If you wake up right after having a dream, you might remember its details vividly, but usually we go back to sleep and lose those memories.
If you wake up in the middle of a powerful dream, you will remember its details almost graphically, feeling like you may have just experienced a divine revelation. While scientists can’t tell you anything about the divinity of your experience, they will simply say that you remember it well because you wake up immediately after your dream.
It means timing matters a lot if you want a lucid memory of your dream. It is just like something came to your mind as a writer. What would you do? Record it somewhere to not forget. For dreams, your brain also needs to record them not to lose their content.
But how? Like the way you stop briefly what you do as a writer to record your idea, you also need to stop sleeping to let your brain record your dreams. So recording and memory are two key ideas in not losing your dreams.
“These intra-sleep awakenings would finally give more opportunities to the brain to restore his memory-encoding abilities and therefore to encode the dream in long term memory,” wrote Raphael Vallat, a neuroscientist with a focus on sleep and dream research at the University of California, Berkeley.
People need to wake up to allow their brains to record dreams; otherwise, in deep sleep, as it covers much longer periods than dreaming periods, dreams will be lost.
In ancient times from Egypt’s pharaohs to Babylon's Nebuchadnezzar, a famous Middle Eastern king, and previous generations, who slept in more natural environments, and worked less stressful hours during a regular day, dreamt better and remembered their dreams better than modern humans.
In ancient times, there were no alarm clocks in the way we have them today, having to rush to work as soon as they wake up. Instead, they usually had brief periods in the morning when they had time to contemplate their dreams and bring the pieces together.
“If you’re the kind of person who leaps up out of bed and goes about their day, you’re not going to remember your dreams,” said Robert Stickgold, a sleep researcher at Harvard Medical School.
Alarm clocks: dream killers
“Someone who asks me the question of why they can’t remember their dreams, I say it’s because they fall asleep too fast, sleep too soundly and wake up with their alarm clock,” Stickgold said.
But how can an innocent alarm clock kill our dreams?
The answer is not so simple. Dreams are primarily related to the functioning of emotions not being the work of our brains’ rational facilities. When we dream, the brain's components which manage emotions are in control of the body.
As a result, the body supplies blood to those parts of the brain, depriving it from rational facilities. And our brain’s emotional state enters its highest level during the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep in which dreaming happens a lot more than any other time.
During sleeping, particularly the REM period, the levels of norepinephrine (NE) or noradrenaline (NA), a kind of hormone, which leads both the brain and body to act, is naturally so low when we sleep because we are in a passive mode.
But an alarm clock will suddenly wake you up, abruptly ending your emotional experience and calling noradrenaline for duty to take control of the body. It will essentially trash your dreams, making it hard to remember them properly. (Using alcohol prior to sleeping is also a killer of dreams because it will suppress REM sleep, making you sleep too deep, according to experts.)
Think you are running on a beautiful road as trees are lining up on two sides of it and suddenly a big wall falls from the sky to prevent you from moving further. That’s exactly what an alarm clock does to your dreams.
Professor Vallat employs a good metaphor: “Waking up is like going from air to water while holding sand in your hand,” the professor 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,” Vallat explained.
This kind of waking pattern might be too much to ask from modern human beings, who prefer to watch movies like the Matrix, where almost everyone is in a constant sleep unaware of their own condition.
But in the Matrix there are still characters like Morpheus, the god of sleep and dreams in Greek mythology, and Neo, the post-modern Messiah, traveling in their Nebuchadnezzar ship, to find the right interpretation to post-modern humanity’s dreams.
Do you want to remember all dreams?
While remembering dreams could be an interesting experience, it might also be a dangerous one, messing up our lives, according to experts.
“It’s probably a good thing that the dream life and the waking life are completely different,” said Francesca Siclari, a sleep research doctor at the Lausanne University Hospital.
“I think if you remembered every detail like you can do in waking life, you would start to confuse things with what’s actually happening in your real life,” she said.
Many people, who suffer from sleep disorders, usually tend to confuse their dreams with reality, embarrassing themselves with their own dreams, according to Siclari.
Dream well, but remember, you don’t need to remember all the details.
Remember the Matrix: “Ignorance is bliss!”