There are a lot of reasons why people have trouble remembering dreams.
From a physical perspective, not enough sleep can get in the way of remembering dreams. Mind-altering substances - including many pharmaceutical medications - can either magnify, or get in the way of dream recall.
Studies have shown that people tend to remember more dreams when they are awakened from REM sleep, than other phases of NREM (Non-REM) sleep. Therefore, if you wake up during the night within that 8 minute cushion on either side of a REM stage, it’s more likely you’ll remember a dream.
The longest period of REM happens later in sleeping, so sometimes people wake up feeling or recalling they’ve been dreaming. Remembering details is usually the issue—and that can happen because in essence, details get ‘erased’ from our memories when we sit up quickly or move too fast out of the sleeping position we were in. This phenomenon is associated with our brain chemistry shifting from dreaming brain chemistry to waking brain chemistry.
If you don’t move so fast upon wakening, and write down a word or a sentence from what you recall from a dream, more is usually remembered later. It helps to have a journal and pen that you love using near by. Some people like using a tape recorder and transcribing it later on a computer file, or on the DreamsCloud mobile app.
From a psychological perspective, if a dreamer decides to become dedicated to remembering dreams, that intention alone will help with dream recall. Some people don’t realize that remembering dreams often requires a dedicated intention to do so. When a person remembers dreams without setting the intention to do so, usually it is helpful to ask if the dream carries an important message that seems to want or require the dreamer’s attention.
From a cultural perspective, dreams have not been recognized as very important in mainstream Western culture. The tendency has been to blow them off or make fun of them because they can be so confusing and weird.
Sometimes people choose to try to forget dreams because they feel uneducated about them, disempowered, or ill-equipped to understand their meaning. People often don’t understand what dreams are or why we dream, because it is one of the great mysteries. Another possibility for dream memory loss is cultural trauma: in medieval times people were tortured and burned at the stake for remembering their dreams!
Gathering in groups of people that we trust, to share and discuss dreams, can greatly improve dream recall. Within organizations like the International Association for the Study of Dreams, DreamsCloud, and Dreambridge, you can find a wealth of dream knowledge and resources.
However, you will not find final and definitive answers about dreams. These organizations and others have chosen to continue asking the great questions about dreams and dreaming. Dreamers’ remembered dreams are the primary data we have so that dreamers and researchers can study them.
On the other hand, some people believe that if a dream is important enough—they will remember it. Not everybody feels the need to remember every dream, and that’s okay too. Sometimes we remember dreams when we are ready for them.