Home     About       Contact

How Many Dreams Do You Have Each Night?

by Jimmy Leonard | Updated 12 Nov 2023

Sueño Labs does not provide medical advice. See our terms and disclaimers.

A cartoon elephant floating on a cloud
Microsoft Bing Image Creator Powered by Dall-E

How many dreams did you have last night? Raise your hand if you said zero.

Okay, obviously you know that people have some dreams each night, but the real question is why we don’t always remember them. And just because sleep scientists say that we have three or four or five dreams each night, how do we know that they’re distinct dreams and not just one super-long dream movie with five different scenes?

Turns out, modern brain science has an answer to this, and it all has to do with the sleep cycle. Understanding when you dream — and how long you dream — is an important first step in improving your dream recall.

How Many Dreams Do You Have Each Night?

What's the Sleep Cycle?

Not all sleep is equal. Humans sleep in different phases called stages, and passing through each of the stages is called the sleep cycle. You might be familiar with this concept already, but, if not, think about a typical night’s sleep. There’s that groggy-but-still-mostly-awake phase when you’re trying to fall asleep, “light sleep” when your partner snoring or your dog scratching to go out is enough to wake you up, and “deep sleep” when the literal Armageddon could not pull you out of bed. When you wake up from a light sleep, you’re usually conscious and pleasant within a few minutes. When the alarm pulls you from a deep slumber, though, you’re usually a murderous zombie until your third cup of coffee.

Scientists talk about four stages of sleep (sometimes five, if you count “being awake” as a stage).

  • N1: Light Sleep. It’s kind of debatable if this is truly sleep. This is that 5-10 minutes when your muscles start to relax, your heart rate slows down, and you’d jolt up and say “HUH?” if somebody whispered your name.
  • N2: Light-Medium Sleep. No debate here — you’re definitely asleep. Your body temperature drops and your brain activity enters a distinctive “sleep mode” that differs from wakefulness.
  • N3: Deep Sleep. This is “bear-in-hibernation-don’t-touch-me” sleep. It’s hard to wake someone from the N3 stage, and they will be all kinds of grumpy and confused if you do. Interestingly, the N3 stage is longer at the beginning of the night, lasting up to 45 minutes, then gets shorter in each subsequent cycle.
  • REM: Rapid Eye Movement. This is the fun one. REM sleep first hits after you’ve been in bed about 90 minutes, and this is the stage when you dream. The brain lights up as if it were awake, but your eyes stay shut and your muscles don’t move. Weird, right?

If you get a full eight hours of sleep, you’ll likely experience five, maybe six sleep cycles. That means you’ll dream five or six times.

Why Don't You Remember Multiple Dreams?

According to the Cleveland Clinic, REM sleep is about 25% of your total night’s rest. If you sleep eight hours, that’s about two hours of dream time. That two hours isn’t distributed equally, however.

The first REM stage is the shortest. In the initial sleep cycle — right after you go to bed — you spend a disproportionately long time in N3 deep sleep and you only get about 10 minutes of REM. Not much happens in such a short amount of time, plus you go straight into another sleep cycle, so few people remember this first round of dreaming. Yet as the night goes on, each sleep cycle is approximately the same overall length, but your time in deep sleep gets shorter and your time in REM sleep gets longer.

The final REM stage of the night is typically 45-60 minutes. It’s significantly longer and more vivid — plus you wake for real when it’s done — so dream recall is typically from this final sleep cycle. This gives the perception that you only had one dream, but really it’s only one dream that you remember. Even though you have five or six dreams each night, unless you wake up after each sleep cycle, it’s unlikely you’ll remember all of them.

How Long Do Dreams Last?

Dreams can last anywhere from 5-10 minutes to 45-60 minutes, depending on your sleep cycle. Although a major plot point of “Inception” is time dilation inside a dream, there’s not much scientific evidence to support this. Ten minutes in “dream time” is roughly ten minutes in real-life time. What’s different is that you can skip all the boring parts.

