Ask Me – How Do I Remember My Dreams, Part I

This question is on the top five questions I am usually asked when I tell someone I work with dreams. At every talk and presentation, in every conversation with a new dreamer, every casual chat about dreaming I have, this question arises. In fact, it is one of the first questions I received here.

It arises because it is a great question.

There are, of course, some ideas and tricks I can [and will] offer, but before I get to the how of it, I want to talk about dreaming and remembering in a larger context. [Me and context!]

Dreaming and Remembering

In the science of dreaming, we know that we “can” dream in most stages of sleep [non-REM stages as well as REM sleep], but that we do dream in REM sleep. During that stage of sleep, our brain activity returns to similar levels of activity as during the day and our body shifts into a dream state where our bodies are inhibited from moving [sleep paralysis] so that we do not act out our dream actions in the waking world. The body creates space for us to be in the dream state [which I love].

So, for anywhere between 1-2 hours per sleep cycle, we are in REM sleep and dreaming. Every night. In that time, we could be having any amount of dreams. Most “studies” say we can have 2-4 dreams per night, but I don’t know about that number. People dream in different ways – we have long dreams, short dreams, flash dreams, snippets. Maybe we have 10 dreams one night and 2 the next. There is no one way of dreaming, except your way.

But no matter how many, we do dream every night. Each of us. Yes, you, too. Even if you do not remember a single moment, note, feeling or whiff of a dream. You still have the experience of that dream.

Some theories of dreaming categorize dreams in types. I recently heard a Jungian analyst talk about “archetypal” dreams and “informational” dreams, etc. In this way of being with dreams, there are “throwaway” dreams, in a way, because some of the dreams are only “processing the day” or “giving information” about some small thing from our day.

For me, all dreams are “archetypal” and I mean that in a different way than Jungians. What I mean, is that all dreams offer a door into the wisdom of dreaming, the wisdom of your dreams. This realm is rich and mysterious and brings us what we most need, even if we do not know what we need or even know we need anything. Even “throwaway” dreams [because there is no such thing as a throwaway dream].

Every dream as a door.

Let’s do a little math: if we do take the average of, say, 4 dreams a night for 365 days a year and we live, say, to the ripe age of 80 – that’s a lot of dreams. So many dreams.

I am not math person, obviously. But it is an overwhelming amount of information.

For me, I do not believe we are meant to “remember” every single dream or even every single moment of a dream. If we did, we would be inundated. If we did, we could spend our days working with the dreams and do nothing else.

I do not believe that the purpose of dreaming is to remember every single one.

This from Dierdre Barrett, author and psychologist known for her research around dreams, “The processes that allow us to create long-term memories largely lie dormant while we sleep, which is why most dreams are forgotten shortly after waking. For instance, an important neurotransmitter for remembering, norepinephrine, exists at very low levels during dreaming, as does electrical activity in areas key to long-term memory, such as the prefrontal cortex.” (Barrett, Deirdra. “What Processes in the Brain Allow You to Remember Dreams?” Scientific American, Scientific American, 1 July 2014, www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-processes-in-the-brain-allow-you-to-remember-dreams/, accessed January, 2021).

I do believe we have experiences in our dreams and some are meant to remain in the realm of dreaming, in that mysterious place we go to [are taken to] when we sleep. It does not mean we do not receive the information or learn from the experiences; it does not mean we are not affected or are not changed/challenged in those experiences. I believe we are.

We dream and are dreamed.

Just as we do not need to retain the memories of all of our days, all of the moments of our lives, I do not believe we need to retain the memories of all of our experiences, our moments in dreaming.

If each dream is a door, if each moment of a dream is a door, the important thing is that there is a door.

If you are new to dreaming or have been committed to your dreams forever, I feel it is important to remember that you are not necessarily meant to remember every dream.

And the ones you do remember, well. Those are doors – and doors for your conscious as well as unconscious life.

What Makes a Remembered Dream

Full-on dream, snippet, image, feeling, disjointed moments, random flashes.

What makes a dream a dream, one that we can be with, work with, let it work us.

Many of us think about dreams in certain ways – it’s only a dream if it is a “longer” dream, with an “understandable” narrative. Or, it’s only a dream if it is a certain kind of dream – “I dreamt about something at work, so I know what that is. It’s not a real dream”. Or, if it’s only fully remembered – “I know I had a long dream, felt like I was dreaming all night, but I could only remember one thing when I woke up”.

Here’s the thing – just as we all have different ways of dreaming and even being with our dreams, our memory recall of our dreams is different as well. Our recall can also change – being sharp for a while and then vague for a time then back to being sharp.

For me, however a dream is remembered is plenty of dream to work with – whether it is a snippet, a full-on Hollywood style movie, a remembered feeling, or just an image. Even if a dream is only partially remembered, what we are left with is still a door.

I also take how we are remembering dreams in certain times as part of the information of dreaming when working with dreams. If someone who usually does not remember dreams is remembering lots of dreams, I take notice. If the tone of the dreams is different, I take notice.

For there are many ways to open the door.

I once had this experience in my own work – I was in a particular place in my inner work where things were changing a great deal. The way I thought of myself was changing, the way I viewed the stories of my life was changing. My outer world was not changing, but inside, I felt I was going through seismic shifts. I woke one morning really tired and knowing I had been in a very long dream with many elements. As if I had been through an entire Frodo-like journey in one night. I remembered nothing of the dream or the narrative, no images.

And it was true. In my inner life, I had just completed a long journey with my trauma work, with coming into another way of being with myself that was radically different than most of my life up to that point.

I woke tired from the long journey of the dream. I was tired from the long journey I had been on with my dreams already. I woke perhaps not even needing to know the details of the journey in the dream; knowing instead that I was tired and I had been on this long journey. Working the experience with my dream practitioner of that time, it became clear that the dream was urging me to acknowledge the journey and to acknowledge how tired I was. I needed rest and I needed to acknowledge the long distance I had just come, even if my outer life looked exactly the same.

It is a different way of being with the dream experience. When I awoke from that experience, I was frustrated that I did not remember the details and almost did not bring the experience to my dream session. It became the anchor of my work for that time – to rest, take time for myself [which is what is done after a long journey]. Something I have not always been very good at doing.

So, rather than judge how we remember dreams, how the dreams allow us to remember them, it can be also important about the how of remembering not just the how much.