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How To Remember Your Dreams

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  1. Awaken directly from a dream.
  2. Techniques for dream recall.  
  3. We can keep a dream journal.  

Awaken directly from a dream. A dream is recalled most easily if we awaken during it or immediately after it ends. If more than a few minutes lapse at the end of a dream, we risk oneirolysis (the forgetting of the dream) -- but if we awaken too soon before the dream stops, we might miss an important part of it. The following techniques can help us synchronize our awakening with the dream:

  1. We can simply affirm that we will awaken when each dream ends (or when each important dream ends -- so that we might awaken only once per night, instead of several times per night). We tell ourselves, "I will awaken at the end of every important dream tonight"; along with this self-talk statement, we add an appropriate "energy tone" (e.g., anticipation, confidence, joy, etc.), and a "directed imagination" image of ourselves awakening at the end of a dream. The mechanism by which this programming works is the same one which allows us to specify a time to awaken ourselves naturally (e.g., 6 a.m.) or to awaken when we hear a specific sound (such as our baby's whimpering, but not the noise of traffic outside).
  2. We can synchronize our alarm clock with the 90-minute cycle of sleep periods. As explained later, the mind experiences a recurring 90-minute cycle during our sleep; most of our dreams occur near the end of each cycle. Therefore, we are most likely to awaken from a dream if we set our alarm clock to awaken us after we have been sleeping for any multiple of 90 minutes: 1.5 hours, 3 hours, 4.5 hours, 6 hours, and 7.5 hours. For example, if we fall asleep at 11 p.m., the times would be 12:30, 2:00, 3:30, 5:00, and 6:30. We probably won't want to be awakened this many times, so we might set the alarm for 6:30 a.m. only. If this timing isn't exactly right for us, we can experiment by setting the alarm ahead (or backward) slightly until we synchronize our awakening with the end of that cycle.
  3. We can ask a friend or family member to awaken us when we exhibit REM (rapid-eye movements, which occur when we are dreaming); the eye movements can be seen beneath our closed eyelids. The person can come into our bedroom at intervals, rather than sitting next to us during the whole time. He or she might let the REM continue for a while before the awakening, to let us experience more of the dream.
  4. We can use a device such as The Lucidity Institute's "NovaDreamer." This device looks like a black mask which covers the eyes; it can detect REM, so we can use it to awaken ourselves from a dream via the device's flashing lights or a loud sound.
  5. We can allow ourselves to awaken naturally from dreams. Why do we awaken at any particular moment -- instead of several minutes sooner or several minutes later? Usually, we awaken when a dream is ending. Sometimes I feel that my mind has awakened me intentionally so that I would remember a dream.

Techniques for dream recall.  

  1. We awaken gently -- or not. Some people remember their dreams more easily if they awaken gently; other people remember their dreams more easily if they awaken abruptly.
    • A gentle awakening. We linger in a state which is "dreamy," drowsy, and "half-awake." We remain in the right-hemisphere mode (which is the primary mode in which non-lucid dreams occur) by indulging in feelings of pleasure, playfulness, and placid emotions like contentment. A gentle awakening is easiest when we do not use a loud alarm clock; instead, we can use an alarm clock which has a quieter alarm (or soothing music),or we can ask our bed-mate to awaken us softly.
    • An abrupt awakening. Some people achieve better recall if they awaken abruptly; their memories don't have time to fade while they attain wakefulness.
  2. We lie still -- or not.
    • When we awaken, we keep our eyes closed, and we do not move (and we have told our bed-mate, in advance, not to touch us or to turn on the bedroom light). Abrupt movements might shatter the fragile memories of our dream.
    • Some people have said that we can recall dreams more easily if we are in bodily position in which the dreams occurred. Therefore, our first attempt at recall is performed in the position in which we awakened. If we do not remember any dreams in this position, we slowly move to any other positions in which we might have slept (and dreamed), and we try to remember dreams there. (We can't know which positions we had on that particular night, but we can go to any positions in which we have previously awakened.)
  3. We think about our dreams before we think about any other topic, e.g., our plans for the day, or the radio's music, or our bed-mate's conversation. If we are distracted by these other thoughts, the memories of the dream are likely to fade before we can retain them.
  4. We are patient. Stay physically relaxed and psychologically calm while you allow the dream memories to drift back to you; don't be forceful, insistent, or frustrated. Accept the fact that the memories have not yet come to you; perhaps last night's dreams were for our unconscious mind's private purposes and they don't need to be brought to our conscious attention. But be serenely hopeful and expectant. Disregard any thoughts about other subjects, and keep your mind clear for the return of the memories. Give the memories some time to emerge -- perhaps several minutes. If you still have no recollections, get out of bed and go on to your daily affairs, but still remain optimistic that you will have recall. During the day, the dream memory might come to us spontaneously, or it might be triggered by an event; for example, when we go out to our car, we might remember a dream in which we were driving. In your dream journal, record the dream and the daytime event which provoked the recall; that event might help you to understand the dream.
