Novelist Will Self advises us, “Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea forever.”
Many of us take his advice, but do you remember to bring your note taking device with you when you go to sleep? I think all of us have woken up from a dream and said, “Wow, what a thought, I better remember that,” only to lose it forever upon waking. If this has happened to you, you might consider keeping a dream journal.
When I first began researching dream journaling I was filled with skepticism. It didn’t help matters when many of the online sources I found were filled with mysticism instead of solid information. I’m sorry, but I’m not going to sleep with crystals surrounding my bed, candles lit, or with air full of incense. I’m not saying doing things like this won’t help some people, but for me, not so much.
Here are the practices and applied concepts that worked for me.
*Note* I’m not an expert or dream shaman by any means. These are just the things that have worked for me in the past and what I employ. The result is maybe one fully formed thought or concept that could be viable for projects per week (at best).
Drink five quarts of kitten blood before going to sleep. Okay, maybe not. But going to sleep hungry or thirsty doesn’t help. It’s common sense, but for many of us over-caffeinated starving artists, it doesn’t hurt to remember to eat and hydrate. Our brains consume a huge amount of energy in our bodies, more than any other organ. Those gray cells require a lot of nutrients to do their work. Make sure you feed and water them.
As you drift off to sleep, focus on sensory input. Your mind is a gun, those thoughts bouncing around in it as your drift off to sleep are bullets. You need to steady the gun as you sleep to ensure proper aim and accuracy. For me, with a background on the ocean, I focus on the sea. The sound of the water, the colors of the night sky bouncing off of it, the luminescent glow of algae being stirred up by the ships propellers, and so on.
It can be a memory, or it can be made up entirely (whatever elicits the most response and focus). But try to focus on sights, sounds, feels, smells, and tastes. There is some weird science going on, but the skinny of it is that is begins priming your brain as you drift off to sleep.
Here is a scientific article from the academic journal, Trends in Cognitive Science, that might help you understand more about the science behind this (if you check out the link make sure to click on full text button, or you will just be reading the abstract).
If you can’t focus on a sensation, use a mantra. This works really well for me. If my mind is racing then I can’t focus on anything. If this happens, I tell myself over and over again (silently, because my wife would kill me and be freaked out otherwise), “Remember your dreams, remember your dreams.” Focusing on these words creates a calm that allows me to drift off to sleep better, and it also seems like my brain takes the advice.
Set an alarm. This was a trial and error step for me. I’m not going to get into how the brain works too much, but I will offer this basic concept. Your brain goes through cycles when you sleep. It switches back and forth from REM (the stage where you dream) and NREM (deep sleep that repairs and revitalizes you body – no dreams).
If you can stage an alarm that coincides with REM, upon waking, you may have more success recalling what was happening in dreamland. To do this successfully, your sleep schedule needs to have some consistency. With that being said, a rule of thumb I have seen on multiple website (like here) is to set an alarm for four hours from when your head hits the pillow.
Have tools ready to record. When the alarm goes off, you are going to be in a weird state. Especially if you succeeded in pulling yourself out of a dream. If you have a spouse, or person you share a room with, flicking a light on and rifling through things is not going to win you any awards. I have a notebook and a pen with a little built in light tip. When I click the back of the pen a tiny LED light comes on. I jot down what I can recall and try not to focus on organizing it. Even if it is just fragments that don’t make any sense.
Analyze entries once a week. Pick a day and go through the entries you made. Sit down and treat it like a writing session. Really analyze what you wrote. With a clear and fresh mind those fragments can turn into something new and exciting.
Be as consistent as you can. I get it. Sleep is in short supply and setting an alarm for four hours to interrupt it doesn’t sound like much fun. But if you can do it every now and then, your power to recall will improve. I’m sure there is more weird science here, but the more you exercise the desire to recall dreams, and the more you force yourself to record them, the clearer the dreams will be and the more information you will be able to record.
Don’t blame me for what you recall. Think how amazing your brain is when you are awake. Especially as writers. But your brain is being restrained by your analytic self when you are awake. Now imagine if your brain could roam free. The worlds created aren’t via words, but actually exist. You are just a casual observer or participant in it’s mad games. Who knows what joys, or terrors, you might find. Good luck…
That’s it for today. Do any of you keep dream journals? Do you have any tips that might improve my understanding of them? I’d love to hear about it. Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!