The Science of Sleep and Dream Recall

Dayna Dye

Science of Sleep, Stages, REM, Dreaming, and Dream Recall
“To sleep, perchance to dream.” Or perchance not?

Although Hamlet was contemplating the “sleep” of death, sleep and its accompanying dream states remain another subject shrouded in mystery.

Think you don’t dream?

It is currently believed that everyone dreams. Except, perhaps those who are under the influence of legal or illegal drugs, or who have specific brain injuries.1 But not everyone recalls this enigmatic phenomenon, which is a nightly source of pleasure, anxiety, inspiration and self-understanding for those of us who do.


Stages of Sleep

People cycle through the four stages of sleep several times during the night. Stage 1 sleep is light and lasts several minutes, during which breathing and heartbeat begin to slow. Stage 2 sleep is similar to stage 1 and includes a drop in body temperature and cessation of eye movement. Of the sleep stages, stage 2 is the longest. Stage 3 sleep is deepest and is necessary for feeling refreshed. Breathing and heart rate further decelerate, and people are difficult to awaken during this stage.2

Rapid eye movement sleep, during which the eyes move from side to side under the lids, is the final stage of the four sleep stages and is the period in which most (but not all, according to current thinking) dreaming occurs. Time spent in REM sleep tends to decrease during aging.2 During REM sleep, which happens about an hour and a half after falling asleep, people undergo a temporary paralysis to prevent acting out of the dreams; however, among individuals with REM sleep behavior disorder, this fails to occur.3,4 Insufficient REM could impact waking life, since REM sleep has been suggested to be the stage in which information in the brain is consolidated, making it important for memory and learning.

“We are at least as dream deprived as we are sleep deprived,” remarked Dr Rubin Naiman in The Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. “Many of the health concerns attributed to sleep loss result from a silent epidemic of REM sleep deprivation. REM/dream loss is an unrecognized public health hazard that silently wreaks havoc with our lives, contributing to illness, depression, and an erosion of consciousness.”5

Related Blog: Tired of Insomnia? Helpful Herbs and Sleep Hygiene

What Does it Mean if You Can’t Remember Your Dreams?

sleep research remember your dreams One study found that people who remember their dreams awoke more than twice as often during the night as those with low recall, which suggests that the brains of people who recall fewer dreams may be less reactive to sound or other stimuli. 6 In another study that compared the intra sleep awakenings of 17 men and women with a low frequency of dream recall, and 19 participants with a high frequency, those who frequently recalled their dreams experienced more awakenings and a greater number of longer awakenings from non-rapid eye movement (NREM) stage 2 sleep than the group who had less frequent dream recall.7 The amount of awakenings during REM in both groups was considered comparable, as was REM density, defined as the frequency of eye movements in REM, which is used as an index of dream production. While this small study had several limitations, the authors concluded that their findings “support the premise that inter-individual variability in dream recall frequency cannot be ascribed to differences in REM sleep parameters in healthy individuals.”




Poor dream recall may also indicate a need for a greater intake of pyridoxine (vitamin B6).8 A randomized trial that tested the effects of consuming 240 milligrams pyridoxine hydrochloride before bed for five days found that the vitamin significantly increased the amount of dream content recalled by participants but did not affect other sleep-related variables.9 In contrast, taking the full B complex before sleep may be stimulating and is better consumed earlier in the day.

Remembering Dreams: Good or Bad?

Although nightmares are often best forgotten, dream recall can have psychological benefits. Dreams provide us with clues concerning the information that our brains process and areas of anxiety that we may need to work through. Dreams can also be a source of inspiration or provide answers to important questions. In 1869, Dmitri Mendeleev, the creator of the periodic table of elements, reported, “In a dream I saw a table where all the elements fell into place as required. Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper.”

B vitamins including B12 and B6 may help you remember dreamsHow to Remember Dreams

Keeping a pad of paper and a pen by one’s bedside is recommended as an aide to remembering dreams because the memory of dreams is fleeting and requires a minute or so of wakefulness.

Other than taking vitamin B6 before sleep to help remember our dreams, taking 1000 micrograms vitamin B12 directly before bed has been suggested by Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw as a dream enhancer. While Pearson and Shaw noted that it doesn’t work every time, the vitamin may cause significant intensification of colors perceived while dreaming, even in people who don’t dream in color.10


About the author: Dayna Dye has been a member of the staff of Life Extension® since shortly after its inception. She has served as the department head of Life Extension® Wellness Specialists, is the author of thousands of articles published during the past two decades in Life Extension® Update, Life Extension Magazine® and on www.LifeExtension.com, and has been interviewed on radio and TV and in newsprint. She is currently a member of Life Extension’s Education Department.



References:
  1. Murri L et al. Sleep. 1985 Dec;8(4):356-62.
  2. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. “Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep.” National Institutes of Health, 13 Aug 2019
  3. American Sleep Association. “REM Sleep: Why is it important?” 
  4. Mayo Clinic. “REM sleep behavior disorder.” 
  5. Naiman R. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2017 Oct;1406(1):77-85.
  6. Ruby P et al. Front Psychol. 2013 Aug 13;4:419.
  7. van Wyk M et al. Front Hum Neurosci. 2019;13:370.
  8. Pfeiffer Carl C. Mental and Elemental Nutrients. New Canaan, CT. Keats, 1975.
  9. Aspy DJ et al. Percept Mot Skills. 2018;125(3):451-462.
  10. Pearson D, Shaw S. Life Extension: A Practical Scientific Approach. New York, NY. Warner, 1982, p 195.

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