  5. We examine our thoughts and feelings. What were you thinking or feeling as you awoke? What thoughts and feelings flow back to you if you drift into delicate free-association (on both the thought and feeling level)? If we maintain the residual mood we experienced when awakening, and we allow it to amplify, the images and the dream itself which were associated with the mood might come to us. This is similar to a daytime phenomenon: when we are in a depressed temperament, we automatically generate thoughts and memories which match that depression. Now we are encouraging the dream temperament to coax dream memories.
  6. We draw a picture -- allowing the forms to be sketched without a specific plan -- and then see whether the creation is related to one of our dreams.
  7. We visualize ourselves turning on a television set to see our dreams. Or we make another visualization in which we are opening a curtain, or walking into a room, where you can view your dreams.
  8. We make a ritual which we suggest will cause us to remember our dreams. One person has programmed himself to remember dreams when he drinks a glass of water after awakening.
  9. We visualize ourselves remembering a dream; this might induce actual recall.
  10. We consider the possibility that the dream was on any topic which we have incubated within the past few weeks; an incubation might take that long to appear in a dream.
  11. We can give up. Sometimes any effort at all will prevent a dream from coming back to us, as if the dream is teasing us with our desire to grasp it and defying whatever technique we are using for recall. When we surrender, and say, "I don't know how to remember dreams; it's up to you to make yourself known," the dream will reveal itself.
  12. We can start with fragments. We might be able to remember only a dream fragment -- one scene, or a person, a comment, a vague feeling, or another single item. Dream recall can be developed from that fragment; this is explained later. But if you cannot elicit the remainder of the dream, be satisfied with this piece; an individual image it can be used in interpretation or dreamwork. And perhaps that one element is all that we needed to remember; the essence of the dream might be contained within it.
  13. We match the feelings of the dream. If you still have no memories, take an approach which is more analytical (without fully activating the left hemisphere). Try to match the residual "dream feeling" or fragment with your current daytime concerns and acquaintances: Could the dream have involved our spouse? (Does the leftover sensation correspond to anything that we feel toward him or her?) Was this a frightening dream? Did we fly (or do another activity which occurs frequently in our dreams)? Perform this "matching" by visualizing (or invoking the related feeling of) other people, recent moods (such as our anxiety about our new job), and events (e.g., a recent vacation). When we find a "match," we will feel a sense of recognition.
  14. We can remember the dream in reverse order. When we awaken, the easiest scene to remember is usually the one which happened just before the awakening. Use the images and feelings from that scene to backtrack through the dream in reverse; the plot, feelings, and thoughts in that final scene might imply whatever happened previously. Do this through a combination of logic ("What prior event might have resulted in the situation and conversation which I recall from this stage of the dream?") and feeling ("What might have caused the feelings which I had at this point in the dream?"). This technique is effective with dreams which have ongoing plots; dreams which have bizarre scene changes don't follow a rational progression in the plot, so we would have more difficulty in backtracking through them. (Sometimes, however, we can backtrack into an entirely unrelated dream with this method.) Even a well-plotted dream might come back in non-chronological order; those fragments can be pieced together when we are finished with the recall. And if the first fragment is apparently from the middle of a dream, use this system to go forward and backward to remember the previous and latter parts.
  15. We need to record our dream immediately. Even after recall, a dream memory fades quickly, so we must write it in our journal. As we start writing, more of the memory will come to us -- and if we have no memory of it at all, sometimes the act of picking up the journal and a pen is enough to encourage the memory to appear.
  16. We can try to recall other dreams from that night. Although we have many dreams during the night -- one or more in each REM period -- they might carry the same theme because the unconscious mind is viewing the subject from different perspectives. After recalling one dream, use the feelings of that dream to search for another dream which expressed the same feelings.
  17. We can use daytime activities for dream recall.  
    • Be motivated to recall your dreams. We remember more dreams if we have a reason to do so; the unconscious mind responds to our desire by bringing dreams to our attention. During the daytime, think about your objectives: to incubate a solution to problems, or to generate ideas for artistic creations, or to perform a dream experiment, or to receive interpretable messages from the unconscious mind -- or simply to increase the ability to recall. Develop goals which are meaningful and stimulating.
