Is that a conversation we had, or did I just dream it?
August 4, 2009 1:42 PM   Subscribe

I remember things that didn't actually happen - I dreamed them. This is inconvenient, but is it a problem?

An example: Last night I went out with friends. This morning I remembered sitting in a car next to one of them, sleeping on his shoulder. I also KNOW that I was not in a car with him last night, and it's pretty unlikely I've ever fallen asleep on his shoulder. That's the only thing that makes me sure I dreamed the first bit. This is definitely not related to drinking - I have also 'remembered' going shopping with my mother a few days before, until I realized I hadn't seen her for close to a year, I 'remember' reading/writing emails, having conversations with people, a day at work/school - and sometimes I realize that this memory is completely impossible, and didn't happen. The thing is they're not impossible because they involve flying or unicorns: they just aren't compatible with some actual fact, like I can't have gone grocery shopping yesterday because there's no milk. What if some of my 'real' memories are similarly imagined, they just don't have an obvious conflict with reality? That time my brother got angry because I didn't give him my travel plans for visiting him...did he forget I told him? Or did I imagine telling him? How do I tell?

So, does this happen to everyone, or does it sound like something I should mention to a doctor? Possibly related background: I've been on antidepressants for about a year, but these incidents definitely predate that (although not the depression itself).
posted by jacalata to Grab Bag (15 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
my mother would often dream or remember things that didn't happen. it was hard to be her child during these moments because she's often dream/remember things we had done wrong. we got punished for things that never happened. it was such a big problem that there was a standing rule - if mom is yelling/punishing your for something you didn't do than give her all the respect due to your mother and follow through with whatever punishment there is. then when dad gets home, pull him aside and calmly discuss how crazy your mother is. he'd talk to her in private and we'd get some sort of treat or get out of jail free card.

i always figured it was related to her sporadically treated disassociative disorder, but maybe it's just the way she is.
posted by nadawi at 1:54 PM on August 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

I don't really have any suggestion as to why this happens, but I too experience this sometimes (though to a lesser degree). I also have an issue with finding things, because I "remember" where I put it, and can associate other memories with that placement (such as "remembering" using it and putting it in that spot, or "remembering" what it looked like sitting there...) but it is not - nor ever was - actually there. I don't think that in this case, this is the usual forgetfulness.

also, I too am on antidepressants and antipsychotics, and these false-memories predate my prescriptions... perhaps it's related to the same parts of the brain?
posted by hasna at 1:59 PM on August 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

This used to happen to me quite often as a child, but hasn't happened to me in years. It was never a problem for me, though, as it was eventually evident when something was a dream based on the actions or reactions of those involved in the dream. For example, if I had a "realistic" dream involving a friend in which I wronged him in some way, but he acted quite normally when I spoke to him or saw him, it was very likely a dream.

If you're worried that the situation with your brother may happen again, it might not be bad to repeat yourself occasionally. It seems the better option, to sound like a broken record to yourself and possibly others, while avoiding the "I thought I told him but I didn't" circumstance.

In other situations, it may just be best to pay more attention to the actions or reactions of those around you that were involved in the dream/memory, and simply ask questions of them to be sure, even if you think it may offend them. Explain to them that this happens, and more often than not it will help them to understand, even if it means you have to prove it to them somehow.

Good luck with this :)
posted by neewom at 2:03 PM on August 4, 2009

I, too, have very realistic dreams about everyday situations, as opposed to fantastical I'm-flying-hey-look-a-pink-elephant dreams. So sometimes it's hard for me to believe that something from my completely realistic dream is actually a dream and not a legitimate memory. But I usually take someone else's word for it if they tell me I dreamed it. And I've found the encroachment on real life to be a fairly limited phenomenon.

So yes, I guess you're pretty normal. As normal as anyone else, anyway. Don't worry about it.
posted by somanyamys at 2:34 PM on August 4, 2009

this used to happen to me all the time as a kid/teenager. i would go up to people at school and talk to them, thinking we had had a conversation the day before and they'd look at me like i was crazy.

i still have really vivid dreams from time to time, but they are always about extremely normal things. if it is hampering your life to any degree, it might be worth asking your dr about it. if not, then don't.

my weird dreams eventually went away to some degree, but i still have them sometimes. of course, like you said, it does make you wonder if some memories are actually dreams. i wonder that too.
posted by sio42 at 3:02 PM on August 4, 2009

I get this as well, a little bit. I tend to lie in bed for a while in the morning and just go over what I remember while I'm still a bit sleepy, somehow it's easier to tell what was dream and what wasn't during that time.

