Turns out, you might be asking yourself the wrong question. Here’s what to know about dreams—and why it feels like you’re not experiencing any.
Where do dreams come from, anyways?
“Dreams are flashes of images, sounds, and memories that take place while sleeping,” says New York City-based sleep psychologist Joshua Tal, PhD. “Science has not found a definitive reason for dreams, but dreams seem to be controlled by emotional and memory parts of the brain, indicating they help with emotional regulation and memory consolidation.” That explains why some dreams can be downright bizarre and include a myriad of memories and emotions.
The underlying messages of dreams can also be helpful in processing your feelings. “When a client tells me that they had the ‘strangest dream’ and share the details, my first question is: ‘How did you feel during the dream?'” says psychotherapist Jennifer Hoskins-Tomko, LCSW, owner of Clarity Health Solutions in Jupiter, Florida. “While the details are interesting and often symbolic of other things, it is the emotional content that gives me insight on how to help my client or how they are trying to help themselves through the dreams.” Recurring dreams can also shed some insight on what’s stressing you out in your waking life.
Alex Dimitriu, MD, double board-certified in psychiatry and sleep medicine and founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry and Sleep Medicine, adds dreams are very likely the brain’s way of working through problems, past events, as well as planning for the future. “Dreams allow us to connect loose concepts and ideas, and may also be a source of creativity and ingenuity,” he says. “They may also be a form of self-therapy, as the brain is able to process experiences and emotions and make sense of life events.” He says there’s also been a recent rise in research backing the belief that dreams are a type of psychedelic experience, which explains why dreams are powerful in emotional healing and growth. “Interestingly, the dreaming brain looks a lot like the psychedelic brain,” he says. “Both are able to make loose connections and come up with creative solutions.”
Okay, so why don’t I have dreams?
Sleep stages come in cycles throughout the night, and dreaming usually happens during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. “It involves intense brain and eye activity,” Dr. Tal says. “Your muscle tone turns off when in REM sleep, so you don’t act out your dreams.”
If you wake up in the morning without having dreamed, think again. “Most people are having dreams but do not remember them,” Dr. Tal says. “You have a higher chance of remembering your dream when you wake up in REM sleep, but if you are not paying attention to your dreams, you are less likely to remember them.” In other words, most of the time, it’s a not-remembering issue versus a not-dreaming issue.
There are exceptions, of course. You could be one of the few people who, in fact, do not dream. The reason, Dr. Tal says, is because their REM sleep is interrupted by a substance (such as alcohol or marijuana), medications (like antidepressants), or a mental health condition like depression.
If you’re a serial non-rememberer of your dreams, it can be a sign of sleep apnea, a condition where your throat muscles relax during sleep, causing breathing pauses, thus interrupting your sleep. “Apneas are highest during REM sleep when your muscles naturally turn off,” Dr. Tal says. “So if you are not dreaming, it could be a sign your sleep quality is being broken up by breathing events.”
One more thing to note: Sleep quality isn’t dependent on dreams. So if you wake up not remembering your dreams, that doesn’t necessarily mean your quality of sleep wasn’t noteworthy.
How to remember your dreams
So to recap: If you’re in the “why don’t I have dreams?” camp, odds are you likely aren’t remembering them. But never fear, there are some science-backed strategies to help you better remember your dreams—and everything they’re trying to tell you.
1. Write them down
The best way to remember your dreams when you wake up is to get into the practice of writing them down as soon as you open your eyes. Dr. Tal recommends keeping a dream journal by your bed and writing a detailed description while the dream is fresh.
2. Talk about your dreams out loud
If you’re not a journaler or are always rushed in the morning, Tomko suggests telling someone like your partner about your dream when you wake up or even recording yourself a quick voice note on your phone.
3. Step up your sleep quality
“The quality of sleep affects your ability to reach REM,” Tomko says. So if your sleep quality sucks, you’re less likely to experience dreams. “Once sleep is consistently good, some people are able to become aware that they are dreaming—this is called lucid dreaming, and may be possible to learn with practice,” Dr. Dimitriu says.
According to Dr. Dimitriu, there are many factors that can contribute to poor quality sleep, including:
- Looking at screens before bed and right after waking up
- Going to sleep and waking up at different times every day
- Consuming drugs or alcohol too close to bedtime
How to improve your sleep quality
It’s one thing to know you should improve your sleep quality; another thing entirely to do so. Here are some expert-backed suggestions to try that actually work.
1. Create a pre-bed ritual
To make your shut-eye the most effective it can be, create a pre-bed ritual of, say, a hot bath, meditation, and a diffuser releasing relaxing scents. Because irregular bedtimes also impact your quality of sleep, it’s a good idea to jump into your pre-bed ritual around the same time every night.
2. Keep a sleep diary
Keep a sleep diary (slightly different from your dream journal) so you can tweak your routine to find the best one for you. Dr. Tal suggests making a note every day of how different factors (like how dark the room is, the temperature in your bedroom, and if your sheets are cool) affect or don’t affect your sleep. Make sure to include when you go to bed and wake up, that can also impact sleep quality, Dr. Tal says. For example, if you stayed up late the night before and usually don’t, that could throw off your schedule. Other factors to log are substances, medications, medical health, chronic pain, stress, and mental health.
3. Use sleep technology to assess your sleeping patterns
If you’re serious about elevating your sleep quality (and have some extra money to burn), investing in sleep technology can also be helpful. There are a variety of nifty gadgets available such as the Apple Watch ($380) and the Oura Ring ($300) that keep track of different stats including your heart rate, body temperature, and how many hours of sleep you got each night.
4. Sleep in your birthday suit
One of the easiest (and sexiest?) ways to improve your sleep quality is to ditch your pajamas and sleep naked. “Being naked keeps one cooler and avoids skin rubbing [and the] bunching up of sleeping garments,” Felice Gersh, MD, an OB/GYN and founder of the Integrative Medical Group of Irvine previously told Well+Good.
5. Have a bedtime snack
When you have trouble getting your shut-eye, having a healthy bedtime snack can actually help lull you to sleep. The key is to keep it light and small. Peanut butter and a banana and Greek yogurt are perfect examples.
6. Use aromatherapy
Dreamy scents (no pun intended) can also help relax your mind and body and get better sleep. Aromatherapist Amy Galper’s top scent recommendations include clary sage, lavender, rose, chamomile, frankincense, and surprisingly, your partner’s scent.
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