Soaring with the birds. Teeth falling out. A crazy psychopath is chasing you.
For many of us, our dreams transport us to a surreal world where logic and reason have no reign. Some of us may even look forward to sleep — and the adventures we’ll go on in our dreams.
What is it about people who don’t remember their dreams that set them apart from the people who do? Is it possible for the brain to stop producing dreams? And could something be wrong in the brains of people who report never dreaming?
Yes, pretty much everyone dreams. In fact, dreaming may help foster problem-solving, memory consolidation, and emotional regulation.
But does everyone take a nightly trip to dreamland? While most of us remember somewhere around one or two dreams a week, some people report a subconscious experience that’s more like a blank tape.
Among us are people who say they never, ever dream. A small subset of the population — around one in every 250 people — report never remembering a single dream in their lives, as a 2015 study found.
Our fascination with dreams stems from their mysterious and captivating nature. Raphael Vallat, a neuroscientist specializing in sleep and dream research at the University of California, Berkeley Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab, offered her insights. Vallat says dreaming “is one of the last frontiers in our understanding of the human mind.”
And learning about dream recall — the why and how of remembering one’s dreams — may help scientists solve some of the mysteries of the dreaming mind. Work by Vallat and others in the field has uncovered a number of interesting tidbits that seem to separate the dreamers from the so-called nondreamers, or the people that seldom or never remember their dreams.
As a general rule, memories of our dreams quickly fade. When we wake up, Vallat says memory encoding is especially fragile. The harsh blare of an alarm clock is often enough to distract us, preventing fleeting memories of dreams from ever being recorded to our long-term memory.
“Waking up is like going from air to water while holding sand in your hand, Vallat said. “Holding the sand is like holding the memory of your dream. And you’re trying to dive into the water without losing any sand in your hand. The idea is that it’s very hard to keep this fragile memory of your dream.”
But for some reason, some of us are better than others at holding onto dreams. And while science still has a long way to go in understanding dream recall, it seems that brain differences, individual characteristics and aspects related to the dreams themselves all play a role.
For instance, there are some personality differences between dreamers and nondreamers. Vallat pointed to work by pioneering dream researcher Michael Schredl, who has used personality testing methods such as the Big Five framework to understand how traits such as neuroticism or openness impact dream recall.
Dream recall, or the ability to remember one’s dreams varies from person to person, with some individuals having a vivid and detailed memory of their dreams, while others may struggle to remember any aspects of their dreams.
“Dreamers tend to be more anxious, but they’re also more open to experiences and more creative people,” Vallat said. “The analogy I make is that dreamers are the artists, whereas nondreamers are the engineers.”
The idea is that some aspects of our waking lives may influence some aspects of our dream lives. And personality probably influences a person’s attitude toward dreaming in general. Someone who tends to be more logical and analytical, like an engineer, maybe wouldn’t give dreams a second thought. And it’s no coincidence that those most interested in their dreams can also recall them more often.
When you wake up after experiencing a vivid dream, it’s only natural to wonder what made that dream so clear. Here are some of the factors that influence our dreams.
If you have an “inner accepting” lifestyle, characterized by a sense of control, less curiosity in non-interpersonal issues, and self-assuredness, you may experience enhanced dream recall.
Those with excellent visual memory and high creativity can recall dream imagery more vividly.
Dream recall is associated with well-developed cognitive processes, including perception, learning, and memory, enabling people to remember dreams.
Valuing dreams as meaningful experiences and having a positive attitude toward them can enhance dream recall, as it fosters interest and motivation to remember dreams.
For some people, much of dream recall boils down to individual characteristics out of our control.
Scientists also know that women, on average, are more likely to remember their dreams than men. And while Vallat says women do tend to have more activity in their brain’s default mode network, the brain’s dream center, Vallat thinks this has more to do with social conditioning.
“If you look at dream recall in children, you don’t find any differences between boys and girls. But then … girls report typically recalling more dreams around the age of 14 or 15,” Vallat said. “The theory is that women are typically more encouraged to speak about their emotions as teenagers, and this extrapolates to dreaming. Teenage boys are less encouraged to speak about their dreams or feelings.”
But both sexes may notice that their ability to remember our dreams seems to fade with age. As we grow older, our sleep patterns tend to change.
Some older adults may remember their dreams more vividly. Older people get less slow wave sleep, often referred to as deep sleep. Between the ages of 20 and 60, deep sleep decreases at a rate of 2 percent per decade. But the amount of REM sleep, when our most memorable dreams seem to occur, stays about the same.
Do age-related changes make much of a difference when it comes to dream recall? Vallat said probably not. Instead, day-to day stressors like deadlines, bills and appointments often take precedence over our dream worlds.