Maybe it would help if you kept a brief diary for a while? Just to get into the habit of thinking about what you did during the day and cementing it in your head before you go to sleep.
posted by lucidium at 3:03 PM on August 4, 2009

This happened to me as a kid, and it happens to me now about when I was a kid. Sometimes I will think something happened when I was a kid that actually didn't, but I dreamed it.
posted by ishotjr at 3:18 PM on August 4, 2009

I had really vivid dreams like this until I was treated for sleep apnea.
posted by desjardins at 3:22 PM on August 4, 2009

The key term you may want to look into is "false memory", and one of the better popular books on the subject is Elizabeth Loftus' Memory.

As far as personal anecdote goes, I discovered this phenomenon for myself while in high school. Back then VCRs were rare and expensive, and the video rental business was just getting started. By and large, the only way to see a particular movie in a theater after its initial theatrical run was if it was a "cult" movie, usually shown at midnight.

I was a huge fan of The Who, and looked forward to seeing the movie Tommy once again. I ran the hang gliding scene in my head again and again in anticipation. When it finally came on screen, I was shocked to see that it was not at all how I remembered it! Like you, I was quite disturbed by this realization, and I had no means of researching or understanding what had occurred to me.

Yes, false memory is essentially universal, though I suspect but do not know that you may be experiencing it to a somewhat greater degree than others.

As a former pharmacist, I'm not familiar with false memory as a side effect of antidepressants, though I should like to state that I've not practiced since 2002, and have not kept up with current findings.
posted by Tube at 4:42 PM on August 4, 2009

Happened to me a LOT as a kid (I still have some memories that I'm not sure ever happened), but not so much since then.

It might not be related at all, but since I started remembering my dreams when I wake up, I haven't had this problem at all (and I do consider it a problem, because at best it's unsettling). Usually making sure I remember my dreams is as simple as telling myself "remember your dreams" before I go to bed.
posted by oinopaponton at 5:20 PM on August 4, 2009

just to throw the requisite caution out there, even though it's probably unnecessary.... you should try to take note if you notice any other weird neurological happenings. one symptom alone may be a quirk, multiple symptoms may indicate a problem.
posted by dino might at 8:01 PM on August 4, 2009

Memory isn't a movie reel; it's more of a recipe. Actually, it's kind of a Wiki :-).

Everybody remembers things that didn't happen and misremembers things that did, for one reason or another. You have the advantage of being aware of this, which most people aren't. (This is why "recovered memories" have caused so much harm; it's still quite common knowledge that a hypnotist can rewind your memory and have you accurately counting the leaves on a tree you saw when you were five. Yes, you probably can "regress" and count those leaves, and be positive that the count is accurate - but it won't be. The tree itself could easily have never existed.)

As with all cognitive weirdness: It's not a problem if it doesn't interfere with your life. If you often remember dreams as real, but know your memory's not entirely reliable, you're probably better off than someone who doesn't have such overt memory oddities, but believes their memory to be 100% accurate.
posted by dansdata at 3:22 AM on August 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

I get this too. Quite a lot. It can be a bit of a pain on rare occasions, but i dont think its anything to worry about. Most times i figure it out, or straight out ask my friends "did that happen or did i dream it?"

Don't stress about it unless it seriously interferes with your life - oh, and i seem to remember hearing anti depressants can give you very vivid dreams, which would perhaps make you more likely to confuse them with real life?
Dont quote me on that tho.
posted by stillnocturnal at 2:13 PM on August 5, 2009

So, does this happen to everyone, or does it sound like something I should mention to a doctor?

Just a chirp of support: I have this problem too, and it impacts my work sometimes.

I think I remember telling someone something... or worse, e-mailing them something... but in reality, I didn't. I only thought about it while falling asleep, or figured out how to say it, and then dreamed I said it, and then... it becomes completely impossible for me to "remember" the difference. It is a memory, and I really can't tell them apart.

In the case of e-mail, I've had to check, often, to see if I really said something I 'remember' saying. In terms of in-person speech, I've often had to ask "Hey, did I tell you about..." to resolve this.

This also happens in MeFi for me all the time (did I say that yesterday, and it was deleted, or did I merely THINK it but never click "Post?") but in those cases, I usually just blame Jessamyn, which makes life more bearable.

(Hopefully she's not the one un-sending my imaginary e-mails, too, or I'm truly fucked.)
posted by rokusan at 1:20 PM on August 18, 2009

(And to answer a subquestion: my own slippery memory-of-expression as described above comes unaided by prescription chemicals. It's 100% biological flaky-brain for me.)
posted by rokusan at 1:22 PM on August 18, 2009

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