We all have a friend or family member who says that they have never dreamed. While science might not be able to tell us why we do not remember our dreams, you do experience them. In sleep studies, they track the patient’s REM sleep to see if they are dreaming. Even if the individual does not remember their dreams, they still show signs of REM sleep. This means that they are basically dreaming, but they might not actually remember their dreams.
In an Austrian dream recall study, 1,000 Austrians were surveyed about their sleep and dreaming habits. Almost a third of the participants reported dreaming 10 times or more a month. About 37 percent of the participants said that they dreamed 1 to 9 times a month, and only 32 percent said they dreamed less than once a month.
This study is interesting, but it does not actually mean that the individuals did not dream. In the majority of cases, people have dreams every night. The only reason that people think that they do not have dreams is because they do not remember them.
Of course, it would be impossible to be 100 percent sure about this. To be sure that everyone on earth dreams, we would have to follow each person for years and wake them up during their REM sleep. This is the sleep stage where you dream, and waking the person up in the middle of it is a way to see if they dream. By doing this, you could theoretically prove or disprove whether everyone dreams at night.
As far as scientists know, every human being shows signs of REM sleep. In some cases, people do not actually have dreams during their REM sleep. There is no way to know if this is an all-the-time or never thing though. It is possible to imagine groups of people and ancient tribes who never focused on dream recall. According to the ancient Greek historian and writer, Herodotus, this type of people lived thousands of years ago on the Atlas mountain in North Africa. According to Herodotus, the native tribe called the mountain the Pillar of Heaven and never had any dreams. He also said that they never ate a living thing. If he was talking about vegetarianism, this would be possible. If he actually meant no formerly living plants or animals, we might have to take his story with a grain of salt. Other than this one, potentially mythical, culture, there do not seem to be any other cultures that report never dreaming. For the most part, it seems like dreaming is universal to all cultures.
How REM Sleep Works
REM stands for Rapid Eye Movement. When sleep researchers see this eye movement, they know that you are at the part of the sleep cycle where you are most likely to be dreaming. Interestingly, your non-REM sleep actually attains some dream-like qualities later in your night’s rest.
One interesting thing found by sleep researchers was in the brain’s connections. Epileptic patients had their right and left brain hemispheres severed to reduce seizures. Among these patients in split-brain studies, dreams were no longer reported. This might be due to the way that these two halves of the mind work. While the right hemisphere is silent and unconscious during sleep, it is thought that the dreaming occurred in the silent side of the brain. With the brain split, the right brain could not link these dreams to the left, conscious, speaking hemisphere.
This theory is backed up with EEG studies. During REM sleep, most of the EEG activity is within your right hemisphere. The right brain is not linear like the left brain. Your left brain looks at cause and effect and tracks the linear movements (step 1, step 2, etc.) that get you to a goal. Your right brain doesn’t have this linear progression. If you wind up flying in the ocean in your dreams, the right brain does not care how you came to be in the ocean. It just tells you that you are there.
Interestingly, this theory might also explain why nightmares happen. Negative emotions tend to be the domain of the right brain. If your right brain is activating your dreams, it makes sense that some of your dreams would have a darker, more negative attitude to them.
When you wake up, you won’t always remember your dreams or nightmares. While you sleep, your memory circuits are busy sorting out the real events from your day and encoding them. If your memory circuits were devoted to dreams constantly, you might start confusing dreams with reality. You might not remember your dreams, but that does not mean that you didn’t dream during the night.