What Does It Mean When You Don’t Dream… Like Ever? A Dream Expert Has the Answers

Photo: Stocksy / Lightsy
Dreams may seem like nonsensical figments of our imagination, but in reality, they can reveal hidden truths about ourselves. Stress dreams typically signal stress in our waking lives, and recurring dreams reveal unresolved issues or conflicts we might be running from when we’re awake. But what does it mean when you don't dream? What does it mean if you can’t remember your dream, but are certain you had one? Is your subconscious giving you the silent treatment, or is it simply happenstance that you rarely—if ever—visit dreamland?

Experts In This Article

In order to understand why you have dreamless sleep, it's important to first know that dreaming, at its core, is a thinking process. “It is a continuation of our stream of thought from the day," explains 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.”

“The memory of your dreams are pretty much gone within 90 seconds of waking up, so you don't always capture them.” —dream expert Lauri Loewenberg

This thought stream, says Lowenberg, continues as we drift off to sleep. Once we move out of the first three stages of sleep and enter the REM stage in our sleep cycle, our brain starts to think all over again. It’s at this point of subconscious cognitive activity wherein dreams occur.

Now that we’ve covered how dreams occur, we can explore how common it truly is to never dream, plus what it means when you don’t dream. Below, dream experts explain why we have dreamless sleep and how to start dreaming again if you don’t have dreams.

Is it normal for a person to not dream?

It is, in fact, not normal to never dream—it is, however, completely normal to not remember your dreams and assume that you don’t dream because of it. Nearly every person has dreams, regardless of how long it takes you to fall asleep or what time of day you sleep; dreams are an inevitable by-product of deep sleep. “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.

“There are, of course, a few exceptions, such as those who have experienced a stroke or traumatic brain injury or something called Charcot-Willbrand syndrome, which involves focal brain damage, visual agnosia (inability to recognize objects) and challenges revisualizing images,” explains Naomi Sangreal, MA, licensed psychotherapist, dream specialist, and author of Little Hidden Doors: A Guided Journal for Deep Dreamers. Psychotropic drugs and certain pharmaceutical medications can prevent users from reaching the REM stage of sleep, which in turn prevents dreams from actualizing, she adds. Outside of these exceptions, though, “humans dream every single night,” says Sangreal.

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. It's certainly possible you won't remember them, but chances are, you dream every night—you just don’t know you are.

What percentage of people don’t dream?

The percentage of people who say they don’t dream varies, with the Journal of Sleep Research suggesting that roughly 6.5 percent of people believe they do not dream. However, the percentage of people who truly, undeniably do not dream is unknown, and as mentioned earlier, most people do in fact dream—they just don’t know it.

What does it mean when you don't dream?

If you “don’t dream,” it could mean that you are having a difficult time recalling, or remembering, the dreams you do have. It could also mean that you aren’t reaching the REM stage of sleep in order to have them.

The main reason we struggle to remember our dreams is that norepinephrine, which is the chemical associated with memory, is at itslowest point during the REM phase2, 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.

On the other hand, you might not be reaching the last and final stage of sleeping, REM, and as a result are not experiencing dreams. Anxiety, depression, insomnia, sleep apnea, certain psychological medications, and persistent stress can all lend a hand to a lack of REM sleep. If you are struggling with any of the above and simultaneously do not have regular dreams, reach out to a medical professional who can help you address your deep-sleep deprivation.

What happens during dreamless sleep?

Dreamless sleep, also known as non-rapid eye movement (N-REM) sleep, occurs during the first three stages of sleep. During this period, we transgress from light sleep into deep sleep; our brain activity, heart rate, and breathing rate slow down, while our body temperature begins to cool and our eyes begin to stop moving.

While REM sleep is responsible for how refreshed we feel in the morning, N-REM sleep is still important: Our bodies are hard at work repairing tissues, building bone and muscle, and strengthening our immune systems during N-REM sleep, according to the National Cancer Institute.

After N-REM sleep, we eventually enter REM sleep. “Once we enter REM dream sleep, which is about 90 minutes into sleep, the brain resumes that inner conversation,” says Loewenberg. “But now, instead of thinking in words, we are thinking in symbols, metaphors and emotions because the brain is now working differently." This period of cognitive activation is so profound that “often our brains are more active during dreams than even waking consciousness,” says Sangreal.

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 active1, which is why our dreams can be so extremely frustrating or frightening or even amazing,” says Lowenberg.

With all this in mind, it's important to remember how meaningful dreams can be. 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,” says Lowenberg.

“Dreams come to us because they want to be known. If you pay attention to them, they will be responsive." —psychotherapist, author, and dream expert Naomi Sangreal, MA, LPCC

How can I start dreaming again?

If you are achieving restful, REM-inclusive sleep yet having a difficult time remembering your dreams, there are certain techniques you can use to better remember the ones you do have—and promote more vivid dreams in the future. “Dreams come to us because they want to be known,” says Sangreal, “and if you pay attention to them or give them any kind of space or time, they will be responsive in the same way that your relationships are receptive.”

To develop a stronger relationship with your dreams, try implementing the following practices.

Stay in bed after waking up

In order to capture dreams you can't remember (but are most likely having), 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.

“Ritual and routine are paramount to our dream practices,” explains Sangreal. 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. “If you can commit to five minutes in the morning of quiet reflection and sit with your dream, that will greatly increase your dream’s desire to speak with you,” she says.

Write your dreams down

“A common way to work with dreams is to record them in a dream journal, such as my new publication, Little Hidden Doors: A Guided Journal for Deep Dreamers,” says Sangreal, who suggests keeping a pen and a dream journal (or even just a piece of paper) next to your bed for easy access. “The more convenient it is, the more likely you will be to remember and to make an effort to record your dreams,” she says.

You can take this dream journaling exercise even further by journaling before you fall asleep. At night, 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,” says Loewenberg. “Make this a habit every morning, and you will start remembering more and more of your dreams.”

Practice dream intention

Another way to foster more dreams is being intentional about your dreams, guiding them with your own thoughts. “In my personal experience, simply setting the intention to have a relationship with dreams—and making an effort to do so—elicits a response from them,” says Sangreal. “Just as in most other reciprocal relationships, as you begin to engage with dreams, they will begin to engage with you. I find that dreams come forward as needed, and if you are not paying attention, you might miss precious information.”

In order to practice dream intention, meditate on what kind of dreams you’d like to have, or what messages you’re hoping to receive from your subconscious. Alternatively, “some dreamers like to write down dream requests or intentions in their journals or on a tiny slip of paper placed beneath their pillows before they sleep,” says Sangreal. The purpose here is to set intentions of dreaming before you snooze, as to help yourself tap into your subconscious mind.

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Corsi-Cabrera, María et al. “Human amygdala activation during rapid eye movements of rapid eye movement sleep: an intracranial study.” Journal of sleep research vol. 25,5 (2016): 576-582. doi:10.1111/jsr.12415
  2. Gottesmann C. The involvement of noradrenaline in rapid eye movement sleep mentation. Front Neurol. 2011 Dec 12;2:81. doi: 10.3389/fneur.2011.00081. PMID: 22180750; PMCID: PMC3235734.

The Wellness Intel You Need—Without the BS You Don't
Sign up today to have the latest (and greatest) well-being news and expert-approved tips delivered straight to your inbox.

Loading More Posts...