I'm smarter only in my dreams. Literally.
May 9, 2009 6:44 AM   Subscribe

I just had a dream in which I could remember dates, names, and lyrics (correctly) that I could not recall in my waking life. Why can't I draw upon the same pool of stored information in my brain when I'm awake? Can I change this?

The dream didn't involve a kind of memory-jeopardy, of naming and remembering things, but they were along the plot of my dream, in which I could remember various things that I couldn't remember when awake. Obviously this information did not go in one ear and out the other, but is being stored somewhere in the deep, dark, recesses of my brain.

Can I access this pool of stored knowledge? Or work at it in some way? Why do dreams so freely do this, recall such information as if there's nothing strange about it in the least? Am I forever doomed to be smarter only in my dreams??
posted by raztaj to Science & Nature (12 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Could it be that you just think you were able to remember those dates, names, and lyrics? After all, if you can't remember them when you're awake, how can you be sure that you ever really knew them in the first place?

As an example: my Mom is a nurse. Occasionally I'll have medical dreams where I'm speaking to her as if I'm a doctor, using terms that I know I have no idea what they mean. During the dream, however, I am amazed at myself -- how do I know so much about medicine all of the sudden? After I wake up, though, I realize that I was probably just talking gibberish in my mind, since there's no way I'd know those high-level doctor terms. I've also had dreams in "Spanish" as well, even though I'm a beginner with the language at best.
posted by nitsuj at 6:49 AM on May 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

Yes! I had a dream where I knew the spanish lyrics to one song I like, and I *know* that I don't actually know any of the lyrics - I looked them up the next day and I'm sure that those spanish words are nowhere in the deep, dark, recesses of my brain - I just never learned them or seen them before. And I'm good with languages and memory - if I see a word I know whether I've seen it before and just forgot what it means, or if I've never seen it before. The lyrics were words I've never seen before, so I know it wasn't anything that I secretly knew and only extracted in my dream, it was just stuff I made up in my dream.

So I have to guess that you just dreamt that you know stuff but you actually don't, as disappointing as that is.
posted by KateHasQuestions at 6:58 AM on May 9, 2009

Response by poster: nitsuj i can see how that might be a possibility, but i don't think this is the case for me. because after waking from the dream (immediately after) I can now remember those dates, lyrics, and names. correctly. but i wouldn't have been able to recollect such information without this dream (and others, i guess) dipping into this stored knowledge, and bringing such pieces of info the surface...
posted by raztaj at 6:59 AM on May 9, 2009

raztaj: Ah, I see. That's a different story, then. Pretty cool! I have no explanation for that.
posted by nitsuj at 7:01 AM on May 9, 2009

Best answer: You're describing almost every dream I have, especially the ones during that "extra" sleeping-in on weekends that I probably don't really need. I have names, dates, numbers, and other things in my head, and sometimes manage to scribble a few down, but they evaporate quickly, like smoke. Usually before I find a pencil.

I think this is very common. The working of our brains and the nature of memory is still a very mysterious science. It's a common belief that we "remember" almost everything we see or hear, in some sense, and its only retrieval that is a problem for us. I suspect those with eidetic memories are actually "only" excellent retrievers.

There's also all that "recall under hypnosis" stuff, but it seems a bit hoaky to me.
posted by rokusan at 7:29 AM on May 9, 2009

it's, of course. (Wow, a reverse-its-problem. I need more sleep.)
posted by rokusan at 7:30 AM on May 9, 2009

Agreeing, somewhat, with nitsuj. Dream-life has its own set of rules, so any "fact" or skill you know in dreams is not necessarily true. But that doesn't rule out that some things you remember are indeed accurate, but have been buried by the thoughts of every day life.

This episode of Radio Lab might prove insightful.

I have occasional dreams where I am writing or telling a story that I am making up as I go along. I am shocked at my ability to ramble off plot details with no effort at all. Even in a lucid dreaming state, I seem to be able to continue the story. But upon awakening, I can't remember any of the plot that makes sense. It only made sense in the dream.

