Are our dreams influenced by memory?

Memory is fascinating and the more we’ve learned about it the more intrigued I became about its different functions. I was interested in the role, if any, our memory plays in in the formation and recall of our dreams. More specifically, I wondered if in the same way we have flashbulb memories, we could have “flashbulb dreams.” This blog post is more about me exploring ideas and connections rather than providing concrete answers, so proceed with that in mind.

As we’ve learned this semester, flashbulb memories are vivid, detailed memories of a situation which are often highly emotional. These are the instances we can draw to mind immediately and the details of which we recall enthusiastically and automatically, from start to finish. However, we also established that flashbulb memories are not always accurate. After learning specifically about these, I then began to think about this concept and how it might relate to dreams. The reason being, there is a recurring dream I had as a kid, every detail of which I remember down to a tee. I began to question whether I actually ever had the dream at all. What kind of relationship exists between recurring dreams and our memories?

Obviously, there are a million different theories about dreams and their meanings, but because of limited research, they are a still a mystery. There does however seem to be some correlation between memory and dreams. Even on a very practical level, sometimes we remember them, sometimes we don’t.  Dr. Patrick McNamara, a neurologist at Boston University School of Medicine, evaluated the cognitive processes involved however, and theorized that brain mechanisms that mediate memory processing might also produce cognitive contents that reflect or participate in that memory processing, however, there is no clear data to support this. Researchers have found memory fragments in both the REM and NREM cycles, but because memory fragments are also found in waking consciousness, we can’t determine how significant they actually are. Then again, since memory fragments are necessary in most cognitive processes, it would be strange if none were found in dream cycles.

As we can gather, this topic is confusing and complex. However, a theory proposed by Professor Sue Llewellyn at the University of Manchester has attempted to clarify the role of memory processing in dreams. Llewellyn proposed that dreams play a key role in elaborative encoding of episodic memory, the collections of our own autobiographical events that we explicitly remember, during rapid eye movement (REM) dreaming.  Her theory predicts that cognitive platforms for memory encoding are established during REM-NREM sleep cycles and that a REM dream scene is retained by the hippocampus, which plays an important role it the consolidation of information from short-term to long-term memory. Her theory is much more complex, but it does suggest that episodic memory encoding must in some sense depend upon dreams.

So, this research fed my curiosity to an extent… There obviously seems to be some correlation between memory processing and dreams. There is still A LOT of research to be done in this field and I don’t think i’ll ever know if that recurring dream I had as a kid was real or just something I thought I dreamt. I’ll be looking out for some research on “flashbulbs dreams.”