Written by: Mallorie Stallings
Updated March 12, 2021
Dreams have long been a source of interest, but until recently, we understood very little about them. In the last several decades, researchers have discovered that we may dream far more often than previously thought. If you don't typically remember your dreams upon waking up, it might surprise you to learn that you've likely spent much of the night dreaming.
Do We Dream Every Night?
It's difficult to say for certain whether or not we dream every night, since people don't always remember their dreams (1). Researchers may soon be able to detect when we are dreaming based on certain types of brain waves (2) that seem to consistently appear during dreams, but this is still a developing area of research.
In studies in which researchers purposely wake people up while they sleep, up to 50% of people woken from non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep (3) and 80% of people woken from rapid eye movement (REM) sleep (4) report that they were dreaming. These percentages suggest we spend a significant portion of the night dreaming.
Why Are Some Dreams Longer Than Others?
How long the average dream lasts can vary depending on what stage of sleep you are in and how long you've been asleep.
Dreams can occur during REM or NREM sleep. For a long time, REM sleep was synonymous with dreaming. However, newer research has shown that we also experience dreaming in NREM sleep (5).
In general, REM dreams last longer and have more of a narrative structure. REM dream content is generally stranger, more vivid, and emotionally charged. By contrast, dreams that occur during NREM sleep are more similar to regular daytime thoughts, and they may not have a strong visual component.
People are most likely to remember dreams from REM sleep, which occurs periodically after every 90 to 120 minutes (6) of sleep. As for NREM dreams, people are most likely to recall dreams from light sleep, and least likely to recall dreams from deep slow-wave sleep.
Episodes of REM sleep increase in length (7) as the night progresses, starting at around 10 minutes and lasting up to an hour. Similarly, as the night wears on, people report comparatively longer and more hallucinatory dreams when awoken from either NREM or REM sleep.
How Long Do Dreams Last?
Based on the length of each REM sleep episode, dreams can likely last anywhere from a few minutes to upwards of half an hour. In total, sleep experts estimate that we spend around two hours dreaming (8) every night.
Recent studies on lucid dreamers (9) — people who can become aware they are dreaming while asleep — have allowed researchers to communicate with people while they dream. These types of studies might eventually help us confirm whether the length of a dream corresponds to the dream's narrative.
Does Everyone Dream?
Although it's difficult to say with absolute certainty, it's likely that everyone dreams. Researchers are still studying why some people report having more dreams than others. Several factors may play a role:
- Age: Children display a higher percentage of REM sleep, but they don't seem to experience dreams as frequently as adults do until the age of nine to 11 years (10). Some studies have found that dreams become shorter starting in middle age.
- How Tired You Are: Going into a deep recovery sleep (11) after pulling an all-nighter usually results in a higher percentage of slow-wave sleep and leads to less dream recall.
- Brain Activity Patterns: Recent studies have revealed that people who often remember their dreams display certain types of brain waves (12) and more activity in specific areas of the brain (13).
- Personality: Some sleep experts propose that individuals with personality traits such as a greater openness to experience may be more likely to remember their dreams.
- Nighttime Awakenings: Frequently waking up for intervals of at least two minutes (14) during the night may help encode dreams into our memory for retrieval in the morning. People who tend to remember more dreams have been shown to have more awakenings during stage 2 sleep, not REM sleep.
- Reaction to Outside Stimuli: Those who frequently remember their dreams show more intense reactions to outside stimuli while asleep andawake (15).
It's unclear whether people who remember more dreams are actually dreaming more, or their minds are simply more primed to store dream content in their long-term memory.
How Can I Remember My Dreams?
Most people experience longer periods of REM sleep the more time they've spent asleep, so one way to increase dream recall may be to focus on getting better-quality sleep. On the other hand, people often report wilder dreams (16) after eating certain foods or heavy meals. It may be that the extra effort required to digest rich foods leads to micro-awakenings (17) that make us more aware of our dreams.
Ultimately, it seems that the best dream recall occurs for people who are motivated to remember their dreams (18). Try keeping a dream diary or taking a few moments to dwell on your dreams when you first wake up, and you might find that you gradually start to remember more dreams.
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- https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Understanding-Sleep Accessed on March 4, 2021.
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- https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2018-67278-006 Accessed on March 4, 2021.