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Cropped Waterhouse-sleep_and_his_half-brother_death-1874

Taking Notes in Night School: How to Remember your Dreams

Taking Notes in Night School: How to Remember your Dreams

“I don’t dream,” or “I never remember my dreams” are things I hear often. This is not resistance to sharing dreams as much as it is frustration from people who want to remember more of their dreams. Most people are aware that we dream nightly, and the National Institute of Health estimates we dream more than two hours each night.  But for many, unless they are awakened during a REM cycle, they may not recall dreams at all, or may remember the more mundane dreams than if they were awakened during the night while dreaming. In fact, a HuffPo review of a recent study reported that “high recallers” generally were awake in the night twice as much as the average people who have difficulty recalling more than one or two dreams a month.  There is some evidence that we do not need to remember the dream content in order to be helped by the dream. Nonetheless, we’ll get to some hints about remembering dreams, but first, a little science review is in order.

The Science of Sleep and Dreams

The kickoff to modern dream research started with the work of Dr. Eugene Aserinsky and his mentor, Dr. Nathaniel Kleitman, who co-published a paper in 1953 on rapid eye movement. It is doubtful that either at the time understood the impact of their findings on sleep and dream research. Since funding streams did not recognize the potential, it was many years later before this research took off and Dr. Aserinsky actually left the field for a number of years. His colleague, W. C. Dement, continued to work and publish in the area of dreams, and eventually coaxed Dr. Aserinsky back into the field. In perhaps the ultimate irony, Dr. Aserinsky died by falling asleep at the wheel, and was killed in a car crash in Carlsbad, CA at the age of 77 – a little less than 50 years after his seminal research. So let that be a reminder to us all – do NOT deny the god Hypnos when he strikes us at the wheel, or we might meet his brother, Thanatos.

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John William Waterhouse, Hypnos and Thanatos (1874)

 Quick tips on Dream Memory

William Sharp, Professor of Psychology at Wheelock College, developed a useful list while at Rider University years ago:

Dr. William Sharp of Wheelock College, Boston
Dr. William Sharp
  • Relax – keep telling yourself you will remember dreams
  • On awakening write down the first word that pops into mind
  • If stuck, start your journal with an old dream you remember

Dr. Stephen Aizenstat, author of Dreamtending and leader of workshops nationally and internationally, breaks down the steps a bit further on this video link, or, recorded slightly differently in a workshop he gave some 15 years ago:

Stephen Aizenstat2
Stephen Aizenstat
Chancellor and Founding President
Pacifica Graduate Institute


  • Invocation:  Invite the dream to come; bring an open attitude to dealing with the parts of yourself expressed in the dream
  • Preparation, keep pen & paper handy – you’re going to “night school”
  • Work with last dream you remember as a means of meeting the dreaming psyche where it lives
  • Converse with your psyche about dream recall: (e.g.,”I wasn’t there then… but I’m here now. . .”)
  • LAST RESORT:  Order a combination pizza at bedtime – you will dream vividly!



Additional Comments: Most people who journal dreams regularly take a notepad or iPad to bed with them and journal, if inspired, in the middle of the night or first thing in the morning. We may forget up to 95% of our dreams if not tended to upon awakening, and the earlier we start writing, the clearer the images remain with us and the more detail will emerge. It is often in the detail, and even in the “little people of dreams” that the most helpful information or medicine breaks forth. Many people use a special journal, colors for writing, and may copy the dreams over to closer align with the actual order of the dream. One final hint, “don’t knock it ’til you try it.” This really s as easy as starting the process and letting the process take it from there. Relax!

Modern Sleep Research and Dreams

The more that dream research gets out of the hands of practitioners who work daily with people and their dreams, the more brittle the writing gets. The following snippet of a dream paper by J. Allan Hobson, one of the more respected names in positivist dream research, gives a strong hint at why this writer prefers books and monographs of clinical experience over current reductionist sleep research:

It is thus clear that enhanced dopaminergic transmission can reduce as well as enhance dreaming. If dopamine were running the dream show via its stimulation of the mesolimbic reward system, wouldn’t we expect a predominance of elation and other positive emotions in dreams? In contrast, it is often negative emotions, particularly fear and anxiety, which predominate in normal dreaming (e.g., Merritt et al., 1994) while L-Dopa increases negative emotional content or enhances affectively neutral imagery (Hartmann et al., 1980; Nausieda et al., 1982). Fear and anxiety are mediated by the amygdala (LeDoux, 1996), a structure also active in REM (Braun et al., 1997; Maquet et al., 1996), which again points away from the mesolimbic reward system and toward other limbic circuits in the mediation of dreaming. We suspect that a wide variety of drug-induced disruptions of normal neuromodulatory balance may lead to alterations in dreaming and that normal dreaming cannot be attributed to any single neuromodulatory system. For example, there are decreases in both serotonergic and noradrenergic functioning in Parkinson’s disease (Valldeorriola et al., 1997; Narabayashi, 1999) which may, in turn, enhance dreaming during REM by further decreasing the attenuated serotonergic and noradrenergic inhibition of cholinergic activation already occurring at this stage of sleep (Hobson, Stickgold, and Pace-Schott, 1998). (Nausieda et al., 1982, also suggested a role for serotonin in L-Dopa-enhanced dreaming.) In addition, induction of nightmares very commonly accompanies treatment with beta-blockers which postsynaptically attenuate noradrenergic neurotransmission (Thompson and Pierce, 1999) further supporting our proposed mediation of dream effects by aminergic-cholinergic interaction. Additional suggestion of cholinergic mediation in some drug-induced dream abnormalities are reports of nightmares associated with cholinesterase inhibitors such as donezipil and tacrine (PDR, 1999), enhanced dreaming by physostigmine (Sitaram, Moore, and Gillin, 1978), and the nightmares accompanying REM rebound during sedative withdrawal (Manfridi and Kales, 1987). In addition, sedating drugs (Gaillard and Phillippeau, 1976) as well as drugs with no known CNS effects (Thompson and Pierce, 1999) have been shown to induce nightmares.

Sorry to subject you to that; but for some folks, dreams are more about firing neurons and residual emotion than about meaning particular to an individual. This post shamelessly asserts that we all have neurons, they all fire with more or less the same frequency or effect, but that the images vary significantly from person to person because of their experience. When I read my own dream journals from the 1990s, I have a much more exact diary than if I had kept a memory book of events that occurred to me. My hope for those of you who start or renew dream journaling is that you will develop a body of work that  tells you what is “up” for you to pay attention to in your life, and that the journal itself will keep fresh for you the images that can help you move forward in your life.