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Why Do You Forget Your Dreams When You Wake Up?

by Jimmy Leonard | Updated 28 Nov 2023

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

A cartoon bear cub wakes up in its den trying to remember its dreams.
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It’s the most frustrating thing. You have a vivid, bizarre, fascinating dream that you would love to tell someone about. It’s so real in your mind, until you sit up in bed and the details vanish like a wisp of smoke.

Why do we forget our dreams? If they’re supposed to serve some important psychological or metaphysical function, wouldn’t our bodies make it easier for us to remember the details? Or, if they’re meaningless bursts of electrical impulses, why does the brain torture us with little hints we can never hold on to?

There’s no single, definitive answer as to why you forget your dreams as soon as you wake up, but there are some possible reasons. The good news is that many of these are easily corrected, meaning that with a few small changes in your habits and mindset, you can remember your dreams every night.

Why Do You Forget Our Dreams When You Wake Up?

You Don't Try To Remember Them

Yeah, that’s right. Our first and best advice is try harder.

But seriously, if you’ve grown up in the Western world, you are not in a dream-friendly culture. We are not taught how to remember our dreams. Generally speaking, we don’t have regular habits of discussing and valuing dream content in our lives. We’ve made it unimportant, so the brain doesn’t try all that hard to prioritize it. The reverse is true, however. When you’re intentional about dream recall, it does happen more often.

Keeping a dream journal primes your brain to remember details when you wake. Not only does a journal help you find your dream signs, it also gives you a conscious goal to focus on your dreams in the morning.

Reduced Neurotransmitters

Here’s the scientific reason. We know that sleep is critical to memory consolidation, but it’s unclear which stage of sleep is the most important. Studies with rats have strongly suggested that REM sleep (the stage when we dream) is vital for memory formation, but the results are less conclusive in studies involving humans.

For example, norepinephrine (nor-ep-in-eff-rin), also called noradrenaline, is a neurotransmitter associated with arousal and attention. It’s what gives you that “fight or flight” response when something stresses you out. But curiously, norepinephrine is effectively turned off during REM sleep.

Could it be that our brains simply aren’t “alert” enough to properly remember their dreams? That doesn’t explain everything, though, because the brain is otherwise quite active during REM sleep, and clearly we are capable of emotionally intense nightmares that spook the heck out of us and would definitely count as stressful. Yet other research shows that certain hormones active during REM help the hippocampus forget unnecessary information, similar to how we delete spam and advertisements to clear out our inboxes. So maybe while the brain is dreaming, it’s also going full-on Men in Black neuralyzer to itself — which is unfortunately counterproductive to those of us who want to remember our dreams upon waking.

More research is needed here, but it’s possible that “experiencing the dream” is a separate brain function from “remembering the dream.”

Lack of Context / Nonlinear Sequences

Humans don’t remember events in a narrative sequence until about 4-5 years old. Think about it — do you remember being a baby? Of course not. Everything you know about your baby self is from pictures, home videos, and embarrassing stories your relatives tell each year on your birthday.

But think about all the stuff you learned as a baby! Walking, talking, preferences, trusted relationships — you actually remember a lot, it’s just not in a narrative sequence. In other words, you know the word mama, but you can’t recall the story of the day I learned how to say the word mama.

It’s possible that a similar thing happens with our dreams. You do have emotional snippets. You might wake up feeling happy or afraid, or you might be randomly thinking about a person you haven’t seen in years, but you don’t know why. What’s missing here is the narrative context.

We’re so used to our lives following a linear sequence that it’s genuinely hard to process if events aren’t in order. Try it — answer the question, what did you do yesterday? Almost certainly, your brain starts with, “Well, in the morning I…” Even if it’s not the most important detail, our stories start on page 1.

So now consider a dream. The scene doesn’t necessarily have a clear beginning, and it might go from walking through the park to battling a dragon to discussing philosophy with a group of sea lions. The lack of context and sequential logic may contribute to our struggle remembering it. Because it doesn’t make sense, we can’t make sense of it.

You Wake Up Unnaturally

Alarms — necessary for getting to work on time, terrible for healthy sleep.

When you wake up naturally, your body completes a full, final REM cycle. When an alarm jolts you awake at 6 am, however, you may still be in a deeper sleep state. That sudden transition from sleep to wakefulness effectively kills your dream recall. In fact, many dream experts agree that waking early in the morning, then falling back asleep is an ideal condition for remembering your dreams. When you snooze, you can slip back into REM with an already semi-conscious mind to remember what you’re seeing. Of course, if you have to get out of bed for work, this isn’t happening.

You're Too Tired / You Don't Get Enough Sleep

Your longest REM cycle of the night is the one right before you wake up. For example, if your normal sleep rhythm is to go to bed at 10:00 and wake up around 6:00, you’re probably entering that last REM cycle around 4:30 or 5:00.

So, if you stay up later than you normally do, you might not give your body enough time to maximize your REM sleep. Or, if you wake up too early, you’ll miss the main part of that REM cycle (see the point above).

Anecdotally, I’ll also add that my dream recall and lucid dreaming ability are much better when I’m well rested. These activities do require mental energy. If you’re exhausted in real life, you’ll be exhausted in the dream state, too, which means you’ll pay less attention and will be less likely to remember any details when you wake up.

Three dogs dancing on stage in claymation style.

What Is a Dream Sign?

Recognizing dream signs is a fundamental first step to improving dream recall and lucid dreaming more often. Here’s everything you need to know.

Read More »

Try It: You Can Fix These Things!

Luckily, if you want to remember more of your dreams when you wake up, you can take a few simple steps to improve your recall.

  • Keep a dream journal. The conscious intentionality of wanting to remember your dreams goes a long way. Plus, you’ll be able to see your progress, which will further encourage you to remember more dreams in the future. Place the journal beside your bed, and try to write something in it every day, even if you don’t remember much. The goal at first is simply to form the habit.
  • When you first wake up, don’t move. This is easier said than done, but try to not sit up right away when you wake. Keep your head on your pillow, keep your body still, and think, “What was I just doing?” Let the details come to you without forcing it.
  • Go to bed on time. Lack of sleep is an underrated contributor to why you forget your dreams when you wake up. Give your body the rest it needs so you get the full REM cycle.
  • Ditch your alarm. For some readers, this is a non-starter. If you have to wake up super early for work, at least consider an app with a natural wake-up window like Sleep Cycle. Also, if you’re disciplined about going to bed on time each night and getting enough sleep, you will increasingly find that your body wakes up naturally, which is good for dream recall.

What else has worked for you? Contact us to share your story. Unless you’re reading this late at night. Then you should go to bed and email us in the morning. Get that dream sleep!

Jimmy Leonard

Jimmy Leonard

Jimmy is a marketing content strategist and copywriter who moonlights as the editor of Sueño Labs. He writes about sleep science and dream interpretation.

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