It's incredible how we can know so much about the depths of space and the smallest organisms' biological workings and yet understand so little about our minds.
Dreams are something that has long eluded conclusive study. We know that dreaming is ordinary, perhaps even universal, and we understand that awakening during specific points in our REM cycle increases the likelihood of remembering a dream. Still, we are far from closing the book on what dreams are and why some people vividly experience them.
A lot of studies, both scientific and not, have gone into just what dreams mean. Is dreaming our brain's way of sifting through the day's events? Do nightmares help us prepare for intense emotional states in the waking world? These are the questions that get the most attention, yet there's one other puzzle that needs answering.
What does it mean if you don't dream at all?
Most people dream, or at least remember experiencing dreams at some point in their lives. It is not uncommon for the frequency of dreams to change as a person ages. On average, people experience 3 to 6 dreams per night¹.
Yet some people report never dreaming at all. Whether dreams truly elude them or if these people don't remember their dreams can be challenging to discern.
There are different kinds of dreams. Some are vivid and play out almost like movies, while others are less distinct, just a mixture of feelings and sometimes images. Your recollection of a dream often has to do with when you wake up. Awakening during REM sleep typically recalls a more vivid dream than waking up during other parts of your sleep cycle.
It is possible that some people who "do not dream" merely can't recall their dreams because they woke up well after the dream finished, and their brains had entered a new part of the sleep cycle.
Dreams also frequently slip from our memories even if we do initially remember them. Dreams are the result of chemical and electrical signatures dotted around the brain². These fade quickly after waking, and it is not unusual for memories of a dream to start very clear and slowly disappear as the brain wakes up.
If you used to dream but don't anymore, it can result from many different things. Interruptions in your sleep cycle can affect your dreams. A change in your daily routine can increase or decrease your likelihood of dreaming, like switching to radically different working hours.
Your ability to dream can also be dull by certain medications. If you've lost your dreams lately, look for changes in your life related to stress, diet, or medication that may be responsible.
If you've never been one to dream, don't despair. Dreams are a fascinating peek into our brain's activities during the night. Still, there is no evidence to suggest that a lack of dreams in an otherwise healthy person indicates any mental or physical problem.
If you feel that your sleep quality is low, it may also affect your ability to dream. If you aren't experiencing REM sleep, then you likely won't encounter any vivid dreams. REM sleep typically accounts for about a quarter of your overall sleep time¹. Not getting enough of it has been linked to multiple health problems, including obesity, sleep apnea, and high blood pressure.
It can be frustrating to lose recollection of your dreams, especially if you're looking towards them for insight into your psyche. Try keeping a notepad next to the bed and make a habit of writing down as much as you can remember right away. It can help you better recall your dreams later on.
Try waking up at odd times. Set the alarm and wake up earlier than usual. Repeat this process at different intervals during the night to try and catch yourself during a REM cycle. This test can help you determine whether you're really not dreaming or just sleeping through the dreams you do have.
You may also be able to encourage dreams by practicing relaxation before bed. Reflect on the events of the day and try to imagine a dream taking form. But remember that if dreams don't come, or if you can't remember them, it isn't necessarily a sign of anything being wrong. You may be one of the many people who sleep so soundly through their dreams that there's nothing to remember in the morning.
(1) Healthline (October 2019) How Much Deep, Light, and REM Sleep Do You Need?
(2) Clifton, J (August 2020) The Chemistry of Dreaming