You may throughout your life, have a few dreams that are so vivid, emotionally powerful or profound, that they stay with you throughout the entire day, and perhaps you can still recall them weeks, months or even years later2. But these kinds of dreams are very rare, most will have slipped from your mind within a few moments of waking up.3
Even if you have a good natural dream recall, without any intervention you naturally forget over 50% of all your dream content within the first 5 minutes of being awake, and after only 15 minutes, more than 90% is gone.
The key to remembering more of your dreams, becoming more aware of their content, and ultimately using that content to become lucid, is simple: write down everything you can remember about your dream, as soon as possible after waking up.
Keeping a dream journal can be a rewarding experience in its own right, providing insight and helping you to greater self-understanding. From the point of view of lucidity, having good dream recall is assumed as a foundation for virtually every lucid dream inducing technique out there. Even if you don’t decide to practice any specific technique, having a greater awareness of the types of content that show up in your dreams will increase your chances of recognising this while dreaming and spontaneously becoming lucid. In fact, if you are only going to invest your time in one technique to increase your chances of having a lucid dream, then start keeping a dream journal.
There are a few different approaches to keeping a dream journal, and some interesting tips and tricks you can use to help you get the most from it, depending on your personal objectives. We’ll come to those in a moment, but to make sure you are covering the two aspects that are more important than everything else put together, all you need to do is: write down everything you can remember about your dream, as soon as possible after waking up.
Psychologists and dream researchers, Cohen and Wolfe, showed how important, recording your dreams as soon as you wake up, is for successful recall. They split participants in their research study into two groups. The first group were instructed to record their dreams as their first action after waking, while the second group were given a simple task to complete first (check and record the local weather report). Cohen & Wolfe theorised this distracting task would interfere with their capability for dream recall. They discovered that participants who recorded their dreams as their first action were able to recall almost twice as many dreams as the group who were given a distracting task.1
This makes intuitive sense. If you get up, and start walking around, it will cause motor neurons to fire in your brain, if you start working out what you need to do today it will cause planning neurons to become active. This other neural activity interferes with the dream content related activity that was taking place within your brains cortex and overwrites any content held in your short term memory, preventing it from being encoded into your long term memory.
The more detail you capture in those first moments, the easier it will be to recall the dream again later. It will also help you to recall even more detail from your future dreams, and be able to target your reality checks more effectively. Don’t worry about analysing the dream at first, you can come back to that later. You just want to make sure you capture as much detail as possible.
If you are someone who doesn’t remember their dreams, then this is especially important. The first few times you wake up and try to remember what you were just dreaming, your recollections might be incredibly vague. “Maybe I felt a bit scared, and was there something about a goat?” or you may even having nothing more than the slightest leftover impression of a colour, so all you write is “Yellow”. If this is all that comes to you, that’s fine, just write it down. Every detail, no matter how unsure you might be, or how insignificant it might seem to you on waking, make sure you write it down.
The very act of deliberately recording whatever comes to mind creates a positive feedback loop. This is because your brain wants to use the energy it has available as efficiently as possible, millions of years of evolution have made sure of that. All the while you have been showing no interest in recalling your dreams, it has not been a productive use of your brains resources to ensure they are available for easy recall. But once you consistently start to expend energy trying to remember the content of your dreams, and writing this down, no matter what comes to mind, the most efficient solution for your brain is to make those dreams easier to recall, so you use up less energy working on the problem.4
So every time you write down something from your dream, you’ll find it a little easier to recall parts of your dreams next time, which means you can write down a little more detail. After a few cycles, you’ll have an expectation of remembering your dreams, which only enhances the process further.
You may also find that, if you wake up during the night and decide to record your dreams right away, after noting down even just a couple of words, as you lie back down and relax ready to go back to sleep, more fragments from your dream pop into mind. If that happens, just add them into whatever you already wrote. This all adds to the process of your recall becoming more efficient. With practice, these fragments will join together into longer scenes, and the time will come when you wake up and record not just one dream, but will remember a whole series of entirely different dreams from throughout your sleep cycle.
When you first start out, it is best to try and write in your dream journal every day, this will improve your dream recall at the fastest rate, by giving your subconscious a clear message that remembering your dreams is a priority for you. Of course if you do happen to miss the occasional day, don’t beat yourself up about it. Just come back to it again the next day, with a fresh mind-set to record your dreams, and your recall will continue to improve.
When you get to stage where you are consistently remembering 4 or more dreams every night and have been doing so for a while, you can start to be more selective about which dreams you record and it won’t affect your recall. The habit will already have been ‘locked in’ by then. Everyone will progress in their dream recall at slightly different rates, on average getting to the point where you regularly remember 4+ dreams per night, can take anywhere between 2-3 weeks, up a couple of months.
Ok so you’re committed to recording your dreams in as much detail as possible, and as soon as you wake up. What’s next? Well there are a few Dream Journal Tips and Tricks you can use to get the most out of this new habit.
1. Cohen, D. B., & Wolfe, G. (1973). Dream recall and repression: evidence for an alternative hypothesis.Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 41, 349-355.
2. Schredl, M., & Doll, E. (1998). Emotions in diary dreams. Consciousness and Cognition, 7, 634-646.
3. Cohen, D. B., & MacNeilage, P. F. (1974). A test of the salience hypothesis of dream recall. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 42, 699-703.
4. R. Rosenzweig, , Edward L. Bennett (1996). Psychobiology of plasticity: effects of training and experience on brain and behaviour. Behavioural Brain Research, Volume 78, 57–65.