Have you ever woken up and remembered a dream vividly? That's called dream recall. While the human brain is wired to dream, some people seem to recall dreams better than others. There are various factors that contribute to someone's ability to remember dreams, and it's an active area of study for sleep scientists. An AncestryDNA® Traits test can tell you if people with DNA like yours tend to recall their dreams more than the average person.
Does Everyone Dream?
As far as science has been able to conclude, nearly everyone dreams. Most of us spend about two hours a night dreaming, mostly in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. This is the stage of sleep when breathing quickens and there’s rapid eye movement under your closed eyelids. The REM cycle usually begins about 90 minutes after falling asleep. During this sleep stage, your brain activity increases and your arms and legs are temporarily paralyzed.
As for those who say they don't dream? Research has shown that they do. In a sleep study, sleep scientists can tell if someone is dreaming because they exhibit dreamlike behaviors, such as arguing, fighting, or speaking when in REM sleep. But when they awake from the REM cycle, they don't recall the dream. On the other end of the spectrum are people who have lucid dreams, which means they're aware they're dreaming while dreaming. About half of all people report having at least one lucid dream in their life.
The Genetics Behind Dream Recall
Scientists have identified many genes that impact sleep, and by extension dreaming. They’ve recently identified two genes that directly affect the REM stage of sleep: Chrm 1 and Chrm3. While the science suggests that these genes are associated with our ability to enter REM sleep, when most dreaming happens, it does not appear that the mere presence of these genes is enough to ensure dream recall. Researchers have also been looking at whether there is a genetic component to nightmares. One study of more than 28,000 people found two genes to be more common among those who reported nightmares: one related to sleep duration, the other related to making a protein in the brain and bladder. Researchers don't know if these genes cause nightmares or if they simply cause people to wake up more often while they're asleep. Waking up more often—due to a shorter sleep duration or needing to pee—could make you more likely to remember nightmares. To remember a dream, you generally need to wake up in the middle of it.
In a different survey, AncestryDNA® scientists analyzed the DNA of more than 185,000 people who answered a question about remembering dreams. By comparing respondents' answers with their DNA, they found more than 7,200 DNA markers related to dream recall. (Additional markers may also play a role.) Using a predictive model called a Polygenic Risk Score, they were then able to estimate how likely it is that others can remember their dreams.
What Else Does Science Say About Remembering Dreams?
Using high-tech scanning machines, scientists compared the brains of people who have excellent dream recall with those who struggle to remember dreams. High dream recallers had more activity in the “default mode network.” This part of the brain is most active when we're resting or letting our mind wander—like in the shower. It helps people form key, long-term memories of specific events, like your wedding day. The fact that dream recallers had a lot of activity in this network may mean they're more efficient at processing memories, including dreams.
Researchers have also shown that light sleepers may be better dream recallers. They found that people who report remembering dreams have more activity in the temporoparietal junction. This area of the brain causes people to react more to noises and disturbances during sleep, which means they're more likely to wake up briefly. Those brief periods of waking help solidify the dream into memory. In fact, you only need about two minutes of wakefulness to remember a dream.
Interesting Findings About Remembering Dreams
In surveys, women tend to report poor sleep patterns more frequently than men, meaning they wake up more often. Perhaps this is why they also seem to remember their dreams more than men. This could be related to biology, since females often have more brain activity in the default mode network. But it's likely also related to social factors, since adolescent males and females don't have much difference in dream recall. The differences in expressing emotions, such as those around experiences, typically start in the teenage years.
Your personality traits may also be related to dream recall. People who are more creative and prone to daydreaming and deep, introspective thought are more likely to have good dream memory. By contrast, people who are less introspective and more focused on practical matters tend to have poorer dream recall.
When the Covid-19 virus first hit the U.S. in 2020 there was a big uptick in people reporting having strange and vivid dreams—and being more likely to remember them. One survey found that 87% of Americans started having unusual dreams when the pandemic hit. Theories ranged from increased anxiety to people sleeping longer because they were at home more. And the more you sleep, the more likely you are to dream.
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