How Dreams Work

By: Lee Ann Obringer

Dream Recall

Photo courtesy Morguefile

It is said that five minutes after the end of a dream, we have forgotten 50 percent of the dream's content. Ten minutes later, we've forgotten 90 percent of its content. Why is that? We don't forget our daily actions that quickly. The fact that they are so hard to remember makes their importance seem less.


Freud theorized that we forget our dreams because they contain our repressed thoughts and wishes and so we shouldn't want to remember them anyway. Other research points to the simple reason that other things get in the way. We are forward-thinking by nature, so remembering something when we first wake up is difficult.


L. Strumpell, a dream researcher of the same era as Freud, believed that several things contribute to our not being able to remember dreams. For one, he said that many things are quickly forgotten when you first wake up, such as physical sensations. He also considered the fact that many dream images are not very intense and would therefore be easy to forget. Another reason, and probably the strongest of his theories, is that we traditionally learn and remember both by association and repetition. As dreams are usually unique and somewhat vague to begin with, it stands to reason that remembering them could be difficult. For example, if someone speaks a phrase to you that doesn't immediately click with anything in your experience, you might need the person to repeat it in order to remember it or even understand it. Since we can't go back to our dreams to experience something again, details that are out of our realm of experience often escape us.

How to Improve Your Dream Recall

Photo courtesy Morguefile

There are many resources both on the Web and in print that will give you tips on how to improve your recall of dreams. Those who believe we have a lot to learn about ourselves from our dreams are big proponents of dream journals. Here are some steps you can take to increase your dream recall:

  • When you go to bed, tell yourself you will remember your dreams. (Author's note: In researching this article, I found that thinking about dreams before I fell asleep actually made me remember having them, so this step did work in my experience.)
  • Set your alarm to go off every hour and half so you'll wake up around the times that you leave REM sleep -- when you're most likely to remember your dreams. (Or, drink a lot of water before you go to bed to ensure you have to wake up at least once in the middle of the night!)
  • Keep a pad and pencil next to your bed.
  • Try to wake up slowly to remain within the "mood" of your last dream.