Sleep and Consciousness

Why is Dream Forgetting Common?

If these experiences of the night are so biologically and psychologically important, how come we typically forget our dreams upon awaking? The norm in the dominant European culture of North America is dream forgetting. The average adult sleeps about eight hours a night and of that about two hours is REM or dreaming sleep. That's usually four dreams every night. Very few people remember even one dream a night no less four a night! The average is four a month, which would be about one a week. The norm is we forget dreams. There are various reasons but the three major hypotheses related to our failure to recall dreams which have been investigated by dream scientists are: repression, salience and interference.

The concept of dream forgetting being due to the repression of unpleasant emotions/experiences is classically Freudian. This is the idea that the dark side of my inner self, which I'm not ready to deal with, may emerge in dreams thus I forget the dream. Some Freudian analysts might argue that if you remember a dream, you're ready to deal with that material. Although there is some evidence for the repression hypothesis it is probably not the major reason we forget dreams.

The salience hypotheses states that some dreams are so personally impactful that you couldn't forget them. You wake up in the morning and your life has been changed or you hope like heck you life hasn't been changed. When my children were about nine and four I had a dream that they were crossing the street at a crosswalk with a friend of theirs. All three got hit by a car and were killed. I recall waking up and being absolutely terrified. I jumped out of bed and went to check on them. They were both sound asleep and in good health. None-the-less the fear would not leave me so I did something that I rarely do, I knelt by my bed with tears running down my face and prayed to God that this dream never come true. It still sends a shiver down my spine to even think about it! That is a dream I can not forget and in fact I still get anxious any time I know they will be in a cross walk.

Despite experiences of this sort of impact, probably the major reason we forget our dreams, according to scientific research, is something quite simple. It is interference. It's the same reason why if I said to you "I want you to tell me about your breakfast this morning". If you didn't remember you'd start to sort of extrapolate, "I normally have yogurt and fruit, so I must have had yogurt and fruit." You might remember some of it but I doubt many of you would include details like the number of glasses on the counter or other ordinary details. If you got a new table cloth, you might mention it. But if it's something that happens every day it's probably not high on your need to recall list. Other things interfere with that recall like the families hurry to get to work and school because mom overslept. When we wake up from a dream most people immediately think, "Got to get up. Got to get ready for work . Got to get the kids dressed. Got to get breakfast." It's forward thinking and interferes with the recall of what was just happening to us in our dream. Occasionally we will simply lay there and drift but still the simplest things can interfere, like moving or opening your eyes. Or we will wake up and think, "I was dreaming. I don't have a clue what it was. But I was dreaming." It's sort of like the tip of the tongue phenomena or may feel like peanut butter on your tongue. When my son was three-years old he couldn't image being awake while I slept so he would "helpfully" come into my bedroom, lift my eyelid and cheerfully announce to me, "Wake up time mommy!" I went through a rather long period of dream forgetting due to his well intended interference.

There are some other factors I'd like to briefly point to which may contribute to dream recall. When I moved to Canada I started working with the Central Alberta Cree and quickly found out that their dream recall is quite high. Not only is this my personal observation but there is research on the Cree done before I got there as well as my own substantiating this observation. Because of this work it has occurred to me that perhaps part of the large dream forgetting characteristic of Euro-North American's is our cultural taboos around attending to this sort of material. We're not supposed to pay attention to our inner lives. We're not supposed to take them seriously. In fact one theory of dreaming in REM sleep is that it's garbage. It's the way the brain makes sense of presumably random neuronal firing from the brainstem. Thus according to this perspective recalling dreams is recalling garbage and couldn't possibly be healthy. That theory has been generally debunked. I am not saying that every single thing you dream every night is equally important but I do think there's a moderate position.

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