Asking Yourself ‘Why Don’t I Dream?’ The Answer Might Surprise You

Photo: Getty Images / Igor Ustynskyy
For many people, the occasional dream is part of their natural sleep cycle, whether it's a nightmare about your inbox or something decidedly sexier. But if you can’t relate to Taylor Swift’s recounting of a soon to be former flame haunting her dreams in “Wildest Dreams,” you might find yourself asking yourself, “Why don’t I dream?’”

It turns out that you might actually be asking yourself the wrong question. Here's what to know about dreams—and why it feels like you're not experiencing any.

What exactly is a dream, and what causes them?

First off, it’s helpful to know exactly what a dream is. "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." This explains why some dreams might seem downright strange and include a patchwork of memories and emotions, and why you might experience certain types of nightmares or stress dreams.

Experts In This Article

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 shares 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.

It’s also likely that dreams are the brain’s way of working through problems1, past events, as well as planning for the future, says physician Alex Dimitriu, MD, double board-certified in psychiatry and sleep medicine and founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry and Sleep Medicine. “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.”

Some research also backs the idea that dreams are a type of psychedelic experience2, 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.”

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."

Why don’t I dream?

In general, most people do dream, but some simply can’t remember their dreams."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," says Dr. Tal. In other words, most of the time, it's a not-remembering issue versus a not-dreaming issue.

"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."—Joshua Tal, PhD, sleep psychologist

Typically someone would remember their dreams when they wake up during the REM stage or sleep or close to it, says Dr. Tal. “The problem is that REM sleep is very deep, and usually we cycle through more shallow stages before awakening,” he says. Because you’re waking up in this shallower sleep stage, you may be having issues recalling what happened in your dream.

There are exceptions, of course. You could be one of the few people who do not dream because their REM sleep is interrupted by a substance (such as alcohol or marijuana), medications (like antidepressants, particularly SSRIs that could have a negative effect on REM-stage sleep3), or a mental health condition like depression or anxiety, which could be disrupting your sleep4 and causing you to get less of it.

However, it’s important to note that not dreaming isn’t a sign of depression, even if the sleep disorders are a hallmark of the condition. Even if their time in REM sleep is shorter because of medications or disrupted sleep patterns, people with depression are associated with having “more intense, vivid dreams, especially around self critical and overall negative themes,” say Dr. Tal. Sleep deprivation can cause more evocative dreams, too. 

Sleep apnea, a condition where your throat muscles relax during sleep which causes breathing pauses and interrupts your sleep, could also be the culprit. "Apneas are highest during REM sleep when your muscles naturally turn off," Dr. Tal says. "If you are not dreaming, it could be a sign your sleep quality is being broken up by breathing events," he says.

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 sleep wasn’t high quality.

How to remember your dreams

So to recap: If you're in the "why don't I have dreams?" camp, odds are you likely just 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. Lie in bed for a moment

You might not be remembering your dreams because you’re simply not allowing yourself the time to process them. According to dream analyst Lauri Loewenberg, author of Dream on It: Unlock Your Dreams, Change Your Life, you can help yourself remember your dreams by “staying in the exact same position you woke up in because that is typically the position your body was in when dreaming.” Don’t just jump out of bed when you wake up; lie there for a couple minutes with your eyes closed, and “allow the dream to come back to you,” she suggests.

This can be particularly helpful if you feel emotional when you wake up. In this case, Loewenberg says your current emotional state might be carried over from your dream, so staying in this calm space to reflect may help you remember.

2. 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.

A couple more tips for dream journaling from dream interpreter and astrologer Stephanie Gailing: don’t stop the flow of thought by editing what you’re writing, or even try recording a voice note on your phone if you can’t write quickly.

3. 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 again, recording yourself a quick voice note on your phone).

4. 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,” says Dr. Dimitriu.

9 ways to improve your sleep quality

Because dreams are connected to that lovely and restorative deep sleep, improving the quality of your sleep could go a long way toward inviting dreams into your night. Check out these nine tips from sleep experts to get more and better shut-eye.

