Take a moment and think back to the last dream you had. How much of it can you remember? For many of us, the answer is not much. When we’re asleep, we have these vivid dreams, but then when we awake, they seem to just vanish like they never happened. Scientists and dream researchers have been studying why we dream for nearly a century, and they’ve concluded dreams are more than just fleeting illusions, and actually offer a host of benefits. Here’s what they found, why keeping a dream journal might give you your next best idea, and tips to help you get started.
What Is a Dream Journal?
Many people already keep some type of journal. For some, it’s a place to put daily to-dos and notes. For others, it’s a space for life reflections and creative writing.
Whether you opt for writing more long-form with pen and paper or jotting some quick notes on your phone, the practice can help you work through emotions, notice patterns in your life, and identify new ways you want to grow. And at minimum, it can simply help you stay organized.
But what you might not have given much thought to is keeping a journal to record your dreams.
If you’re thinking: But I always forget my dreams. How can I record them? or Why would I even want to record my dreams? You might be surprised to hear there are actually some compelling science-backed benefits and reasons to consider keeping a dream journal.
Benefits of Dream Journaling
The famous Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalysis, Carl Jung, said:
“Dreams are impartial, spontaneous products of the unconscious psyche, outside the control of the will..They are pure nature; they show us the unvarnished, natural truth, and are therefore fitted, as nothing else is, to give us back an attitude that accords with our basic human nature when our consciousness has strayed to far from its foundations and run into an impasse.” – Carl Jung (1)
In other words, Jung says dreams can actually give us insight into our true nature and who we really are. Here are four other reasons to consider tracking your nighttime thoughts.
Many famous inventors, writers, and creatives had their best ideas and insights come from their dreams. It’s said that Paul McCartney came up with the melody for his hit song Yesterday during his slumber (2). Albert Einstein apparently had a stroke of insight during a vivid dream and woke up to his famous scientific discovery—the principle of relativity (3). There’s also a famous story about Jack Nicklaus working through a golf slump in a dream (4). He’d apparently been having trouble with his swing grip and discovered a new way to hold his club in his dream that ended up dramatically improving his game.
Numerous studies support these accounts. They suggest that paying attention to your dreams can, in fact, enhance your creative thinking and problem-solving (5). Simply taking the time to think about your dreams and getting curious can also inspire creativity. It could make you more open-minded and inquisitive in your waking life, helping you work through situations and solve problems in your day-to-day.
Studies suggest your dreams can help you work through tough emotions, which could include symptoms of stress, anxiety, or depression (6). Since your dreams are often informed by what’s happening in your life at the moment, they could help you process and work through challenging emotions you experience during the day. When you start paying attention, you might notice patterns in your dreams and subconscious thoughts. These can make your emotions easier to process as well as give you deeper insight and understanding into yourself.
Prepare for challenging situations.
Your amygdala is the part of your brain that signals the fight-or-flight response, and it fires more during your REM sleep, or your dream state. In a way, it’s your subconscious mind’s way of preparing you for any threatening situations you might face in your waking life.
Encourage lucid dreams.
When you take the time to write down your dreams, you’re telling your mind that dreams are important to you. This simple act can make it easier to induce lucid dreams—where you’re aware that you are dreaming while you’re in a dream. Lucid dreaming has been linked with everything from the above famous discoveries to more creative problem-solving to improved athletic performance (7)(8).
Tips to Help You Start Your Dream Journal
Keeping a dream journal—like any other journal—is straightforward, but when it comes to capturing dreams, there are a few things you’ll want to keep in mind.
First, pick your medium. Whether you’re a moleskin person or more of a techie (or both), pick a place and process that’s smooth and frictionless. The idea is that you want to be able to access your journal right away so you can record as much of the dream as you can remember before it fades away. In other words, seconds matter, and scrolling through your phone to get to your app journal or flipping pages in a journal takes time.
If you’re using your Muse app, the new sleep journal feature allows you to quickly jot down any dreams, late-night moments of insight, or things that are keeping you up. There you can jot down your dream as well as select how you’re feeling. If you decide you want to use a paper journal, keep it open to a blank page with a pen nearby so you can write as soon as you wake up.
When you first start a dream journal, you may only recall little bits and pieces. That’s normal. Just jot down everything you remember—places, people, colors, and feelings. More will come with time.
It’s a good idea to also add in your sleep patterns since sleep conditions can affect the dreaming process. You might not remember a lot at first, but your dream recall will improve the more you do it.
For this reason, consistency is key, especially when you’re first starting out. As with building any new habit (like starting a meditation practice or learning a new instrument), daily practice is key. Try not to get discouraged if it feels like a struggle at the beginning. It will get easier.
Whether you’re trying to encourage lucid dreaming, looking to be more creative in your waking life, or simply curious about where your mind goes while you sleep, dream journals can help give you unique insight into your subconscious mind. And, who knows, you just might uncover your next great idea.
- Read Dreams: Understanding Biology, Psychology, and Culture here.
- Read more about Paul McCartney on Biography.com here.
- Read “Einstein’s Unfinished Dream: Marrying Relativity to the Quantum World” in Scientific American here.
- Read “Golf the Way You Dreamed It Would Be” in the New York Times here.
- Read “Can Paying Attention to Dreams Increase Creativity? In Psychology Today” here.
- Read the study The Functional Role of Dreaming in Emotional Processes here.
- Read the study An exploratory study of creative problem solving in lucid dreams: Preliminary findings and methodological considerations here.
- Read the study Practicing sports in lucid dreams – characteristics, effects, and practical implications here.