Soaring with the birds. Teeth falling out. A crazy psychopath is chasing you.
For many of us, our dreams transport us to a surreal world where logic and reason have no reign. Some of us may even look forward to sleep – and the adventures we’ll go on in our dreams.
But does everyone take a nightly trip to dreamland? While most of us remember somewhere around one or two dreams a week, some people report a subconscious experience that’s more like a blank tape.
Among us are people who say they never, ever dream. A small subset of the population – around one in every 250 people – report never remembering a single dream in their lives, as a 2015 study found.
What is it about people who don’t remember their dreams that sets them apart from the people that do? Is it possible for the brain to stop producing dreams? And could something be wrong in the brains of people who report never dreaming?
Raphael Vallat, a neuroscientist specializing in sleep and dream research at the University of California, Berkeley Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab, offered insights to a number of these questions.
Vallat says dreaming “is one of the last frontiers in our understanding of the human mind.” And learning about dream recall – the why and how of remembering one’s dreams – may help scientists solve some of the mysteries of the dreaming mind.
Work by Vallat and others in the field has uncovered a number of interesting tidbits that seem to separate the dreamers from the so-called nondreamers, or the people seldom or never remember their dreams.
Is Dreaming a Universal Experience?
But first, we should probably set the record straight: Pretty much everyone dreams. In fact, dreaming may help foster problem solving, memory consolidation and emotional regulation.
But not everyone remembers their dreams. And, forgetting dreams is considered completely normal in terms of overall brain health and functioning.
As a general rule, memories of our dreams quickly fade. When we wake up, Vallat says memory encoding is especially fragile. The harsh blare of an alarm clock is often enough to distract us, preventing fleeting memories of dreams from ever being recorded to our long-term memory.
“Waking up is like going from air to water while holding sand in your hand,
Vallat said. “Holding the sand is like holding the memory of your dream. And you’re trying to dive into the water without losing any sand in your hand. The idea is that it’s very hard to keep this fragile memory of your dream.”
But for some reason, some of us are better than others at holding onto dreams. And while science still has a long way to go in understanding dream recall, it seems that brain differences, individual characteristics and aspects related to the dreams themselves all play a role.
Artists and Engineers
For instance, there are some personality differences between dreamers and nondreamers. Vallat pointed to work by pioneering dream researcher Michael Schredl, who has used personality testing methods such as the Big Five framework to understand how traits such as neuroticism or openness impact dream recall.
“Dreamers tend to be more anxious, but they’re also more open to experiences and more creative people,” Vallat said. “The analogy I make is that dreamers are the artists, whereas nondreamers are the engineers.”
The idea is that some aspects of our waking lives may influence some aspects of our dream lives. And personality probably influences a person’s attitude toward dreaming in general. Someone who tends to be more logical and analytical, like an engineer, maybe wouldn’t give dreams a second thought. And it’s no coincidence that those most interested in their dreams can also recall them more often.