I have probably forgotten more dreams than I’ve remembered. I assume that is the way it is for most of us. We don’t put a very high priority on our dreams, so they don’t take up storage space alongside our other memories. We forget the insignificant details of dreams along with nuggets of information such as what we ate for breakfast three weeks ago, or what we wore to work on an average day four years ago. The important memories stick with us, and outstanding dreams do too, but the rest fade with time.
Humans reinforce their memories with technology now, taking pictures and recording video of events that might not have been worthy of remembering before. Those images might go into a scrapbook or take up digital space and never be looked at again. Or they might be found years later, after the real memories have faded. and no one will know who the faces in the pictures are. Without someone to tell the stories they represent, they’re just static pictures not real memories.
Does the act of taking a photograph make the event itself more memorable? When you look at a picture you’ve taken, do you remember the scene as it appeared outside the viewfinder? Do parents remember watching their child’s stage performance, or do they remember the act of recording it on home video?
A few rare individuals do remember every detail of their waking lives, but none of the articles I’ve read about them mention whether or not they remember their dreams any more than the rest of us do (or don’t). Several years ago, a researcher started to record every moment of his life (see this article from 2005), but there is no mention of him saving the content of his dreams.
What if we could record our dreams with technology? First off, I can’t imagine ever finding the time to go back and rewatch all that content. I barely rewatch most of the DVDs I buy! Perhaps I would use a dream recorder to capture images that fade while waking up, and review them later for analysis. Then I would probably delete them just to save storage space. Just by thinking about a dream while I’m awake is enough for me to remember it, without the need of a visual record. The dream journal I write in is something I rarely go back to reread, because it is only an intermediate tool.
Then again, I think about kinds of things we recorded when I was a kid and we had just gotten a tape recorder. We taped snippets of conversation, told jokes and sang songs, and played them back just to hear how our own voices sounded to other people. We weren’t trying to document anything for posterity. Most of those tapes were recorded over later, being deemed unimportant at the time. Now those are the moments most in need of retrieval, precisely because they were not archived, neither in our memories nor our technology. When a tape like that is discovered in the back of a closet, it is a treasure.
If we could discover a recording of a long-forgotten dream, would it stir up similar feelings of nostalgia? Would knowing now what my dreams were like decades ago feel at all familiar? Or were they just as mundane as what I was having for lunch in kindergarten, or what jokes I told into that tape recorder?