For example, in real life, it might take you 20 minutes to drive to work, but in the dream you can skip the commute by instantly transporting yourself from house to office. Then, upon realizing what a boring dream you’re having, you can teleport to a beach or theme park or floating cloud castle. When you wake up, you might think, “Wow, what a busy day! I went to work, then the beach, and then to the cloud castle!” But it really wasn’t a day; it was a total of five minutes during which you kept changing your mind.

It’s kind of like the show “24.” An absurdly improbable amount of action can happen “in real time” while you’re dreaming. You can’t make dreams longer, but a skilled dreamer can accomplish a lot in a single sleep stage.

How Can You Have More Dreams at Night?

You can’t have more dreams, but you can be better at remembering them.

REM sleep comes at the end of a sleep cycle, and there’s no way to speed up the cycle. At risk of stating the obvious, you have to sleep to dream. By being well rested and learning basic dream recall techniques, you improve the quality of your REM sleep and your ability to engage with the dream.

To put it another way, when you’re restless and getting poor sleep, you don’t properly go through the sleep cycles. You miss out on deep sleep and REM. Or, if you wake up super early (or go to bed super late), you miss out on that final sleep cycle that has the longest period of REM.

On the nights when you do get a full rest, you’ll maximize your time in REM and likely have the perception that you had more dreams. If you’re not using a sleep-tracking app already, try it out, and you’ll likely see the impact on your REM. Keep a dream journal and note which nights you have better-than-average dream recall. You’ll notice these are correlated to the nights you slept well!

Try It: Measure Your Sleep Cycles

It’s not the same as strapping electrodes to your brain (thankfully), but many sleep-tracking apps are pretty useful when trying to understand how many dreams you have each night, just as long you don’t obsess over the metrics. I’m an Apple guy and just use the Health app, and it works pretty well. Here’s a screenshot of one of my sleep graphs this week. I’m okay with sharing this one because, unlike some nights, I successfully went to bed at a decent hour and got a healthy amount of sleep (#adulting).

Sleep graph showing how many dreams you have in a night

Anyway, it’s not textbook perfect, but you can see the pattern. N1/N2 (labeled Core here) drops into a relatively prolonged deep sleep followed by a super-short REM cycle. As the night goes on, notice how the N3 (deep) sleep gets shorter — to the point where the watch is no longer registering it as deep sleep — and the REM cycles get longer. 

When you’re looking at a graph like this, remember that it is a phone app and not highly scientific laboratory equipment, so there may be a few inaccuracies (that random awake line could just be tossing and turning), but it generally does follow the theory. That very first REM cycle registers as just two minutes long, but 5:30 – 6:20 am registers almost entirely as REM. That’s 50 minutes, and research says the final REM cycle of the night is typically 45-60 minutes. The math checks out.

If you’ve never studied your sleep graph, give it a try!

So how is this helpful? Well, for one thing, it’s encouraging to see that you do have multiple dreams per night. If you’re a person who struggles to remember your dreams, this can give you some confidence.

Many popular lucid dreaming and dream recall techniques, such as the Wake Back to Bed (WBTB) method, are more effective when you know when to set your alarm. For example, if over the course of many nights you notice that you’re often in REM sleep at 7 am, trying WBTB at 8 am might have missed the opportunity.

It’s also a good way to hold yourself accountable to healthy habits. REM sleep is important for your emotional processing and brain function. If you notice that you aren’t getting enough REM cycles, especially if you’re missing out on that 45-60 minute chunk because you aren’t getting enough sleep, you’ll have a clear understanding of why you’re so grumpy and miserable all day. Spending more time dreaming might be the fix you need.

Jimmy Leonard

Jimmy Leonard

Jimmy is a marketing content strategist and copywriter who moonlights as the editor of Sueño Labs. He enjoys thinking about things like time dilation and sleep graphs because he's nerdy like that.

© 2024 Sueño Labs                 Contact                 Sitemap                  Terms and Disclaimers

This website is hosted by SiteGround. It’s amazing. Use our referral link to save on a super-fast hosting plan.