As an advocate of Jungian psychology and dream analysis in general, I’m proud of my high rate of dream recall. I remember at least one dream per night, at least 5 nights a week, and keep a rigorous dream diary. I interpret dreams, and I paint them, in an attempt to better understand the nature of the unconscious and its symbol system. It was put to me today that it is perhaps not a healthy thing to remember so much, as it means I am not only having disturbed sleep but am also interfering with a process that is meant to stay unconscious. I thought about this for a while.
Dream Recall and Disturbed Sleep
The average healthy adult needs between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night, whereas I need as many as 10 if I am to wake up feeling fully rested. I am also easy to wake in response to external sounds as my family will attest. This suggests that I might indeed be having disturbed sleep and waking often, even if I don’t realise it at the time. Is this a problem?
This is what a typical night’s sleep looks like, for all of us:
We dream during REM, and have our most restorative sleep during Delta. We have longer periods of Delta sleep towards the beginning of the night, and more frequent bouts of REM as we get closer to natural waking time. There is no evidence to suggest that a lack of REM sleep is problematic for us, but a lack of Delta time means that we never feel fully rested. This quickly takes its toll on our cognitive functions, mood and energy levels.
There is a high rate of dream recall in people who are awakened during REM sleep, some recall during Theta sleep following REM, and next to nothing in those woken up during Delta sleep. This would suggest that the deep Delta sleep has the effect of deleting our memory of what we have dreamed. Perhaps because there is no Delta during the last couple of hours of sleep, we remember the last dream or two of the night with relative ease.
So, having a high rate of dream recall doesn’t necessarily mean you are sleeping badly, unless you are remembering dreams from earlier in the night (there would be no recall of these unless you were awoken during REM or before the next Delta session).
Why Doesn’t Everyone Remember?
Still, not everyone remembers their dreams, even from the last hour or so of the night. The reason for this is unknown, although some recent research showed that people who have a high rate of dream recall are quicker to respond to their names being called during periods of apparent total relaxation while awake. This suggests that they are perhaps lighter sleepers and more likely to awake in the night, even for brief moments. But it could also mean that they are quicker to re-engage their cognitive functions, thereby increasing their ability to store recent dreams to memory upon waking.
Not remembering our dreams could also have something to do with our attitude towards them in waking life. If we do not generally believe that the content of our dreams is important, or that they can influence or enhance our lives in any way, then we simply do not place any emphasis on dream recall. We may remember briefly upon waking, but quickly allow the memory to slide away and be replaced by what we do consider to be important. Or we may just not remember at all.
In my own experience, the more I pay attention to my dreams the more I remember. If I write down every detail, I find that there is actually a lot more stored in the unconscious than first realised, and it only takes a gentle prompt to pull it back to the surface.
Types of Dream
As I remember more and more detail from my dreams, I sometimes find that their nature can alter. There are three dream types that I recognise from my own experiences:
Anxiety Dreams – these occur when there is something causing emotional unrest in my everyday life. Excessive worry, and not relaxing my mind properly before sleep as a result, seems to lead to lighter sleep in which the REM portions are more akin to ordinary thought than dreams. They are fast moving, and flit from one ‘scene’ to another with very little coherence, yet they have obvious representations of real people and situations. Sometimes anxiety dreams can be like watching a processing mechanism; a computer desperately scanning its hard drive for matching data. I have found in this case I am more likely to wake up multiple times during the night, and not feel rested by morning. Anxiety dreams are a little like observing a busy mind from the outside.
Standard Dreams – these occur when there is nothing in particular bothering me in waking life. They tend to highlight to me things that I have picked up subconsciously but not seen fit to acknowledge fully. Some of the time this is really insightful, and I am able to better understand things that have happened to me through looking at them through a different filter. I liken this to observing different angles of issues, which my ego had discarded as insignificant. Some of the time the content feels largely irrelevant and I tend not to note down too much about it in this case.
Big Dreams – Whether useful to me or not, it seems that the more I get used to interpreting my dreams, the more symbolic they become. It is as though I am developing a vocabulary with my own unconscious mind, and becoming more intuitive. Dreams that are highly symbolic, and particularly worthy of note, I have come to call Big dreams. They have come about as a result of honing my intuition and understanding of dream language, and are distinguishable to me due to either having an amber hue, a sense of darkness during a dream set in the daytime or light during a dream set at night, and extremely vivid symbols that are unforgettable upon waking. I often find that such symbols appear in my life during the following day either through coincidence, heightened awareness of that thing, or – dare I say – premonition. These dreams make me feel as though I am well attuned to the world of the unconscious, and accessing a form of intuition that does not conform to our concept of linear time. They are important in that they mark a big change in my life: a crossroads or a new perception.
Big dreams are something similar to those reported by shamans. They are more likely to be lucid, especially as they have common features that I can recognise through their repetition. And they are more tiring than restful. This type of dream uses a higher brain wave frequency called Gamma, that is present in all different parts of the brain simultaneously and is characteristic of big realisations and ‘ah-ha’ moments. Gamma seems to be capable of changing the very structure of our unconscious assumptions and biases. It has also been recorded in experiments with Buddhist monks during meditation. This type of dream can also be created whilst awake, using yoga and meditation techniques in what is generally referred to as vision quests or astral travel.
So, Is Dream Recall Healthy?
Having considered each of these angles, I have come to the conclusion that dream recall is healthy so long as it doesn’t interfere with our restorative Delta sleep. Anxiety dreams are rarely healthy, because they not only keep us in a lighter state of sleep from which we are more likely to awake often, but they don’t achieve much in the way of information processing that we can tell. If things are causing concern and upset in waking life, it is more important than ever that we ensure we are getting enough quality relaxation time prior to sleep in order to prevent stress from compounding.
Standard dreams, if they are remembered from the last portion of the night and not a result of waking too early, do not do us any harm and can be beneficial in purposeful self-development if we choose to take notice of them.
Big dreams are a real treasure for the mind-explorer, and offer wonderful insights into the way the unconscious mind works. But they do tend to use up energy, and we can find ourselves needing additional restorative sleep to feel refreshed by morning. In this sense they can be a ‘double-edged sword’ and need to be complimented with sessions of deep relaxation during waking hours, or else replaced by purposeful vision seeking, so as not to cause us detriment.
Having said all of this, it is obvious that for me personally dreams are important and I have found useful applications for making them conscious. But I do not believe that this has to be the case for everyone. The real purpose of REM sleep is still largely unknown, and the best guess is that it is a way of processing and filing away new experiences and imprints by matching them against existing information in the brain. This clearly would not require dreams to be recalled in order to be effective, and as such those who do not remember are not at any real disadvantage in day to day functioning.
I’d be interested to know whether other peoples’ experiences of dreams tally with my own, so please feel free to leave comments below with your own thoughts on the subject.