I spend a lot of time thinking about and working with dreams. When people learn this about me, one of the questions they frequently ask is, “How can I remember my dreams?” If you share that question, then read on! I’ll give five pointers for how to increase your capacity for dream recall.
First, though, I would like to emphasize the inherent difficulty of remembering dreams. Psychoanalyst Paul Lippmann (2000) hypothesizes that the fate of approximately 95% of all dreams is to be forgotten, suggesting a deep and important connection between dreams and forgetting. That means that if you’re having trouble remembering your dreams, you’re not necessarily doing something wrong. You’re probably not even missing out on the valuable contribution that dreams make in psychological life and emotional wellbeing (because dreams do what they do whether we remember them or not).
Still, there’s a world of insight and connection to be gained from remembering your dreams and sharing them with others. If you want to start exploring that world, please consider the following practices.
1) Set the intention to remember your dreams.
Each night before you go to sleep, take a few moments to focus your thoughts and consciously intend to remember your dreams. Taking some concrete action may help to strengthen your intention. For example, you might state the intention to remember your dreams aloud (to yourself or someone else) or write it down. Before I was able to regularly remember my dreams, a wise friend recommended to me that I ask my pillow for help.
In truth, the remaining four suggestions might be seen as elaborations of this first one.
2) Open space in the morning.
Springing out of bed and leaping immediately into the bustle of the day can really interfere with dream recall. Plan your morning so that you have 30 minutes or so of open time after you rise from sleep. This open time is necessary to give yourself the chance to dredge up a dream after you’re awake or to record a dream that you remember. If you don’t remember a dream when you first wake up, don’t just snooze! Find a dreamy way to put that open time to use. For example, you could stretch, journal, draw or read poetry. When I don’t remember my dreams in the morning, I just sit around half-asleep in the dark and let my thoughts drift. By doing this I am often able to recall some fragment of a dream that I had not remembered upon waking.
3) Embrace the scraps and fragments.
Some dreams appear as fully-formed stories with settings, scenes, characters and dramatic action. Other dreams appear in much more fragmentary forms, maybe just as a mood, feeling or isolated image. While longer, detailed dreams might seem more impressive or satisfying to the waking mind, there’s no reason to believe they are “better” or more valuable. In fact Freud’s (1900) theory of secondary revision suggests that the more coherent and organized a dream is, the less directly it reflects its true unconscious source. Whichever sort of haul you’re able to bring in, try to value each dream as unique and valuable in its own right, no matter how big or small.
4) Record your dreams.
By recording your dreams, you get your body involved in the process of dream recall. By writing or drawing your dreams, for example, you’re using at least one hand. If you make an audio recording of your dreams, like a voice memo on your phone, you’re involving your lips and tongue. Coaxing your dreams from the realm of pure thought into the realm of embodied action will make your experience of them more vital and memorable.
An additional benefit to recording your dreams is that you can revisit them later, by yourself or with others. You might try reviewing the dream recording you made that morning shortly before going to bed that night.
One final point about recording your dreams: there is always something lost in the translation from dream experience to dream recording. The more you can accept that, the more you might discover that there is also something gained. Think about recording your dream more so as a meaningful response to the dream experience than as an effort to create an identical duplication of the dream. I’m reminded here of the famous simile that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Recording dreams can be a bit like both of those.
5) Find opportunities to make use of your dreams in waking life.
Not everyone wants to hear about your dreams, but it is very possible to find contexts that support dream sharing. Informally, you might discover friends, co-workers or family members who make for good dream-sharing partners. Alternately, structured settings like depth psychotherapy or the social dreaming matrix specifically designed to encourage curiosity and creativity in working with others to learn from your dreams. I offer both of these practices at Royal Road Clinic.
You can also find creative ways to give attention to your dreams on your own. For example, you might further elaborate your dreams in writing or visual art. This could be as simple as drawing an image from your dream or as complex as writing a story of how your dream continues past the point where your recall of it ends.
While there are hundreds of books offering methods for ways to interpret or work on your dreams by yourself, I encourage you to play around and discover a method that you find enjoyable to use. You’re on the right track if what you’re doing motivates you to revisit your dreams throughout the day. I think you’re on the wrong track if you feel like you have to do it a specific way and that you’re doing something wrong if you try anything else. My favorite method is to replay and free associate to my dreams when I’m taking the dog for a walk. I walk my dog a few times each day, so that gives me a nice reminder to take some time for getting back into my dream thoughts. I often dream about my dog and maybe this practice contributes to that trend!
I hope that you see the intuitive sense in these suggestions and will give them a try!
If you’re having trouble sleeping, it will be even harder to remember your dreams. Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine offers powerful treatments to help you get a good night’s sleep.
Freud, S. (1900), The interpretation of dreams. Standard Edition, 4 & 5. London: Hogarth Press, 1953.
Lippmann, P. (2000), Nocturnes: On Listening to Dreams. Hillsdale: The Analytic Press.