It happens all too often for some people. A sudden fall. A loud growl. An ominous-looking character. There are many different things that can wake us up from dreams. Chances are, that in those few seconds after, you’ll be able to remember your dream. Fall asleep again though, and it’s forgotten — unless you’ve taken notes. Very little is understood about why we dream. In an effort to get closer to that answer, however, researchers have discovered the parts of the brain responsible for remembering dreams, and why some people don’t.
The researchers, from the Lyon Neuroscience Research Center in France, had previously found that people who were likely to remember their dreams, so-called “high dream recallers,” had twice as many moments of wakefulness and were more reactive to auditory stimuli during sleep than those who rarely remembered dreams, called “low dream recallers.” At the time, the researchers said that these dreamers’ higher levels of neural activity could lead to an easier time remembering what happened.
Why Some People Remember Their Dreams
They went a step further in their new study, looking for dream-related regions of the brain that activated during sleep and wakefulness in both groups of dreamers. Out of 41 people, 21 identified themselves as “high dream recallers” — remembering them about 5.2 mornings per week — while the remaining 20 said that they were “low dream recallers,” who remembered their dreams only two times each month.
Using positron emission tomography (PET) to look at their brains’ activity, the researchers found that “high dream recallers” showed stronger spontaneous activity in two regions of the brain. One of them, the medial prefrontal cortex, is responsible for making associations between context, locations, events, and adaptive responses like emotions. The second area, called the temporoparietal junction, is responsible for imitation, and forming pictures of oneself and other people in the brain. Hence, the two together could not only help in creating dreams, but also remembering them, too.
“This may explain why high dream recallers are more reactive to environmental stimuli, awaken more during sleep, and thus better encode dreams in memory than low dream recallers,” Perrine Ruby, a researcher at the Center, said in a statement. “Indeed, the sleeping brain is not capable of memorizing new information; it needs to awaken to be able to do that.”
Although some people may lament the fact that they can’t ever remember their dreams, there are methods that might be able to help, and many of them involve training your brain to remember and recreate scenes — activities both of the aforementioned brain parts are good for.
The Window Treatment
Although dreams may seem scattered, in-between the jumps there is detail and some kind of chronology. We can train our brains to remember these details when we awaken by recreating the scene in real life. It’s a technique called the window treatment, according to Discovery.
For five minutes, watch whatever scenes unfold outside of a window. Observe everything: colors, objects, buildings, cards, people, animals, and movements. Everything from what someone looks like to the colors of their shoes to the speed that they are walking. If there are animals, pay attention to whether they are butterflies or moths, for example, or the specific breed of a dog. If a car is driving down the street, what kind of car is it? Are there any embellishments on it? The goal is to detail, in your head, exactly what you’re seeing — do not generalize.
Once you’ve done this, write everything down in a notebook. By experiencing the events and recounting them, you’re training your brain to remember details in real life, and eventually your dreams, too.
This is simple. When alarm clocks wake us up, they’re more likely than not to jolt us out of bed. Like splashing water all over our REM sleep — when our dreams are most likely to happen — they quickly snap us out of our dreams. Waking up naturally is a much smoother transition between dream sleeping and wakefulness, and chances are that dreams could be more easily remembered this way. Even taking an extended nap can improve a person’s chances of remembering.
If you’re serious about remembering your dreams, and even getting into a more advanced stage of dreaming, called lucid dreams, a dream journal may be effective, according to Lucidity. This technique is similar to the window treatment, although it’s done in fragments, by recording any sliver of information you remember from a dream. Rather than waiting for the morning to write in the journal, keep it close to you at night, and as soon as you wake up from a dream, write whatever you can remember — again, all the details, like you would with the window treatment. If you don’t want to write everything down, take notes of key points. Soon enough, dreams should start to become more vivid, and remembering them should be easier as well.
Source: Eichenlaub J, Nicolas A, Ruby P, et al. Resting Brain Activity Varies with Dream Recall Frequency Between Subjects. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2014.