On Dreams and Dreaming

A Few Good Dreams

Why do we remember so few of our dreams?

Dr. Garfield: Nobody is really sure. When we remember anything it's connected to recency and intensity. So when we wake up from a dream unless it's very powerful, very intense, there isn't this impact that makes us pay attention to it. It's why we remember negative dreams more than positive. Because they make a big wallop. It's as though your dreaming self is saying, "Hey, pay attention, this is important." And it does get our attention, not very pleasantly, but it makes us think about the images in the dream.

Much of dreaming is kind of mundane. For example, you might dream about what you were doing at work, and it's not really terrible, it's not really great. It's almost like chatter, and it doesn't have enough intensity to get our attention.

Our dreams start out really short and get progressively longer. The early dreams of the night last about 10 minutes long and get longer toward morning. If you wake up naturally, you will be waking up from the dream cycle, and the dream is a half to three quarters of an hour long, and that's the dream that people remember because there's more to remember then. If you wake up from the dream naturally it's very fresh, very long, it's usually more dramatic than all other dreams in the night. There's something that gets your attention, and it's recent, it's fresh.

But most people don't wake up that way. We're living our lives not by natural body rhythms. We live by alarm clock or the kid is screaming, or the dog has to go out, or we have to get to work. We tend to leap up and get into daytime gear, and it's difficult to remember this sort of wispy imagery unless it is so intense that we can't get our minds off of it.