to be gone by the time you wake from the next dream. Even brief bullet points from the middle of the night can trigger detailed memories of the dream the next day.
And if we value our dreams, we’re more likely to remember them.