    • Appreciate your dreams. Feel respect and gratitude for every dream and fragment which you remember; don't consider any dreams to be unimportant or meaningless. We might show this appreciation by attempting a full recall of each dream, and recording it in our journal (even if we remembered only a fragment), and doing any appropriate dreamwork and interpretation with it -- and not resenting the loss of time required to do these activities. (However, if this effort is consuming too much time, we might compromise by journalizing only the dreams which seem to be particularly important.) When we do this, we strengthen the channel from the unconscious mind. We cannot demand dream recall; we earn its favor -- by being receptive and thankful for whatever dreams are passed to our conscious mind.
    • Affirm your desire to remember your dreams. Throughout the day, whenever you think about your dreams, say to yourself, "I will remember my dreams; I enjoy remembering them." (Adapt this phrase to one which suits you, and include a word like "enjoy," to add some feeling to your statement.) Repeat this thought while preparing for bed. We might write the statement one or more times in our journal or on another piece of paper. Every day, leave a hint on your pillow: a note ("Recall your dreams"), or your journal, or an object which reminds you of your dreams (e.g., a drawing which was based on a dream vision); you will see this before you go to bed. While falling asleep, repeat your phrase, "I will remember my dreams; I enjoy remembering them," and visualize yourself awakening in the morning with recall.
    • Create a supportive environment. Our society does not encourage dream recall; if we tell a dream to someone, the response is likely to be boredom or amusement. As in any other behavior, if we are not rewarded, we tend to stop doing it -- and dream recall is no different. But we can create this reward system by associating with people who encourage us to remember and study our dreams: a dream discussion group or class, our current therapist (or a different one, if this one doesn't value dreams), and new friends who have this interest. We can also make dream-sharing a part of our family life; see the chapter on sharing dreams. When we talk about our dreams, we are encouraging the unconscious processes which make us aware of dreams; our other benefit is that we often remember more while telling someone else than we did while recalling the dream originally. However, we must be careful to select confidantes who respect dreams on their own terms; some people (and therapists) are interested only in dreams of a certain type -- "spiritual," archetypal, or another genre -- and they will react disheartening to any other dreams. We have that same responsibility of honoring whatever kinds of dreams are told to us by another person; we need to show enthusiasm and reassurance, to assist in his or her efforts to recall and enjoy those dreams. If we can't find people to support us in this endeavor, we can still support ourselves; this type of foundation is strong and more reliable than whatever we get from other people.
    • Be willing to look at whatever your dreams are revealing. Freud said that when people fail to remember dreams, the reason is that they are simply too afraid or repulsed to acknowledge the content; we might be concerned that our dreams would reveal something which is unflattering, unruly, frightening, or otherwise disturbing. (We probably dodge unpleasant challenges during wakefulness, too, in the same way that we overlook our dreams.) We can counteract those feelings by adopting an attitude of self-acceptance; we all have a few monsters within us, but acknowledgment and understanding will turn those monsters literally into friends in the dreamworld (as explained in the chapter on lucid nightmares). Another way to remain unruffled by the "monsters" is to generate a perspective of exploration, daring, innocent curiosity, and a desire to know more about ourselves. Knowledge -- even of a fire-breathing dragon which represents a nasty part of ourselves -- can't hurt us. (However, if we find our dreams upsetting, we might want to share them with a therapist.) These dreams are given to us benevolently and privately for our education; when we accept them without shame, we can work with them to reconcile the conflicts which created the unpleasant images.
    • Create daytime moods and attitudes which enhance dream recall. We will remember more dreams if we are attentive to our daytime feelings and moods; this inner awareness during the day carries over into a perception of dreams during the night. (If our emotions include worry, guilt, and anxiety, we are more likely to remember dreams -- probably because we sleep more lightly -- although no one is encouraged to develop those states for the purpose of recall.) Let your wakeful mind be one of imaginativeness, alertness, interest, adventure, innovation, and challenge; these mental activities can boost dream recall.
    • Incubate a memorable dream. Certain types of dreams are easier to remember; those dreams are emotional, dramatic, thrilling, nightmarish (threatening), weird, vivid to the senses, or related to a current concern. If we incubate one of those types of dreams, we are more likely to recall it. We can also do an incubation in which we ask for a replay of a former dream so that we can remember more of it; we would either verbally request for a repeat or we'd incubate a fragment (e.g., a person, a scene) from the former dream.
    • Sleep more. Throughout the night, our REM periods become longer; the first one is only a few minutes, but after several hours of sleep, the period might be sustained for as long as one hour. If we allow ourselves to sleep later, we increase the probability of awakening from a dream (because a higher proportion of our time is spent in REM at that later time), and this longer dream will have more elements which could facilitate recall (such as a bizarre event). Also, after a lengthy sleep, our mind will be sharper when we awaken, so it will be more effective in remembering dreams than if were still tired.