Read More: The Importance of Sleep for Your Body
Differences between dreamers and nondreamers may also be shaped by brain differences. And consequently, how a brain is wired may influence a person’s ability to recall dreams. While we’re asleep, our brain’s default mode network takes over, allowing our minds to wander. We use this brain region when thinking about ourselves or others in the past or future, but also while daydreaming or dreaming during sleep.
In the brains of dreamers, their default mode networks are usually more active and interconnected whether they are awake or asleep. This increased connectivity and activation may aid in dream recall. However, it can also make these individuals more inclined to daydream in general.
“Being lost in thoughts is very similar to actual dreaming in terms of neuro-connectivity and brain activation,” Vallat said.
It may not come as a surprise, then, that dreamers are also more prone to waking up at night, and have longer periods of wakefulness, as another study by Vallat found in 2017.
This wakefulness is another must-have component of memory formation. And brief periods of awakenings — around two minutes — is enough time for dreams to be encoded into long-term memory, the paper explained. If you’re a light sleeper, dream recall probably feels natural to you.
In a 2017 study, Vallat and a team of scientists discovered that dreamers’ brains react more to sounds during sleep, which points to activity differences in the so-called temporoparietal junction, an information-processing center in the brain.
Read More: Noise Colors: Which One Is Best for Sleep?
When it comes to intellectual gymnastics, gray matter drives performance. But when it comes to remembering things like dreams, the lesser-known white matter may play a starring role, as Vallat’s 2018 study found.
Gray matter makes up about half of our brains. If you think of a brain as a computer, gray matter would represent the information processing systems that handle intricate cognitive tasks.
White matter, comprising the other half of our brain, would act as the cables that connect different components together, allowing brain communication to flow.
Vallat and a team of researchers found that individuals who often remember their dreams have a greater abundance of white matter in a specific brain region known as the medial prefrontal cortex. This area is closely associated with processing information related to oneself.
Their discovery provides yet another compelling piece of evidence that shows brain connectivity is important in dream recall.
But having more white matter may not just help you remember your dreams, it may also promote dream creation.
In the early 2000s, the well-known neuropsychologist Mark Solms discovered that individuals who had developed rare brain lesions in the white matter of the medial prefrontal cortex stopped dreaming altogether.
Now, the big question is whether these people simply stopped remembering their dreams or if the actual process of dreaming came to a halt. Vallat suggests it could be a combination of both.
The vividness or peculiarity of dreams likely plays a role in their recall, and if these individuals do dream, those dreams might be quite ordinary, causing them to slip from memory. Alternatively, it’s possible that they genuinely stopped dreaming altogether, but as of now, there’s no clear way to confirm which scenario is accurate.
Read More: Do All Dreams Have Meaning?
On the other hand, you might rarely remember your dreams. These are some of the factors that prevent us from recalling our dreams.
Individuals with an “inner refusing” lifestyle, marked by a lack of control, high curiosity in non-interpersonal problems, and feeling less self-assured, may have lower dream recall.
People with poorer visual memory and lower creativity may struggle to remember their dreams as vividly as others.
Those with underdeveloped cognitive processes, including perception, learning, and memory, may have difficulty recalling dreams.
A negative attitude or indifference toward dreams can lead to a lack of interest in remembering them, impacting dream recall.
Two lifestyle changes that could impact why you may not be dreaming anymore could be related to your REM sleep and any substances you may be taking.
A good night’s sleep isn’t just good for your health, it’s also good for retaining dream memories. People who are “dream deprived” tend to be sleep deprived, too. While we dream all throughout the night, it’s easier for us to remember dreams that occurred during the Rapid Eye Movement stage of sleep. And people may miss out on REM sleep by cutting sleep short.
Certain substances can affect your ability to remember or experience dreams. People who use alcohol and THC may also tend to forget dreams, as these substances are known to suppress dream-rich REM sleep, Vallat said. So, hangovers aren’t the only downside to over-imbibing.
Remembering your dreams is simple if you ask Michael Schredl, a researcher at the Central Institute of Mental Health in Germany, who has studied a wide range of factors that can influence recall. It’s really an ability where “practice makes perfect.”
If you keep trying to remember your dreams, you eventually will. “In my opinion, the main factor is focusing on dream recall,” Schredl said in an email. “Simply keeping a dream journal or being encouraged to recall dreams can dramatically increase dream recall frequency in low dream recallers.”
But if you’re still not convinced that you do dream, Vallat outlined an alarm clock experiment you can try. But, beware: You’ll feel miserable the following day.
All you need to do is set an alarm to sound every hour throughout the night. Each time you wake up, ask yourself if you were just dreaming and then write it down. Chances are, you’ll catch yourself dreaming at least half the night.
“I’d probably guess you’d remember a dream six times out of 10, with most happening in the second part of the night,” he said. “Try it for yourself, although, I am not responsible for the very bad day you’ll have after this experiment.”
Read More: Can a Dream Warn You About Cancer?
This article was originally published on July 24, 2019 and has since been updated with new information from the Discover staff.