Alaska Sleep Education Center

To Sleep, Perchance To Dream: Dream, Memory and the Brain

Posted by Kevin Faber on Jun 18, 2021 1:10:00 AM

Cute family sleeping together in the parentss bed

Understanding sleep is one of the last scientific frontiers. There are questions about why people even need to sleep. One of the most interesting areas of sleep study is all about dreams. Some people claim that you dream about whatever happened to you during the day, but that doesn't explain dreams of flying or falling. If you're interested in learning more about current research on dreaming, read on for answers about some of the most asked questions about the subject.

Why Do People Forget Dreams?

Most people have met someone who claims that they never dream. It would be more accurate if they said they never remember dreaming. Dreams occur during REM sleep, named for the rapid eye movement visible to others while someone dreams. A recent study on mice found that part of REM sleep is a period of "active forgetting."

The neurons in the hippocampus that regulate appetite and sleep fire during the forgetting stage of REM, stopping the hippocampus from working fully. The hippocampus is the part of your brain responsible for memory and learning.

In the study, the scientists found that turning off these neurons during REM sleep actually improved memory. Turning the neurons off at any other time didn't affect memory at all. The study scientists aren't sure why this happens but have hypothesized that forcing your brain to forget dreams keeps you from being overloaded with information. 

Why Do Some People Remember Their Dreams?

This study explains why people don't remember the majority of their dreams, but it doesn't really explain why some people do remember a lot of their dreams. 

While there aren't studies out there, because of the difficulty of designing a test, anecdotal evidence suggests that weight loss probiotics and other probiotics to increase gut health positively impact dreaming. People report having fewer nightmares and more vivid dreams. They've known for years that resistant starches like onion, potato and under ripe bananas can produce vivid dreams. Those same foods aren't easily digestible and turn into food for the bacteria in your colon. Again, it's nearly impossible to scientifically prove this link, but it's easy enough to test at home with some probiotics or a big helping of potatoes before bed.

Another reason some people more easily remember their dreams is something that you can't control. The temporoparietal junction of the brain, where the temporal and parietal lobes connect, is an emotion and information clearinghouse that can actually create a state of wakefulness even as you sleep, allowing you to remember your dreams more clearly. Studies show that people who remember their dreams simply have more activity in this portion of their brain.

Other aspects of dream memory that you can't control include your general personality. People who are introspective and creative tend to remember dreams. Unfortunately, stress and trauma can also cause a person to have memorable dreams and nightmares he'll remember the next day. What you have more control over is getting enough sleep. People who don't get enough sleep tend to have trouble remembering their dreams.

Can You Train Yourself To Remember Dreams?

If you usually forget your dreams on waking and want to start remembering your dreams, you may wonder if you can train yourself to remember dreams. The answer is a resounding yes. There are specific steps you can take to train your brain for a dream memory.

Noradrenaline is one of the hormones released when someone is stressed. The trigger of the fight, flight or freeze response shifts the body's mode to survival and decreases your immediate memory. If you're using an alarm clock to wake up, you're flooding your body with noradrenaline which can erase the memory of your dreams. Getting to bed at the right time and allowing yourself to wake up naturally both increase the likelihood of remembering your dreams. 

Not everyone can wake up without the help of an alarm clock. Another trick for training your dream memory is keeping a dream journal. Allow your mind to relax and drift for a few minutes on waking then begin writing down everything you can remember about your dreams. Dream journaling has been proven to improve dream memory. Soon you will remember your dreams quickly and easily. Some scientists warn that it can be difficult to switch it off once you've trained yourself this way. Active forgetting developed for a reason, and you override this natural occurrence when you train yourself to remember all your dreams. On the other hand, there's almost no better way to gain insight into your own psyche

Other things to try include telling yourself before you go to sleep that you will remember your dreams and repeating it several times. Drink a lot of water so you'll wake up to use the bathroom. Your body will usually wake you up right after a REM cycle, so you can go to the bathroom and jot in your journal before going back to sleep. 

Can You Train Yourself To Control Your Dreams?

Lucid dreaming takes dreaming one step further. Instead of remembering your dream once you awake, lucid dreaming occurs when you are aware that you are dreaming as it happens. Lucid dreaming can allow you to control what happens in the dream. About half of all people have had a lucid dream while about a tenth have one at least every month.

Some scientists believe that actively working for lucid dreaming can help the sleeper deal with nightmares or real-world phobias. There are a couple of ways to increase your chance of lucid dreaming. One of the ways to get yourself into a lucid dream works the same as reminding yourself to remember your dreams. Instead of telling yourself repeatedly that you will remember your dream, try telling yourself that you will notice that you are dreaming. This "mnemonic induction" must be done with intent and will take a lot of practice to get it down.

Another option is waking yourself up with an alarm after about five hours of sleep. Get out of bed and do a mentally stimulating activity for about 20 minutes before going back to bed. Practitioners say that you will need to then use the mnemonic induction technique as you fall back asleep. Finally, try "reality testing." In this method you check whether you are dreaming during the day and when you are asleep, trying something impossible to verify whether you're actually awake.

Whether you are interested in the science behind dreams or you want to use some of these methods to get in touch with and better understand yourself, the widely expanding information on dreams and the brain is fascinating stuff. 

Treatment Options            

Man keeping a sleep diary.

Finding a stable balance can be a delicate state to achieve and takes trust and understanding of one’s own intuition.  To help differentiate between prodromal and non-prodromal dreams, Dream Studies Portal suggests keeping a dream journal, noticing symbols and paying attention to recurring nightmares. 

However, self-diagnosis can be a risky task to handle, as interpretations can be misleading and serious conditions ignored, psychological or physical.  While your dreams may be a result of an illness, it is still only a prediction.  If you suspect your dreams may be psychologically related, then be sure to schedule a session with a family psychiatrist.  But only a trained professional can tell you if you’re showing any early signs of an illness, and no one can give better insight into your health than you doctor. 

If you suspect you may be suffering from an on-coming illness (or even just want to make sure you’re not), then be sure to visit your primary physician or specialist – especially if you’re suffering from any signs of a sleep disorder.  Luckily, Alaska Sleep Clinic's specialists are well trained in identifying and treating any degree of sleep apnea, including Obstructive Sleep Apnea.  You can take our quiz if you’re not sure whether you suffer from any signs.  If you are showing signs and you live in the Alaska area, be sure to call for a quick 10-minute consultation with our experts and schedule a sleep study today. 

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Topics: dreams

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