    • Develop your skills in lucid dreaming. When we have more lucid dreams, we experience more recall simply because lucid dreams are easier to remember than the non-lucid variety. And as we develop lucidity skills, we enhance our general calibration to the dreamworld, so we will recall more non-lucid dreams, especially if they occur later in the same night; on a few occasions, I have had a lucid dream which was followed by a non-lucid dream, and I remembered both very clearly, noting that the ensuing non-lucid dream was exceptionally colorful and easy to recall. During a lucid dream, we can ask for further details about a previous non-lucid dream; we might also be able to replay that previous dream (although certain components will probably be different when the dream is restated).
    • Meditate. Some people recall their dreams better if they meditate during the daytime.
    • Try hypnosis or autohypnosis. Both of these techniques have aided people in recalling dreams.
    • Take vitamins. The B vitamins have improved recall in some cases; some people use only vitamin B6. One of my friends recommends a 50 mg B-complex vitamin and three lecithin capsules at bedtime. (To help your body to metabolize the B vitamins, ingest some vitamin C also.)
    • Use visualization. Dream recall is easier for people who have developed this skill.
    • Don't use chemicals. Sleeping pills, pain pills, alcohol, and other drugs interfere with our ability to recall dreams.
    • Drink wheatgrass juice. It can cause vivid dreams and easier recall, according to some people have used it. (I tried wheatgrass tablets from a health-food store, but the only effect was that I awoke frequently with the feeling that my dreams had been more intense, though I could not remember them; I stopped the experiment because of my allergy to the wheatgrass.) You will probably have to grow your own wheatgrass, using techniques that are explained in The Wheatgrass Book by Ann Wigmore; she does not mention wheatgrass's effect on dreams.
    • Practice recall every day. Recall is a habit to be reinforced, and a skill to be developed. When this skill is matured, we will remember more dreams, and more details within those dreams.
    • Accept the dry spells. Dream recall might be subject to many influences: our physical health, wakeful emotional state, degree of wakeful mental activity (due to school examinations or learning a new job), dietary changes, the phase of the moon, or a natural rhythm in which we have periods when recall is simply more difficult. For three months, I had no recall; perhaps it was because I felt overwhelmed by my new job, or maybe it was caused by my insistence on a particular incubation (which I now admit was contrary to my values). In any case, recall resumed after my job settled down and I gave up the incubation. The job stress was unavoidable, and the insistence was a lesson to me, although I don't know which factor was more responsible for the dry spell. You, too, might find "lessons" -- reasons why you are experiencing no recall.
    • Don't demand total recall. When dream recall doesn't occur, one reason might be the fact that the some dreams cannot be grasped by the conscious mind; those dreams are too alien to our wakeful world, and perhaps too subtle or archetypal or "mystical" to be translated into symbols and memories which are apprehendable to the conscious mind. Another possible reason for non-recall is the unconscious mind's decision not to reveal certain dreams to the conscious mind. We are fortunate that the unconscious mind doesn't trouble us with all of its processing; just as it maintains our heartbeat regardless of our awareness of it, the unconscious mind performs dream-activities which we don't need to perceive. Although many dreams seem to be messages from the unconscious to the conscious, some dreams might be for the unconscious mind's own use. After all, even animals have REM (and they probably dream), but they are not likely to do interpretations or dreamwork; dreams perform their processing without conscious participation, and it is the human ego's inflated self-importance which tells us that a dream is worthless unless it is analyzed (although the analysis can be valuable in some cases). During the attempted recall of one dream, I confronted my unconscious mind's prerogative: "I backtracked through the dream as far as I could go; I reached a part that I couldn't access. I became aware of a 'thought' that 'someone' had left there: 'We're through; he can see the rest of it.' It was as if the first part of the dream had been held in 'closed session' and wasn't meant to be released to my conscious awareness."

We can keep a dream journal.

  1. The journal is useful in many ways. When we write in a journal, we honor our dreams; this attentiveness alone often results in better recall. Also, with this ongoing record, we see recurring themes and the variety and evolution of symbols; this information aids in interpretation and dreamwork. We increase our familiarity with our dreams and their common elements, so we are more likely to recognize them in subsequent dreams and hence become lucid.
  2. The journal might require a substantial amount of time. The best journal is comprehensive, with every detail of every dream. But we might need to compromise if the journal is too time-consuming. Some people record only dreams which seem to be particularly "significant" or emotion-laden or vivid. Even Sigmund Freud was troubled by the amount of time demanded by a journal; he wrote in one for 14 years and then threw it away, saying, "The stuff simply enveloped me as the sand does the Phoenix."
