Maybe you remembered that vivid dream about face-planting as you ran to catch the bus because you woke up just before you hit the pavement. Or maybe the memory of flying over a scene that resembles Van Gogh’s Starry Night was triggered while you were strolling a museum. For some, dream recall is easy; for the rest of us, it’s a skill to work at, with the help of dream journaling.
After all, vivid dreams aren’t simply a whimsy from your subconscious mind. They’re actually a reflection of what’s going on in your life, say psychologists. The ability to recall them in order to look for patterns might even provide answers in your awake life. The more in-tune you are with your dreams, the closer you could also get to more active and involved lucid dreaming.
“Dreams are just thinking in a very different biochemical state, a very different brain state,” explains Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of “The Committee of Sleep.” “While sleeping, we continue to think about all of our usual thoughts and concerns — our hopes and fears, our loved ones, our distant past, and plans for the future.”
Benefits of Keeping a Dream Journal
Digesting our dreams onto paper, whether it's the very first dream we ever remember or the most recent one we had, could help us make more sense of ourselves and our role in the world, finding patters and logic in the fleeting or recurring elements of your dreams.
Figuring out what your dreams mean can help you parse through complicated emotions or become inspired with creative possibilities. “Dreams represent a part of ourselves that we don't generally pay as much attention to as our waking, verbal-reasoning self,” Barrett says. “So you can get in touch with your intuition and some of your emotions that you may not be aware of.”
If your brain thinks the information is relevant, chances are the information will show up in your dream. A small sleep study with 20 participants showed that rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is related to processing recent emotional memories. So immediately writing down how you felt throughout a dream could help with emotions.
But dreams, and your emotions, don’t always come through in a linear, sensical way. This is where the fantastical elements of dreams have inspired a lot of creatives, such as sci-fi writer N.K. Jemisin and director James Cameron. The otherworldly quality comes from the fact that dreaming engages the secondary visual cortex, which is the part of your brain that helps form images. The part of your brain controlling logical, linear thought — the prefrontal area — isn’t as active when you’re asleep. Studies have also found a link between dream recall and creativity, where the non-traditional structure of dreams helps us think outside of the box in more creative ways in waking life, too.
Another benefit of a dream journal is that it can provide anecdotal, but useful health data. If you track your mood, sleep, or fitness levels, comparing your dreams to these metrics could provide introspective insight into self-care management. For example, recurring dreams about forgetting to study for a class may occur on days you are feeling extra stressed. Over time, the repeating patterns may clue you into recognize what your body is trying to say.
So more emotional regulation, a boost in creativity, and finding answers to questions your subconscious is asking. Those sound like pretty cool benefits of a dream journal, right?
How to Keep a Dream Journal
Based on a large-scale analysis of 24,000 dream that reports dreams are often continuations of our waking life, a dream journal seems to be a good way of getting the answers our brain has uncovered while we were asleep. Because sometimes our brain will choose to forget our dreams even before we’ve woken up!
A dream journal could be the answer to retaining your brain's overnight work, and it may also help train your brain to hold tighter onto your dreams’ memories in the morning.
In fact, times of stress may be the best time to start. “Dreams definitely increase in intensity, frequency, and relevance during times of crisis,” says Kelly Bulkeley, Ph.D., director of the Sleep and Dream Database, and a psychologist who specializes in religion and dream research. (Thus the phenomenon of COVID dreams.) The upside is that more intense dreams are often easier to remember. Luckily, keeping a dream journal is fairly easy.
1. Pick Your Medium.
While the notion of a dream journal may conjure images of your seventh-grade diary, it can really take any form you find useful. If you’re most comfortable using a notebook, go for it. If you’d rather use your phone’s notes app, that works too. You can also use a voice-to-text app and just talk about your dreams (there are even dream-journal-specific apps like Wakefully). If you’re artistic, sketch them out. Whatever tool you choose, keep it close to your bedside, so you can quickly grab it when you wake up.
Don’t be afraid to mix it up, too. If a journal isn’t working, switch to a voice memo. If you like the process of telling someone your dream, ask someone if they’re open to getting dream texts or emails in the morning. (More friends would be interested in this than you’d think!) Sharing your dreams can also help with dream recall.
2. Set Your Intentions Before Bed.
The ability to recall dreams varies from person to person and from night to night. That said, you may be able to boost your brain’s recall if, before you go to sleep, you tell yourself you want to both dream and remember that dream.
“Believe it or not, intention itself has a simulating effect,” says Bulkeley. “People often report their dream recall increases the moment they think about keeping a dream journal.” Also key: getting a good night’s rest. “Short sleepers do not recall nearly as many dreams as long sleepers,” says Barrett.
3. Journal First Thing When You Wake Up.
Dream memories are fragile, Barrett explains, and in order for you to recall them, they have to make the tenuous transition from short-term memory to long-term memory. This won’t happen effectively if you’re distracted by, say, doomscrolling through your Twitter feed first thing in the morning, or getting out of bed to tend to morning tasks, which signals your brain to focus on other areas. Instead, as soon as you open your eyes, keep movements still and slow as you reach for your dream journal to jot everything down.
If you don’t readily remember a dream, Barrett advises lying quietly in bed and evaluating how you’re feeling. “Did you wake up feeling a little sad or thinking about your brother? Stay with the content or the emotion and something may come flooding back,” she says. “You might think ‘Oh, yeah, I'm sad, because I dreamt that my brother had this terrible thing happen.’ Many times, whatever is on your mind is connected to the dream and is still accessible, but will be gone a second later if you don't focus on it.”
4. Record Facts and Feelings.
In addition to writing down the people, places, and events from your dream, you’ll also want to note how they made you feel.
“Emotions and characters are probably the two easiest bridges for people who are just beginning to see how dreaming relates to their waking life,” says Bulkeley. The emotions that you feel in your dreams are probably coming from somewhere, and the characters who appear in your dreams are often the people that you care about the most, whether positively or negatively.
5. Analyze Away.
Depending on the content of your dreams, you can start analyzing right away or wait until you’ve collected a few more entries. The benefit of waiting for more entries is finding patterns, which do take time to emerge.
According to Barrett, recurring elements probably speak much more to your ongoing concerns than the content of a single dream. Even broad demographic totals can be revealing. For instance, how many men are in your dreams versus women? Or young people versus old? And the same goes for emotions. If you record feeling sad in the majority of your dreams, what in your life may be causing that?
There will often be specific themes like losing teeth or flying that many dream dictionaries or guides try to explain. But don’t put too much weight in those explanations.
“There's never a one-size-fits-all quality to dream symbols,” says Bulkeley. Instead, once you start recognizing patterns in your dreams — and thinking about what they mean to you — you can come away with a deeper understanding of yourself and your motivations.
What to Do with Your Dream Findings
Dream journaling is an observational tool and an explorative one. What you learn or act upon is up to you — you don’t have to do anything about your dreams, if you don’t want to. Sometimes writing down the details of how you felt throughout the dream is cathartic enough. But you can also use dream journals to help guide deeper exploration, like lucid dreaming, or jumpstart creative exercises, like painting, storytelling, and more.
“There are many specific things you can learn and discover and benefit from by keeping a dream journal,” says Bulkeley. “But I think the greatest value in some ways is just an ongoing dialogue with your unconscious self.”
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