1. Set a consistent bedtime and wake time

The best way to improve your sleep quality is to get enough of it, and one way to ensure you do so is by setting a bedtime and wake time. As sleep psychologist Jade Wu, PhD, Mattress Firm sleep advisor and author of Hello Sleep previously told Well+Good, it’s important to “set an anchor” on the backend to help your body know when to start producing sleep-inducing hormones such as melatonin and to avoid jet-lagging yourself. Holding a steady pattern helps build this habit.

2. Make your room an ideal sleeping environment

It’ll be easier in general to fall asleep if you have an environment conducive to doing so, meaning one that’s cool, dark, and quiet.

Not quite there yet? Light has a powerful effect on the circadian rhythm, so make an effort to block lights by getting curtains or using a sleep eye mask. Cut down on noise pollution by wearing ear plugs or quieting your environment, and be sure to keep your room brisk as well (ideally between 60°F to 67°F).

3. Create a pre-bed ritual

To make your shut-eye the most effective it can be, put together a nighttime routine that’ll get you excited for bedtime and will support drifting off to dreamland. Wind down with a relaxing activity like meditation, reading a book, or journaling. Try your best to avoid screens because of the sleep-hindering blue light and often anxiety-inducing flood of content to your eyes and mind.

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.

4. Limit your alcohol consumption before bed

Alcohol can decrease how much REM sleep5 you get, and depending on how your body metabolizes it5, can actually cause disturbances in the middle of the night and less restful sleep. Try to limit the drinks to several hours before bedtime so they don’t impact your dreaming potential.

You may have heard that drinking can contribute to funkier and more vivid dreams; to compensate for a shorter REM period, your body compensates with more REM sleep (called REM "rebound") the next night—don’t imbibe just to elicit this response.

5. 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 and the temperature in your bedroom) 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.

6. 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.

7. 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. “Sleeping 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.

8. Have a bedtime snack or soothing beverage

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; try peanut butter and a banana or Greek yogurt, for example. You might try a drink for sleep, like chamomile tea or a ‘Sleepy Girl Mocktail,’ which is rich with melatonin and Magnesium.

9. 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.

FAQs about not dreaming

What does it mean if I used to have dreams, but now I don’t?

There isn’t just one reason you might stop dreaming, says Dr. Tal. His advice? Take a look at “the usual suspects,” meaning changes in your medications, hormones, or sleep apnea and/or weight gain. You may benefit from trying some of the dream recall tips above, too.

How rare is not dreaming?

According to Dr. Tal, not dreaming is probably quite common because of how common sleep issues are in the general population.

Is it a sign of a health problem if you never dream?

Not necessarily, but not having dreams can signal that something is up and that the quality of your sleep isn’t what it should be. For example, Dr. Tal says not having dreams can be a sign of an underlying sleep disorder, particularly sleep apnea. “Sleep apnea is very, very common and highly underdiagnosed,” he says. “Sleep apnea means you have pauses in breathing at night, waking your body up when entering deeper stages, leading to less REM sleep and less dreaming.”

Does dreamless sleep exist?

Dreamless sleep is “very shallow, low-quality sleep,” says Dr. Tal.

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. Barrett, Deirdre. “Dreams and creative problem-solving.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences vol. 1406,1 (2017): 64-67. doi:10.1111/nyas.13412
  2. Sanz, Camila et al. “The Experience Elicited by Hallucinogens Presents the Highest Similarity to Dreaming within a Large Database of Psychoactive Substance Reports.” Frontiers in neuroscience vol. 12 7. 22 Jan. 2018, doi:10.3389/fnins.2018.00007
  3. Wichniak, Adam et al. “Effects of Antidepressants on Sleep.” Current psychiatry reports vol. 19,9 63. 9 Aug. 2017, doi:10.1007/s11920-017-0816-4
  4. Nutt, David et al. “Sleep disorders as core symptoms of depression.” Dialogues in clinical neuroscience vol. 10,3 (2008): 329-36. doi:10.31887/DCNS.2008.10.3/dnutt
  5. Colrain, Ian M et al. “Alcohol and the sleeping brain.” Handbook of clinical neurology vol. 125 (2014): 415-31. doi:10.1016/B978-0-444-62619-6.00024-0
  6. Colrain, Ian M et al. “Alcohol and the sleeping brain.” Handbook of clinical neurology vol. 125 (2014): 415-31. doi:10.1016/B978-0-444-62619-6.00024-0

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