  3. Buy a notebook for this purpose. We show respect for our dreams by buying a notebook specially for this purpose. We can use any type of notebook; if we get the loose-leaf variety, we can add pages in case we want to add further interpretations or dreamwork to a particular dream. (If we use a notebook in which additional pages can't be added, we might simply leave some blank space at the end of each dream.) "Subject dividers" help us to divide the entries by month, for easier reference. Some companies sell workbooks to be used as dream journals.
  4. We can computerize our entries. There might be a database software package specifically designed for dream-journal entries. In any case, we can make our own, using a home computer and database software such as FileMaker, Excel, or Microsoft Works. Rather than typing the text of our dream into this database, we will create fields for the date, title, and key words. These "key words" will be the important elements of the dream: actions (swimming, flying, sex, etc.), characters (father, dog, etc.), emotions (anger, fear, etc.), objects (house, gun, etc.), locations (home, job site, etc.), and other features which we might want to examine later. After creating this database, we can "search" for recurring symbols; for example, if we search on the word "car," we will get a list of every dream in which we saw a car. (This will be useful for understanding the ways in which our unconscious mind uses that symbol.) In the database, we can also categorize a dream as lucid, incubated, precognitive, etc. And we can record any related dreamwork, wakeful experiences, or other data which is important.
  5. We can tape-record our dreams. This might be easier than a notebook; we don't have to turn on a light and write anything. We simply speak into the tape recorder; we don't even need to turn on the machine if it is sound-activated. However, some people find that their recordings are inaudible mumblings (because of the drowsy condition from which they were spoken). Even if the record is audible, we must spend time transcribing the tape. Also, this method is unsuitable for someone who sleeps with someone else; the speaking will awaken that other person.
  6. Record wakeful events and issues. When we read the journal later, we can interpret and appreciate the dreams more fully if we remember the wakeful issues which were important to us at that time. Before bedtime, write a brief note about the day's events and emotional concerns; those matters might appear during a dream. Also write any incubations or planned lucid-dream activities.
  7. Keep the journal next to your bed. We should be able to reach the journal without getting out of bed, and without needing to shift the position from which we awoke (if possible). There should also be easy access to a light and a few pens (in case one of them stops working). If these items are convenient, we are more likely to expend the effort to write in the journal.
  8. We can use a small light when writing in our journal. This could be a lamp next to the bed, or a flashlight, or the type of lamp which clamps onto a book, or a combination pen/light which is both a writing implement and a small pen; the latter can be bought in stationery stores, or it can be made by taping a pen and tiny flashlight together.
  9. We can write our dreams in the dark. This might be necessary if we have a bed-partner who would be disturbed by a light, or if we recall dreams better with our eyes closed. We can write without seeing the paper if we use our fingers to guide us along a straight line and to find the edges of the paper.Record the dream immediately after awakening. This memory will vanish if we don't record it very soon. For each dream, write the date. Also give the dream a title which expresses the most-important aspect; this will help us to find the dream later in our journal (e.g., "The Two-Headed Dog" rather than simply June 5, 1994). Write the dream in the present tense (e.g., "I go" instead of "I went"), to give the plot more of an active, emotional quality.
  10. We might write only a synopsis. If we awaken with dream recall, but we want to return to sleep, we might record just a brief summary: the main characters, the primary action, the setting, and the feelings. Later, when our sleep is finished, we can add the details so we have a complete record of the dream.
  11. Record a dream fragment, if that is all that you have. We might remember the rest of the dream later. Or we might simply use this fragment for dreamwork or an interpretation. The fragment could be as brief as a single feeling, image, or action.
  12. Record all aspects of a dream. This includes settings, characters, emotions and moods, actions and reactions, colors, conversations (verbatim, if possible), and other details. Any of these elements might be the key to interpretation or dreamwork. Also note the emotions which you felt when you awoke and when you wrote the dream into your journal.
  13. Don't interpret while you write. This might distract us from the recall. However, if a symbol's meaning becomes clear to us as we write the dream, we could make a brief note about it; we will do the interpretation later.
  14. We can make entries in various forms. In addition to writing the text of the dream, we can make other types of entries which explain the dream. Some people add artwork, including drawings (with black or colored pencils), collages, or diagrams. (Refer to the chapter on dreamwork.)
  15. Read your journal. If we review the entries regularly, we see recurring symbols, changes in types of dreams (e.g., perhaps a reduction in the frequency of nightmares), and other factors which help us to understand ourselves and subsequent dreams.

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