How Long Do You Remember Your Dreams?

Bob Leggitt | Monday, 30 June 2014
If you’re interested in dreams, you’re going to love this. It relates to a pretty simple, if unintentional experiment, with fascinating results. If you think you’ve forgotten everything you dreamed last year, or the year before, you’re probably wrong. Quite unexpectedly, this morning - 30th June 2014 - I’ve been able to repicture dreams I had years ago. Dreams I’d totally forgotten. How? Read on. All will be revealed…

Documentation of a dream in Lotus Organizer

If you’re an adult, chances are you don’t remember very many of your dreams in any way at all. It’ll depend to some extent on your sleep patterns, and whether you typically awake naturally or courtesy of an alarm – and to a larger extent on how much your dreams mean to you. But in general, kids remember their dreams more easily, and for longer. Some older adults claim they never dream at all, and whilst that’s inevitably untrue, they genuinely appear to believe it’s the case. They just can’t remember anything they ever dream.

In the course of my life (I’m now in my 40s), I’ve gone from being very frequently able to remember dreams (like most nights), to remembering exceptionally few in any meaningful sense. I can still recall one or two nightmares from my early childhood, but if I remember a current dream it’ll typically only be for a minute or two after waking. I rarely care about my dreams, so they slip my mind, forever… OR DO THEY?…

Well, what I found this morning suggests not. I woke up today having experienced a particularly vivid dream. Weird enough for me to question what it meant, and featuring several elements I know have recurred in previous dreams. One such recurring feature is that of trying to photograph things and invariably messing up the shots so I completely miss the object I’m trying to capture. I do take photos in waking life and I don’t have any noticeable problems, pressures or fears in that area, so I’m not really sure why it all goes so drastically wrong in dreams. But after thinking through what was quite a long dream this morning, I decided to document it all in my diary.

It’s not the first time I’ve diarised a dream, but this morning was the first time I’ve actually gone back through the diary to revisit other dream-related entries. I’ve kept the diary for decades, and it’s pretty detailed as diaries go – sometimes encompassing over a thousand words in a day. It’s all on computer and searchable, and the older I’ve got, the greater a source of pleasure it’s been to rediscover exactly what I did on specific days, ten, twenty, thirty or more years ago. But I’ve never thought to search the word “dream” before today, and I was amazed by what happened.

Before starting the search, I could not have recounted a single dream from the past decade, other than my immediate recollection from this morning. As I say, I was aware that some of the themes and scenes had recurred, but I couldn’t remember the actual dreams they’d come from. Dreams often have unusual bordering on non-existent contexts and an unrealistic, random sense of continuity, so that’s understandable. Memory is, afterall, heavily driven by relationship and connectivity, so remembering something that barely makes sense is always going to be hard.

But as the cursor in my diary search darted from one instance of the word ‘dream’ to the next, I was staggered by the fact that each description of a dream instantly brought back the imagery! I was pleased to discover that I’d written down more dream descriptions than I remembered – about two or three per year, which is a lot of info over the course of a decade. Recollection of the imagery was instant back as far as 2009, and almost instant for 2008.

2007 was the first year in my reverse chronological search that caused me to think harder before I could match some imagery to the dream’s description. I did still manage to recall, but it took longer, and some bits of the description I couldn’t really integrate into the picture. Some of the imagery from a dream in February 2005 came back to me instantly and without conscious effort, but other elements were patchy or impossible to recover, and going back into 2004, I generally couldn’t remember any of the imagery, or was unsure whether it was genuine or just something I’d imagined on the spot.

Interestingly, before 2003, descriptions of my dreams become far more scarce in the diary. There are only two entries between 1998 and the end of 2002, and before 1998 there are none at all. I'm guessing that I never felt the need to log dreams before 2003 because I didn't consider myself likely to forget them. The two descriptions between 1998 and 2002, incidentally, have obvious significance with stuff that was happening in my life, and are mentioned in the context of real life rather than for their own sake. Around 2003, in my thirties, it appears I became aware that I wasn't any longer able to hold dreams in memory, and so started to log the most interesting or vivid experiences.

But getting back to the main plot, it looks, for me at least, like the cut-off for ready recollection of dream imagery occurs at around six or seven years after the dream. Whilst none of the dreams stay in memory of their own accord during this period, a description, written by me, immediately after the dream, triggers instant recovery of the imagery – even five or six years later. After that things get more unpredictable, and for me, after nine and a half years, recall becomes so unreliable as to be completely uncovincing.

But being able to reassemble the imagery from a dream that’s been supposedly forgotten for nearly a decade is something quite remarkable in my opinion. It certainly hints at a possibility that we may never fully forget the things we dream. Especially given the fact that much of the imagery in dreams appears to be manufactured or distorted by the mind rather than imported directly from real life, it’s logical to assume that many dreams should stay in memory. They're the mind's own property, afterall. Recurring themes and scenes also suggest that we’re remembering our dreams subconsciously and recalling them as sleep deems ‘necessary’ – often for years, and sometimes for decades.

So if you remembered a dream after you woke up, I doubt you’ve completely lost that memory. How easy it would be to recover, though, is another story.