Slippery fish: How to remember your dreams

Dreams carry important messages about our deep emotional lives. But most people have trouble remembering them - so here are some tips for improved dream recall from a dream therapist and author. You can find her blog on dreams and a course on working with your own dreams at

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When I tell people I work with and write about dreams, often the first thing they say is, “I don’t dream.” Or sometimes, more accurately, “I don’t remember my dreams.”

We all dream what is in essence a feature film worth of dreams every night, but the vast majority of these nocturnal movies are not merely forgotten, but not laid down in accessible memory in the first place. Dreams reside in implicit memory and most of them slip back into this unconscious realm before we have a chance to catch them. But there are some reliable ways to improve your dream recall.

Flamboyant dream expression

Have you ever noticed that the vast majority of your dreams are not finished? They tend to end right in the middle of something that is striking or scary enough to wake you up. I think this is why dreams tend generally to have such a flamboyant way of expressing themselves – it often takes something quite dramatic for a dream to break through to consciousness. Some dreams are so vivid and engaging, we wake up with their images still resonating in our minds and bodies.

Still, it takes a deliberate effort to recall even some of the most fascinating dreams. Many dreamers have the experience of a stunning dream that wakes them up. They think, “Wow, this is something I will not forget,” only to find that by morning all they remember was the experience of having a big dream but not the dream itself.

Lie still, linger with your dream

Our most vivid, emotionally-toned and complex dreams happen later in the sleep cycle, toward morning. I find that if you are able to wake up naturally and have some time to linger in the dream world before you leap out of bed and start your day, you have a better chance of catching hold of your dream before it slips away. If you lie very still when you first wake up, the dream is more likely to stay with you. And if you rehearse it in your mind a few times and then write it down before you get on with the business of your day, you will find that you have not only captured this dream, but others will come.

The more we pay attention to our dreams, the more they are likely to respond back to us. I have worked with psychotherapy clients’ dreams for about 20 years and found that even those who profess not to dream were able to recall dreams once I started asking about them and talking in depth about the dreams they did bring. At first people who don’t profess to dream much might capture only a snippet or two and not think much of it. But even little scraps of image can reveal themselves to be significant if they are inquired into with deep curiosity and respect.

Write them down right away

To sum up, to remember your dreams, begin by taking an interest in them and going to bed with the intention of recalling them. Keep a dream journal by your bedside. When you first wake up, don’t move, but linger in the space in between waking and dreaming and see if you can recall anything at all from the night, even images or fragments that seem tiny. Rehearse what you can recall in your mind a few times – dreams are like slippery fish wanting to escape back into the deep waters of our unconscious. Once you have the dream clear in your mind, write it down, ideally before you do anything else.

If you tell your dreams to someone else, work with them in a group, draw the images they bring you, reflect on them and enjoy them, more will come. You will start to see patterns and appreciate their startling creativity and complexity. They are like an honest friend who is not afraid to tell you the truth, even if it’s painful. They can become your great ally.

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