But on the other side of the coin, dreams do seem able to bring subconscious information to the fore, and tap into creativity that is often dormant during waking hours. It seems almost magical that our dreams themselves can have a plot that our brain is both making up and keeping secret from us at the same time. Our dreams can surprise us with plot twists and unexpected events and characters, much like your ability to "remember" things.

Robert Louis Stevenson said that many of his plot ideas came to him in dreams. Many people report that they have solved problems in their dreams that they unable to crack during waking hours. I've had this happen myself.

So, your quest to access this "store of knowledge" during waking hours is not unique. I wish I could make up stories while awake that are as creative as my brain makes up when asleep. But I think this kind of thinking and creativity is the exclusive domain of dreams; it's one of the reasons we dream at all.

Not to say we can't improve our ability to be creative, or improve our memory. There are countless books and websites on the subject; some are great and some are quackery, but it's worth looking into.

However, I don't think you'll have the ability in real life that you seem to have in dream life. It would be like wanting to fly, which happens in my dreams but will never happen in real life. But it seems so real!
posted by The Deej at 7:34 AM on May 9, 2009

Adding (after I see your response): If you indeed can verify that the facts you bring up in your dreams are accurate, that's pretty cool.

But real question is usefulness. I can see how the brain, while dreaming, can dig up things that the chatter of waking life drowns out. And it would be great to pull these facts at will. But, if they are just a bunch of seemingly random dates, names, and lyrics, then that information may not be of any practical use, as cool as it is to be able to remember them.

If I were having such recurring dreams, I would definitely keep a journal by my bed, and write down every detail I can remember when I woke up. You might see a pattern. Are these all from the same period of your life? Are they related to a specific person or group of people? Is there a common theme? Your brain might be trying to tell you something.

(Note: I don't believe in "dream interpretation" where certain objects always mean certain things. But I do think our subconscious can speak to us in our dreams. So, while I think that a dream about, say, playing catch with your dad might mean you miss him and should keep in touch, I wouldn't put any significance on what color the ball was.)
posted by The Deej at 7:43 AM on May 9, 2009

Why do dreams so freely do this, recall such information as if there's nothing strange about it in the least?

This is my dreams in a nutshell. Most of the time nothing is as it should be - be it my family, my friends, my house, my neighbourhood, etc. Everybody else in the dream acts like everything is totally normal, even though I am hyper aware that things are totally off. The brain is a weird piece of meat. Lately I've having pregnancy dreams...gotta lay off the hoagies before bed...
posted by futureisunwritten at 8:32 AM on May 9, 2009

When I was younger I used to dream in different languages than I can speak and spent some time wondering whether I actually could speak languages I'd only heard a few times, but just couldn't do it while awake. I'm sure that I just imagined it... I would guess that either you did remember these lyrics the whole time and the dream just jarred them to the surface since you say the memories can be validated while awake, but I think that most of the time these sorts of dream events happen, they're not real memories/abilities.
posted by glider at 8:53 AM on May 9, 2009

Best answer: This method works for me. I use it when I am working on a creative project or in a depression.

I accept that I am stuck on my project, or I am stuck on an emotional snag. I let go of the active desire to solve it, but retreat into a state of accepting that my unconscious mind needs to work on it. I leave the task and do something that will engage my conscious mind but not stress it out. Especially for emotional things, one has to focus on----why is this an issue for me----rather than---that other person is so wrong, or whatever. Let the gates down, surf, accept that your unconscious will bring it to you when its ready. My favorite activities are doing the dishes, showering, or driving a long stretch of freeway. At some point, the answer surfaces like the mysterious message at the bottom of those fortune telling eight balls. It's the best thing in the world.

My dreaming mind uses the rebus method to talk. So look for symbolic pictures that may be word puns. I'll snag a quote from Stephen Stills here---don't play louder, listen harder, man.
posted by effluvia at 1:57 PM on May 9, 2009

Also, it could be that you're dreaming about something that reminds you about those names, dates, and lyrics, and that a similar real-world situation would also remind you you about those same things. So it may not be the dream state that makes it unique, but the fact that something, real or dreamy, has triggered that memory.
posted by nitsuj at 5:39 PM on May 9, 2009

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