My husband is a champion sleeper. He’s also prodigious when it comes to remembering his dreams. Often his dreams are unpleasant: He’s running to catch a plane and realizes he doesn’t have his bag, or he’s shouting at a class full of students. By the time he gets to the dessert table at a party, all the chocolate (i.e., real) desserts are gone.
Still, I envy his amazing powers of recall. I’d love to have half as much access to what goes on in my head at night.
Why Only Some People Remember Dreams
A new study in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology sheds light on why some people tend to remember dreams and others don’t. It has to do with activity in a part of the brain called the “temporoparietal junction (TPJ).”
The sleeping brain cannot store new information in long-term memory. But in people who dream prolifically, the TPJ—which receives and processes information from the environment—is more active at night than it is in people who rarely remember dreams. This suggests that frequent dreamers actually experience a lot of nighttime wake-ups, authors of the study say. The wake-ups are brief enough to go unnoticed, yet they’re long enough to enable the encoding of dreams into long-term memory.
Who knew there could be such a mechanistic explanation for why people like my husband have such marvelous access to their dreams and people like me do not?
Looking for Meaning in Dreams
For many years, I had two kinds of dreams: either I was doing a boring task like following a never-ending trail of breadcrumbs, or I was witnessing the horrifying crash of a plane or train. Rare was the dream that featured movie-like scenes where I was interacting with others and moving from event to event.
But then I moved to San Francisco and went on a Carl Jung kick. I became convinced that dreams had meaning and could acquaint people with hidden knowledge in their unconscious. If I could remember more of my dreams—and surely some were worth remembering–I imagined I’d find a trove of knowledge buried inside.
Together with friends, I launched a group that met once a month to interpret our dreams. The only trouble was, I had to remember a meaningful dream to have something to work with. Just how was a person like me supposed to accomplish that?
A Way to Remember
“No problem,” one of my friends said. “Everyone has meaningful dreams—you’ve just got to find a way to remember yours. As you’re falling asleep, just ask a question about a problem you want to solve—send it out to the universe—and then, every time you wake up at night, write down what you were dreaming so you won’t forget.”
Seriously?! I, a person with world-class insomnia, was now going to have to
- think about a problem as I was trying to fall asleep, and
- rouse myself enough to record communiqués from my unconscious every time I woke up at night? How exactly would I be able to get any sleep at all?!
I was obsessed by the idea of exploring my dreams, so I vowed to do whatever it took. I started writing down some of my dreams at night.
I did remember more dreams in the eight months our group met. In fact I had one of the most memorable dreams of my life: instead of driving my car over the Bay Bridge in rush hour traffic, in the dream I was carrying the car on my back. There’s no mistaking the meaning of that! But I’m pretty sure I didn’t need that dream to know how much I hated my commute over the bridge.
Now that I’ve got my insomnia under control, I remember even fewer dreams than I did in the past. Could the fact that I now sleep more soundly–with fewer nighttime wake-ups–be part of the explanation, as the study above might suggest?
All else equal, I’d prefer to awaken to cinematic dreams like some of my husband’s, which take him to Nepal and Thailand and other far-flung parts of the globe. But we’re none of us equal in sleep and waking. If relinquishing knowledge of my dreams is a price I have to pay for better sleep and daytime stamina, I’ll stick by the choice I’ve made.
If you remember your dreams, what’s the most common type of dream you have? Have you noticed that dreaming has any relationship to the quality of your sleep?