Use a Dream Journal to Understand Your Waking Life

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Photo: Marco Rosario Venturini Autie, tobishinobi/Getty Images

Dreams are strange, misunderstood things. This week, Science of Us is exploring the latest research that helps explain what they are, what they might mean, and how they affect our waking lives.

Here are just a few of the things that were born from their creators’ dreams: Frankenstein, the modern sewing machine, the periodic table, Terminator, Twilight. Much of Edgar Allen Poe’s poetry was inspired by his dreams. Paul McCartney wrote the melody to “Yesterday” in a dream. By some accounts, scientist James Watson hit upon the double-helix structure of DNA after dreaming of two intertwined snakes.

On the one hand, it’s a pretty lucky thing that all these people remembered their dreams clearly enough to act on them in waking life. On the other hand, the list lends itself to a mildly distressing question: How many groundbreaking things have been dreamed and then immediately forgotten before they could make their way into the world?

It’s one of the grander arguments in favor of recording your dreams — insurance in case you have a nighttime flash of brilliance. But the habit also has more mundane benefits that are no less important: Keeping a dream journal can help you better understand your dreams, and, by extension, yourself.

First of all, dream journals help you remember your dreams — and not just in the obvious way, where you use a journal entry that can serve to later jog your memory. The process of writing them down also forces you to think about your dreams as something worth remembering in the first place. After childhood, we tend to become increasingly worse at dream recall, a pattern that’s reinforced by social expectations around who can talk about their dreams: It’s charming for little kids, decidedly less so for everyone else. (“We get socialized out of our inner worlds pretty quickly,” researcher Kelly Bulkeley told me in an interview on children’s dreaming.) But physically making note of your dreams each morning is an intentional act, one that repositions their consideration as something deserving of your time and mental energy.

That consideration makes it easier to achieve a state of lucid dreaming, in which the dreamer controls the action. When you can clearly recall the content of your dreams, you begin to notice patterns and anomalies, explains Jayne Gackenbach, a dream researcher at MacEwan University in Canada. Over time, she says, you can use your own intimate knowledge of your dreaming life to create a system of reality checks, or tests to determine whether or not you’re dreaming — reflection on events turns into “reflect[ion] on the very state of consciousness, the fact that you’re dreaming.”

Beyond lucid dreaming, though, dream journals also help you to make sense of waking life, Gackenbach says. Dreams offer you an unfiltered look into your own life (they’re “kind of a parallel to people’s waking consciousness,” as psychologist Dylan Selterman told me), but human memory is fallible in all kinds of ways, and your memory of a given dream the morning after it happens may be different from how you remember it a day or a week or a year later. A written account keeps the dream from warping over time, which means any insights you may draw later from it are all the more relevant. The dreaming brain is “going to do what it’s going to do — it’s going to solve problems, it’s going to give you creative inspiration, it’s going to regulate your negative emotions — but the more you can be aware of the process, the more transparent it is, the more you’re able to manage those [processes] while awake,” she says.

Gackenbach often advises her students interested in keeping dream journals to avoid worrying too much about the form of each entry — if it’s easier, for instance, they can try drawing what they saw, rather than taking the time to write it all out. She also recommends titling each entry, which “forces you to capture that essential idea” of what the dream is about. Other than that, though, there really aren’t any rules to dream journaling — only potential. Maybe you’ll come up with something big; maybe you’ll start to notice new things about your own psyche. Either way, it’s a worthy experiment.