- There is no definitive explanation for the greater dream recall among girls and women.
- Possible explanations include social learning, sleep quality, and characteristics of the dreams.
- There are several well-established practices that can improve your memory for dreams.
Everyone dreams every night—and yet some people are more likely than others to remember their dreams. Many sleep scientists have tried to explain this variability.
One factor that is consistently linked to dream recall is gender. A meta-analysis that combined data from 175 individual studies concluded that women were significantly more likely to remember their dreams.
This gender effect is quite robust. It was found among every age group in the meta-analysis, from children to older adults. It was present whether participants rated their dream frequency (e.g., "never," "rarely," "sometimes," etc.) or kept sleep diaries in which they wrote down their dreams. It was also found both for good sleepers and for those with sleep disorders such as insomnia.
But why? In spite of the extensive data showing this gender effect, there is no definitive explanation for it. The scientists who conducted the meta-analysis explored some possible causes.
1. Socialization. It is possible that "girls are encouraged more often... to talk about their dreams which, in turn, increases dream frequency by focusing on dreams," the researchers suggest. Talking about dreams could make dreaming more salient for girls, such that they attend to dreams more as they wake up, and are therefore more likely to commit to memory the ephemeral traces of dreams that quickly fade.
This socialization hypothesis is supported by the finding that children 10 years and younger showed the smallest gender difference in dream recall; perhaps the gender effect grows with age as girls are taught implicitly to pay more attention to their dreams. However, other interpretations of this gender x age effect are possible; for example, the hormonal changes of puberty could drive the increasing gap between genders.
2. Interest in Dreams. A related interpretation is based on the finding that women more than men tend to be interested in dreams. But as the researchers note, it is hard to know the causal direction of this effect. Perhaps being really interested in dreams makes a person more likely to remember them—or the reverse could be true, that those who remember more of their dreams end up being more interested in dreaming.
3. Sleep Quality. Women tend to wake up more at night, and on average have worse sleep quality. These factors have been linked in other studies to remembering more dreams (see this related post, "Why Do Some of Us Recall Our Dreams, While Others Never Do?"). However, it's not clear that these sleep factors fully account for the gender difference, especially since it was also present among those with sleep disorders.
4. Dream Content. In previous studies, the meta-analysis researchers explored whether dream characteristics such as the emotional intensity of dreams could be behind the gender differences in recall. However, these variables were not found to be significant factors.
5. Subjective Meaning of Dreams. Earlier studies suggested that part of the gender effect was explained by the degree of personal meaning that dreams have for the dreamer. Those who find their dreams more meaningful are more likely to remember them, and this variable partially accounts for the greater recall among women.
How to Recall More Dreams
If you want to remember more of your dreams, there are several techniques that can help—regardless of your gender.
- Record your dreams. Keep a journal and pen next to your bed and write down any dreams you remember as soon as you wake up.
- Share your dreams. Talk with a friend or family member about your dreams. Just take care to choose someone who's interested in listening.
- Explore the meaning of your dreams. Do they shed light on a real-life problem you're having? Do they reflect unacknowledged hopes or fears? Or perhaps they offer insight into an important relationship in your waking life.
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Schredl, M., & Reinhard, I. (2008). Gender differences in dream recall: A meta-analysis. Journal of Sleep Research, 17, 125-131.