First, I am going to repeat myself – rather than judge how we remember dreams [or maybe how the dreams allow us to remember them], the how of remembering is just as important as the how much we remember.
Now, to the question I received – “How can I remember my dreams. I have a notebook and pen by my bed already. Do you have any other suggestions?”
Having a notebook with a ready pen, having your smart phone ready to record, having a voice recording device – all these are great ways to be ready for remembering dreams.
And sometimes it is not enough. So, let’s start with other things we can do around intention and then move to how science can help us.
Remembering Dreams is an On-Going, Ever-Changing Process
One more thing before tips and tricks. Remembering dreams is not just remembering dreams. It is entering into a conversation with your dreams, entering into a place of mystery.
Just like any conversation, there are some things for us to keep in mind. Once you get started and get in the practice of turning toward your dreams, your relationship to remembering dreams will change. It will get “better” or you will remember more dreams/dream moments and it may even get easier to remember. It is like anything we can train ourselves to do, like building muscle, with practice it gets easier.
Sometimes, just like in building any kind of muscle, we may hit a plateau or a time when our recall is not so great. This also can be part of your process. It does not mean your dreams have abandoned you. It may mean something about the conversation between you and your dreams is changing. So, it is good to note it. Good, too, to note that it does not mean it is forever.
Like any ongoing conversation that spans years, there will be initial shy, even awkward moments; there will be moments of lively engagement; there will be moments of quiet.
Setting Intentions – Not as Simple as it Sounds
Again, one way I think of dreaming is that it is a conversation between our waking, conscious mind and the dream realm which is of the unconscious and is also deeply mysterious.
Moreover, it is a conversation with its own language and its own dialect particular to you and only you and your dreams, which makes dreaming even more mysterious. For to be with our dreams, we are agreeing to learn a entirely new [but probably familiar] language.
State Your Desire to Remember – Knowing You Will Receive More than You Expect
Just like any conversation we want to be in, we need to enter the conversation. We can do this with our dreams by stating our desire to our dreams to know them.
So, X., when you lay out your notebook at night before you go to bed, you could try having a conversation with your dreaming life as you get into bed and as you drift into sleep. Tell your dreams you want to remember them.
And more – tell your dreams/unconscious that you are ready to hear them. It is one thing to tell another we want to be in conversation with them, but it is another thing to let them know we really want to hear them.
I do this [yes, still]. I tell my dreams I am ready to receive what they are offering, even if I am apprehensive or scared. I tell my dreams I want to receive, I want to listen and I want to be in conversation. I tell them I am ready.
Be Open to All the Dreams Want to Offer
Part of the tone of this intention setting is acknowledging to yourself that the dreams are bringing meaning and important information – and not just about who we should be with or how to solve a family problem or what to do about work. The information we receive from our dreams can be about those kinds of things, but often only by going under “surface” issues to show us where we are stuck in old narratives, old stories. To show us how to get unstuck. To show us our trauma[s] and how they have been and are affecting us.
I bring trauma in here because our dreams want to help us with our trauma work – not to relive the trauma, of course, but to have healing. Often, those issues we have at work or with a beloved or in our family are influenced by how we have survived trauma and how we believe we still need to survive.
Setting this kind of intention is saying yes to all the dreams want to offer. Not just what we want the dreams to offer.
Setting an intention this way shows your dreaming [which is listening] that you are ready to listen and ready to learn the new language.
Have a Way to Record the Dreams Completely Ready
Back to that notebook – it is important to have that notebook and pen, that tablet, that recording device [if you want to record instead] all ready when you go to bed.
But be sure to have it completely ready. If using a notebook and pen, have the notebook open to a blank page, the pen either open or easy to open. Have it angled in a way that you can just reach over and grab it without thinking or getting out of bed.
If recording, have the device completely ready. If using a smart phone, have the voice recorder app open. Some apps even have settings where you can start talking and it will start recording even without you having to touch the phone.
If you are using a recording device other than a smart phone, again, have all the settings ready so that all you have to do is either start talking or hit a button.
Whatever the device, as with a notebook, have the device right next to the bed, set in a way that you can just reach over and grab it, without thinking, when you wake.
And don’t wait until after you have brushed your teeth. Do it immediately! Without thinking.
Without thinking is the key.
Which brings me to the next suggestion.
Don’t Think – Or Be Open to the In-Between Space of Waking and Dreaming
The space between sleep and waking, which is often referred to as the hypnogogic state of dreaming – the short time between being awake and being asleep at night and the reverse in the morning. This state is a fluid state where we are a little in both realms – dreaming and waking.
While many of our dreams come in the deep REM sleep which comes later in the night, we can and sometimes do have dreaming in the hypnogogic state. If we move out of it toward thinking or problem solving or being in the world the way we are in the world, the dreams quietly slip away, unnoticed.
To remember dreams – either from REM or the in-between state – let yourself drift a little when you wake in the morning. Don’t just leap out of bed and into your morning, if you can. Don’t even get out of bed right away. Instead, be in the drifty state. Often, dream moments will be in that state, too, drifting and ready for you to be conscious of them.
