First things first, it's important to understand that dreaming, at its core, is a thinking process. “It is a continuation of our stream of thought from the day," says dream analyst and sleep expert, Lauri Quinn Loewenberg. "All day long, as we go about our business, we have an inner conversation with ourselves as we're driving to work, as we're loading the dishwasher, as we're showering… all day long we think and talk to ourselves.” This thought stream, she adds, continues as we drift off to sleep, too. So once we enter the REM stage in our sleep cycle, which is where we can have dreams, then the brain starts to think all over again—hence, a dream comes to life (in a sense).
“Once we enter REM dream sleep, which is about 90 minutes into sleep, the brain resumes that inner conversation. But now, instead of thinking in words, we are thinking in symbols, metaphors and emotions because the brain is now working differently,” Loewenberg says. One difference in sleeping brain function is that the part of the frontal lobe that controls rational and linear thought becomes dormant, which is why dreams can be so imaginative. “In addition, the amygdala, which controls emotions, becomes highly active, which is why our dreams can be so extremely frustrating or frightening or even amazing,” she says.
With this in mind, it's important to understand that dreams are not meaningless. By working to understand symbolism, metaphors, and extracting meaning from what you’re experiencing in dreams, you can delve a bit deeper into their messages, which can be an exploration of personal issues, relationships, goals, and more. “During this subconscious exploration, we are able to look at ourselves and our issues in a metaphoric light,” she says. And this can be insightful for the soul.
What does it mean when you don't dream?
Well, put simply, it doesn't mean anything because you do dream. You may not think you are dreaming because you don’t remember your dreams, though—and that is a pretty normal experience. “We dream every 90 minutes throughout the night and whether you remember them or not, you are dreaming, as it is a natural and necessary function of the brain,” Loewenberg says.
In general, you dream every 90 minutes throughout the night (if you are a sound sleeper and can sleep without disruptions), and you may even experience five or more dreams, if this is the case. “Each cycle of dreaming throughout the night is longer than the previous, so your first dream is about five to seven minutes long,” Loewenberg says. Each dream increases in duration, and the last dream before waking up can be 45 minutes or longer, even, where over an average lifetime span, you can have over 100,000 dreams. But, it's certainly possible you won't remember them.
“The memory of your dreams are pretty much gone within 90 seconds of waking up so you don't always capture them.” —Lauri Quinn Loewenberg, sleep and dream expert
There are a lot of reasons why a person may have trouble recalling dreams, but the main reason is that norepinephrine, which is the chemical associated with memory, is at its lowest point during the REM phase, or the dreaming phase, of sleep. “The memory of your dreams are pretty much gone within 90 seconds of waking up so you don't always capture them,” Loewenberg says.
How to train yourself to remember dreams better
In order to capture dreams you can't remember (but are certainly still having, period), you must give yourself a few minutes in bed in the morning before you start your day to get back into your dreaming state. “You also must remain in the same position you woke up in because that is the position you were dreaming in, and moving your body can disconnect yourself from the dream you were probably having just minutes ago,” Loewenberg says.
“You must remain in the position you woke up in…moving your body can disconnect yourself from the dream you were probably having just minutes ago.” —Loewenberg
Quiet your mind, and don't move your body, but stay still in the position you were dreaming in, and give yourself about three to five minutes to allow the dream to come back to you. “Write it down or record it into your phone—otherwise it will be gone after breakfast,” Loewenberg says. “Make this a habit every morning, and you will start remembering more and more of your dreams.”
You can take this dream journaling exercise further by using it more often during the 24-hour sleep-wake cycle than just when you wake up. At night before you go to sleep, Loewenberg suggests you write down your day on the left side of the journal. Include what happened, what you talked about, what you struggled with, what you accomplished, what was on your mind the most, and your overall emotions from the day. Then go to sleep.
When you wake up, write your dreams that you remember on the right side of your journal. “Now you have your dreams and your previous day side by side so you can more easily connect the dots,” she says.
The habit can also help you be intentional about your dreams, guiding them with your own thoughts (which may open you up to lucid dreaming). But no matter what your dream goals are (or aren't) you can know with confidence that the answer to the question of "what does it mean when you don't dream?" is nothing. And that's simply because you do dream. You just may need some help remembering.
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