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Defining the problem
It can be notoriously difficult to remember our dreams. Memory is a tricky business to begin with, our memory of waking events fades or is distorted with time, but the memory of our dreams is so fleeting we’ve often lost it before breakfast. This seems terribly unfortunate when you consider approximately a fifth of your life will be spent dreaming, and the experiences you have in the dream space can be among the most freeing, enjoyable, or magical you’ll ever have. So, how can we hold on to this incredible phenomenon?
First, let’s briefly discuss what we know about dreaming, waking up and why those dream memories are so elusive to begin with. Then we can talk about some traditional approaches to improving dream recall, before going in depth on the unique approach of Dreamcatcher.
Why Do We Dream?
The short answer is that no one knows definitively why or how we dream. But thanks to research from the Salk Institute or Biological Studies we do know a bit about waking up and maybe why we so quickly lose the memory of our dreams, called dream recall. There are essentially two ways people wake up; naturally on our own, or via some sort of sudden stimulus that breaks the sleep cycle (which we’ll call more generally, alarms).
When we wake naturally it is the result of two key internal players. Largely the suprachiasmatic nucleus, a collection of nerves near the center of our brain that regulates our “internal clock” or circadian rhythm. The suprachiasmatic nucleus controls blood pressure and body temperature which can determine when we feel wide awake versus very sleepy.
The second important player is a protein called PERIOD (PER). PER levels fluctuate throughout our day, rising in our waking hours to peak in the evening, and then plummeting at night (Reilly). When PER levels drop, so does our blood pressure, heart rate and body temperature until we get sleepy and eventually fall asleep.
Thanks to our internal clock however, and with some routine in our schedules, our bodies predict when we want to awake and begin raising PER levels in anticipation. Studies done by Jan Born who received the Leibniz Prize for his pioneering working in sleep research and fellow researchers at the University of Lubeck in Germany discovered that our predictive ability of when to wake in anticipation of routine alarms is so accurate we can usually measure the time in seconds.
Waking by Alarm
Rude awakenings, i.e. by some sort of alarm, screw everything up. Inversely to having our PER levels rise gradually, it seems much of the hard work done during sleep can be undone when we’re awoken by an alarm. Instead waking up rested, we’re jarred and groggy. Our PER levels aren’t appropriate for waking activities so we’re disoriented.
A little history; in London in the 1810’s people in mass started getting up via an intentional alarm to make sure they could report on time to factory jobs. Clocks with chimes were extremely expensive and so they would actually pay a person to come tap on their windows instead. Thus, a new profession was created called a Knocker Upper. Knocker Uppers were the first predecessor of today’s modern alarm clocks.
Waking Up and Forgetting Dreams
Regrettably we know a lot less about how waking up effects our memory, but we do know do know that along with the shift in PER levels is a shift in norepinephrine, an important neurotransmitter for remembering. The prevailing theory is that a function of sleep is to turn short term memories into long term memories and so it seems likely that the shift from sleeping to awake disrupts our memory function and with it the memories of events we had while sleeping slip away. As Deirdre Barrett author of the Committee of Sleep describes it, “as the brain awakens, it starts to turn on processes needed for long-term storage. Thus, if we wake straight out of a dream, we have a greater chance of remembering it” (Barrett). Barrett also suggests that to improve dream recall we need to limit anything that captures our attention immediately after waking. She suggests, “keep a notepad and pen by the bed. When you first wake up, do not jump up or turn your attention to anything” and as quickly as you can document your dream.
The Traditional Approach
That process of waking up and quickly trying to document a dream before too much stimulus ruins dream recall is called dream journaling. Dream journaling is an exercise whose origin is lost in time, supposedly the Vedic culture has dream journal religious practices as early as the Iron Age (1500 BCE), but even with all the centuries since then the exercise isn’t much changed. For example, it still faces the same primary challenge, how to document your dream without getting any new stimulus or having anything pull your attention away from recalling the dream. Dream journals have moved from carvings, to writing, to typing and now to tapping screens, but no matter the method of documentation the problem of being distracted by the waking world remains. Voice recording was a large leap forward, but when a person has to, as an example, open their eyes or move their hands to start a recorder they are dropped into the waking world and their mind is quickly flooded with new stimulus like how the blankets feel, what is the temperature in the room, what time it might be, did they forget to take the recycling bins to the curb, or what have you. It is further compounded by a general lack of consistency. Because dream documentation is difficult very few people manage to form a consistent habit, so while the occasional dramatic dream may stand out the vast majority of our dreams are lost. Which is where Dreamcatcher comes in.
The Dreamcatcher Approach
Dreamcatcher is a dream journaling mobile application designed to intervene on two primary dilemmas of losing dream recall; invasive documentation methods and consistency in documentation.
It acts as a new kind of dream journal with voice-activated functions, as well as alarm clock and notification features built in.
With this approach I hope to address;
- Journaling by voice without having to start a recorder and thus eliminating the need to open one’s eyes or move and so vastly reduce the likelihood of being distracted from recall. In essence a much less invasive dream documentation method.
- Consistent reminders to journal that are added to existing habits in someone’s time of waking, and throughout their day at key times to help establish habits and consistency.