So, drift and reach for your recording device. Drift and just start recording, whatever comes. A scene, a face, a feeling, a place. Get it recorded. Sometimes getting one thing down opens the door [because every moment in a dream is a possible door] to other parts of the dream drifting from the dream state to your waking state.
Get down what you can.
If you feel you have a whole dream and you can’t write it down fast enough [this has happened to me], then do a bullet list of events. Just list out the events and then go back and fill in details. Again, this keeps that door open.
When we start thinking, however, the door can close. Even if we think something like, “Oh! I am so excited about that dream!” Or, “Oh, I wonder why Y was in my dream.” That can close the door, because that kind of thinking turns you toward the day and away from the dream state.
Again, from Dr. Barrett: “A 2011 study showed that people who have more theta brain-wave activity in their prefrontal cortex after waking from REM sleep have better dream recall. Theta activity indicates a slower-paced, more relaxed brain state, and greater theta activity has been linked to enhanced memory while awake.”
Drift, write down what you can, even if it does not make sense.
Even if it seems silly.
Even if it does not make sense [don’t try to make sense].
Even if it seems like just something leftover from the day before.
Even it is something like an image of your car or pet or the ocean.
Even if it is scary.
Even if it is just a word or a sound.
By being with this state in this way, by writing down anything that comes, you are again telling your dreams you are ready to receive.
Desperate Measures – Interrupting REM Sleep to Jump-Start Dream Recall
Let’s say you do all of those things and still no dreams.
Scientists have found that we can often remember dreams more clearer and readily when we wake from an REM state. Maybe because we are not completely out of the dream, maybe because there are no steps between REM and waking, maybe because when we wake from REM sleep, it is usually still night and still a dream-like space.
In normal sleep cycles, we usually move through several nonREM states both leading up to REM sleep and coming out of REM sleep. It is part of the way sleep and dreams work, I believe, to help us process both our physical need for sleep and also the energy of our dreaming. Dreaming is like being in another place, so we have to take several steps to get to REM sleep and then, after, several steps to return.
But if we are not yet trained to be in conversation with our dreams, not trained yet in our ways of remembering, our dialog and our dialect with our dreams, then it may take us a few steps to get to remembering and being in the conversation.
One thing I did when I first started seriously working with dreams, was this trick:
Before bed, drink a large glass or two of water. Literally, right before bed. What this does is create the necessity for your body to pee in the middle of the night and, often, in the middle of REM sleep and dreaming. Then, instead of using the recording devices by the bed, I kept a notebook and pen in the bathroom, so I could stumble in and, whilst peeing, I could write down the dream I was just having. A key, again, is to try not to think too much. Just stumble in to the bathroom and see what you got.
I even learned to write in the dark, so that I did not need to turn on the light. [Hint – I just wrote in big letters.]
Sometimes, when I went back to sleep, I went back into the same dream and then, after waking and seeing what I had written in the middle of the night, more of the dream would come back.
Again, because dream recall is often better when we wake from REM sleep, this can help kickstart the conversation.
Note: You won’t have to do this forever because, again, once your dreams realize you are serious, they will respond and you will begin to remember more.
Be Patient and Make Note of Everything
Remember this – it may take a little time when we start turning to our dreams with a new intention for us to retain them. It may be a process.
So, if waking in the middle of the night, having all the things ready, etc. is not quickly translating to remembering dreams, keep going anyway. Your dreams may want to know you are serious. Your unconscious may want to know you are serious.
And write everything down anyway. Anything at all that feels like it has come from somewhere of the dream realm. Put it down on paper or in your computer.
This is part of building a new muscle, learning a new language.
Some Science Tips to Help
Sleep science can help with our training to remember dreams. Here’s a few things to keep in mind:
- Give yourself time to slowly enter sleep. This fosters the hypnogogic state, allowing space for that kind of drifting between worlds. We sleep better when we can drift into it, and thus have access to dreaming in a better way. To do this, maybe meditate in bed for a few minutes before turning to sleep or just rest before trying to sleep. For example, maybe turn off devices for a set amount of time before bed, not lying in bed scrolling or texting right before you try to go to sleep.
- Give yourself time for the drifty space when you wake. This fosters dream recall and gives a gentle waking. Some say that waking to an alarm snaps us right out of this state, which is probably true. They do know that our dream recall is better when our noradrenaline levels are not high. When we wake to an alarm, especially a sharp alarm, our noradrenaline levels spike, which hinders remembering dreams.
- Check any medications you are using. For example, using Cannabis to help with sleep or pain can often inhibit dream recall for some dreamers.
- Get enough sleep. When we are sleep deprived, our bodies often skip the hypnogogic state, that in-between drifty state before we slip into our sleep cycles. When we skip that part, this can inhibit dream recall, because it is in this place that dream recall can happen. If we are too exhausted to have that at the beginning of our sleep, our brain chemistry is not setup for remembering. It also means not having that time for dreaming, which is a time when dreams can come and are more easily remembered. We also may be more likely to not have the hypnogogic state in the morning, which is a great time for dream recall.