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Remember that wild dream you had? Here’s why.

Do you ever wake up and think, “oh my gosh, I just had the most bizarre dream”? Do you ever try to remember your dream and it just will not come to you? Or, do you think about the dream and start to tell someone what happened and suddenly it makes no sense? Me too. Our dreams piece together so many parts of our memory that we cannot even recognize how unusual they are until we say them out loud. Sometimes we know we had an eventful dream, but we just can’t remember it no matter how hard we try. Do not worry though, you are not alone. Everyone goes through these experiences with dreams and it is normal when you consider all the facts about how dreams relate to our memory.

Our memories drive the creation of dreams as we actively retrieve stored information throughout the night while we sleep. What we remember from our dreams tells us a lot about what we pay attention to and what we care about. Information from the environment is what we call distal stimulus or sensory input, which is anything that activates our senses and helps us recognize what that thing is. For example, the computer you are reading this on may be a distal stimulus, because you can feel the keys and hear the sounds it makes. This type of input helps us create images in our heads that we dream about later on. So many aspects of memory like these play into our dreams. We learn things, store the information, retrieve it in our sleep, and then sometimes we retrieve it all again once we wake up, which refers to those times when we do remember our dreams. Even though our dreams may seem like a different dimension of ideas completely separate from the waking mind, it really is all based on the same ideas. If you are as baffled by these phenomena as me, then you should read along to find out why. 

It is so relieving that this doesn’t just happen to me. MemeAdda.com

When we try to understand the content of our dreams and why we remember what we do, it all depends on what time of the night that we have each dream. Early in the night, we are usually in a non-REM sleep cycle, meaning that we have not reached the rapid eye movement (REM) cycle just yet. During the REM cycle, we experience deep sleep in which we create dreams and form lots of strong memories. Earlier in the night, we are not yet experiencing this, so our dreams link to our episodic memories, which are all the information about events that have occurred in our lives. Our episodic memory is what allows us to identify many details about things that happened, where they happened, and when they were taking place. Because of this, most dreams early in the night tend to be related to everyday life, and a little less bizarre than they are later on in the night. Oftentimes, our dreams in non-REM sleep are really just accurate depictions of something we experienced very recently or the day before.

 Later in the night, however, we enter our REM cycle, and this is where the madness happens. When we are in the REM cycle, our minds become very creative and active, so we can have all types of wild dreams connecting a variety of emotional experiences together. Do you ever wake up in a sweat, breathing heavily, or do you feel like you have heightened emotions? This is probably because you were woken up during your REM sleep, and you feel a certain way because of your emotional reaction to your wild dreams. We have a more intense emotional response to things occurring in our dreams during this state, making them feel very real. We have heightened activation of a variety of dreams during this stage. Our dreams can also occur either through serial or parallel processing. Dreams that occur in parallel are happening at the same time, allowing us to dream multiple dreams at once. Serial processing however, allows us dream one dream after another when we are in this phase. When we try to explain dreams from this sleeping state, they may sound very bizarre and strange, to say the least. Even when you try to tell someone what happened, it may make sense in your head at first, and then become a jumbled collection of nonsense. As we recall our dreams, we begin to notice how our mind has pieced together a variety of memories and ideas, which will not always make sense when you say it out loud.

Now, this still makes us wonder, what the heck do our dreams mean? Well, funny you should ask, dreams usually represent recent experiences we have had given that these things we remember are fresh in our minds. Well, then you might ask, “why do I dream about things like my old childhood house, or someone I haven’t seen in a very long time?” This is because our recent experiences only show up in small fragments or pieces. Our dreams are not a recording of something that happened to us, but rather a collection of recordings that have all been mashed up together. Along with new information, we incorporate past experiences and semantic memory, which is all of our general knowledge. We as humans have creative minds that take all of these things and put them together to try to make sense. After we learn something new, we take this information into our sleep and put it all together to store in our long-term memory. We have mental representations of this information, which are the visual images of things in our heads that nobody else can see. We use these images and link them together to make sense of them. Overall, when we are sleeping, we are using our memories to consolidate all of our thoughts. When we sleep, we are helping our brains store important information, and sometimes we relive this information through our dreams. Even when we sleep, our brains are at work trying to store our memories so that they can be accessed at a later time.

Finally, I know you have been waiting for me to tell you why we always forget our dreams so quickly. It really is similar to why we forget things on an everyday basis, but when it comes to dreams it feels so much harder to try and remember them. When it comes to forgetting things, this can happen very quickly and easily if we do not use our explicit memory to our advantage. Our explicit memory is our memory for when we intentionally try to think back to something we already know. When we think utilise our explicit memory, we are really training our brains to remember things. If we were to look at content for an exam just once, it is very unlikely that we will remember everything we need to know. This idea is the same for your dreams, so unless it is a recurring dream, you only really experienced it once, so it is likely that you will forget it. Also, as I mentioned before, our dreams come to us as a bunch of random pieces all sewn together, in no particular order or relevance. When it comes to memory, it is a lot easier to remember things that are connected or follow some type of pattern. When we organize ideas in our minds, we we rely on patterns to recognize related items or events. In doing so, we are able to assign meaning to information and connect similar ideas to one another. Because our dreams are so random, this causes errors in our memory and we are not able to process the meaning of them. When these gaps arise, our brains piece in other aspects of our knowledge to make it make some type of sense. This is an example of reconstructive memory, which occurs when we recreate an experience by piecing together aspects of our memory. This means that some parts of a memory may be accurate, while others are not actually what originally happened even though we believe they are. If our dreams were to be more fluid and linked in relevant ways, we would be able to process them for deeper meaning, and ultimately help our memory retrieval. 

The dinosaur on the shark holding a rocket launcher in the middle of the ocean is not even the beginning of what went on in my dreams last night. MemeZila.com

Although we forget a lot of our dreams very quickly, there are many ways in which we can piece them back together. Sometimes we dream and cannot remember it at first, but later on, we see a person or thing that triggers our memory. When we first wake up and cannot remember our dream but are aware that we had one, this can be related to the phenomenon of tip-of-the-tongue states. This occurs when we have difficulty trying to retrieve things from our stored memory because they are temporarily inaccessible. This means the information we are trying to remember is not retrievable at that point in time, but this ability can fluctuate so we may remember it at a different time. This state can be frustrating because we want to remember so badly, but no matter what we do, we cannot manage to remember that dream. Later that day, however, when we see that person or thing that reminds us of that dream we had the night before, many of the details all come back to us and become accessible. Well, this again relates to the way in which we perform on memory tasks, which is a good indicator of how well our memory functions. When we see that person or thing, this is an example of what psychologists call cued recall. This is when we remember something from a collection of cues from our environment which tend to be semantic or meaning-based. Cues from the environment are called proximal stimuli, and they help us retrieve the information we were looking for. Something from your dream may be available in your mind, but it does not actually become accessible to you until that cue triggers your memory. 

Overall, dreams are a wild thing, but at least we have some more clarity about them now. If you ever want to know anything else about dreams, there is always more to know about memory to help you understand.

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