Jen Sonstein Maidenberg
For years, I was always surprised when friends or family would claim to not remember their dreams. I would be even more incredulous when someone would say to me, “Oh, I don’t dream.”
What? How could that be? My dream life was always so active, rich, and plentiful. I had so many dreams, even as a child, and dreams inside of dreams. How is it that someone else had none?
Since I started researching dreams, however, I have become ever more certain that everyone dreams, and the issue is less about dreaming and more about dream recall.
Certainly, sleep plays a role. If you struggle with insomnia or if you are a light sleeper and easily disturbed, you may in fact not be falling into a deep enough sleep in order to make it to REM, which is the primary dreaming stage of sleep. However, REM isn’t the only stage of restfulness that allows us to access dream-like visions or imagery.
When you really start slowing down and paying attention, you will find you sometimes start dreaming even when you believe you’re still awake.
This is called hypnogogia. It’s that transitional state between wakefulness and sleep.
We can experience it during the day, as well; while trying to nap, or even while trying to stay awake in class or during a work call. We can slip into a hypnogogic state during meditation or an acupuncture session. Some of us can even enter a similar state doing a mindless activity.
The boundary between wakefulness and sleep is fuzzier than we may think. There are some individuals so good at slipping into this in-between state that they are able to create and engage in “hallucinatory” experiences psychologists have termed “maladaptive daydreaming.”
All this is to say that you may be dreaming more than you realize. If you would like to be more cognizant of your dreams, and as a result engage with the dream content in a way that can benefit you, here are some tips for how to do so. These suggestions are a result of over a decade of research and personal practice, as well as client work.
1. Make an effort. Any effort.
If you have the slightest sense of a dream image, sensory experience, encounter, or dialogue, immediately record it. It doesn’t matter how vague or how strange the image. It doesn’t matter if you only have one word or three words that don’t make up a whole sentence, record it. And, as long as you don’t have major sleep issues, record the slightest memory of a dream, even if it’s the middle of the night. The idea is that we are trying to create a good habit. The brain likes habitual behavior. The more you respond to your memory of a dream, the more you will remember. Sometimes this only takes a day or two of practice to make a difference!
2. Use a recording app on your phone if you are too tired to write.
Since we are simply trying to create a habit in the beginning, it’s okay if you feel too lazy to reach for a pen and paper, or to try to beat the autocorrect gods when typing words into your phone. Use a voice recording app on your phone, press the button, and speak your dream into it. Ideally, later, when you are fully awake, you would listen to the recording as soon as possible and write the dream down in a notebook or a notes app on your phone. Use this opportunity to take the next step: flesh out the details of the dream.
3. Write down a small detail from a dream and magically more details will appear.
It’s proven true time and again: when you take the time to write the dream down in a journal or a notes app, more details (and often more dreams) magically appear. You often simply remember more details as you are writing out the dream. This happens less if you record a dream as a voice memo early in the morning, but only return to it later. If there is too much time between the recording and the writing, you may struggle to recall the dream at all, let alone the details. There is something about the process of writing the dream down, as opposed to speaking it, that encourages greater recall of details, and of more dreams.
4. The struggle to make sense is real (and that’s okay.)
You will inevitably find it challenging to put into words certain dream experiences. Don’t let that stop you. You’re here to remember, not make sense. (At least, not right now.) If you can’t create logical, linear descriptions of a dream, that’s fine. Write down what you do remember. (ie. “Guy almost ran me over. Now his car is mine. I have a car, but no key. But at least the pigeon didn’t die.”)
Also, write down what you feel. Inside of dreams, you may find your sensory experiences such as smell, touch, and taste are muted, but your feelings or reactions are stronger. As it often goes in waking life, we may more easily remember events that activate feelings or reactions in us, as opposed to the mundane, which we will forget. Same goes for sensory experiences you do have in the dream: if you remember a sense, but can’t remember the story around the sense, record that, too.
As you go about the day, you may find that daytime activity spontaneously triggers more details from a dream. I encourage you to add those to the original record of the dream.
5. Let the dream images and feelings simmer.
We don’t all have the luxury of lingering in bed with a dream in the morning. I get that. But if you give yourself an extra ten minutes after writing down or recording the dream to be with the images and feelings from the dream, you will likely remember it long after waking. You are giving your brain the opportunity to store the dream images into long-term memory.
If you are trying to remember a juicy good dream, this can be a simple practice to take on. If you are just waking up from a juicy bad dream, I understand why you would want to shake it off and forget about it quickly. See if you can stay with the images, as unpleasant as they are, for a minute longer.
There are benefits to lingering with dream images and feelings (good and bad ones). Staying longer with dream images, reflecting on them, and engaging with them after dreams is called dreamwork. It’s a practice you can take on by yourself or with a dreamwork practitioner.