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Having weird dreams in quarantine? You’re not alone.

Why so many people seem to be having vivid dreams right now, explained by an expert.

A person lying in bed with their arm across their eyes. Getty Images/Tetra images RF

The blog I Dream of Covid is a surrealist collection of dreams submitted by readers around the world in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic that, apparently, has had far-reaching effects into our collective subconscious. One San Francisco resident dreamed about walking around the city in Crocs and stepping on a needle contaminated with the coronavirus. Another person from Georgia recalled a dream where a doctor sprinkled salt on their thigh, tasted it with her fingers, and told them, “You are positive for Covid-19.”

As people around the world hunker down in quarantine or otherwise adjust to the disease, many have anecdotally reported having weirder, more vivid dreams than usual — some related to the coronavirus, some about mundane life in the pre-pandemic world, and some just plain strange and inexplicable. Some people have said they’re more restless, thereby getting less sleep than usual. (For those struggling to have a good night’s rest or grappling with nightmares, the National Sleep Foundation recommends sticking to a consistent sleep schedule, or taking a short 30-minute nap.) Meanwhile, others have reported sleeping more, and consistent deep sleepers (like myself) rarely recall the dreams they have.

For sleep researchers, it’s a ripe time to collect dream content for analysis. Some theorize that this onset of vivid imagery is a result of changing sleep schedules: Most people have vivid dreams during the REM (rapid eye movement) phase of sleep, and they tend to have longer and deeper REM cycles as the night progresses. If a person wakes up in the middle of a REM cycle, they’re more likely to remember their dream content and the details involved.

Others attribute this vividness to the emotional and physical chaos many of us are experiencing. In previous research, scientists have determined that the limbic system — parts of the brain involved in behavioral and emotional responses — are activated during dreams that are highly bizarre or emotional. I spoke with Dylan Selterman, a social psychologist who runs the Dreams, Relationships, Emotions, Attraction, and Morality (DREAM) Lab at the University of Maryland, on how something like the Covid-19 outbreak could be affecting our sleep and our dreams.

How does stress about, say, a global pandemic affect our dreams?

There is not a grand unified theory of dreams among researchers, but there are several different theories with some validity to them. You’ve probably heard of the continuity theory of dreams, which hypothesizes that people dream about the stuff they’re thinking about and doing while they’re awake. If we feel some degree of stress about the pandemic, or about work or family, then it’s normal for those types of themes to appear in our dream content.

Some researchers believe that dreams have a functional purpose to prepare us for difficult or challenging situations when we awake. Normally, what happens during a stress dream is that your mind appears to be working a problem out. There are also researchers who believe the inverse of that; for example, if you’re experiencing difficulties in your current life and dream about them, that can predict your future mental health.

Those are some possible explanations as to why some people might have stressful dreams. We’re trying to work through this situation emotionally, trying to prepare for the future. It’s not surprising to me to hear that some people are having dreams related to the pandemic. Both my wife and I have had dreams that involve social distancing, where we try to maintain physical distance from people around us, because that’s what we’re doing when we’re awake.

Is there any truth to the feeling that lots of people are having similar types of dreams all at once?

The biggest variables that influence dream vividness have to do with your regular sleep habits. If it’s a very traumatic personal event, in clinical research, there’s evidence of people experiencing nightmares. It could be that people are changing their sleep schedules, and if they get more sleep, they’re likely to have more vivid dreams.

Another possibility is that people are thinking more about their dreams. Studies show that when you focus on your dreams more while you’re awake, you tend to remember them better. This has been shown in diary studies, for example. If a person starts a dream diary for even just a few days, they start to recall more imagery from their dreams.

If you want to get more into dream philosophy rather than scientific research, you can look into Carl Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious. I haven’t read any literature on similar content in dreams after a traumatic event, like a terrorist attack, that caused millions of people to dream about that specifically.

(In the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, scientists from the Tufts University School of Medicine analyzed dreams of 44 participants. The post-attack dreams had more intense images, which is “very consistent with findings in people who have experienced trauma of various kinds,” the head researcher said, but there was no dream content involving airplanes or tall towers.)

Is there any way a person can manifest better, less-scary dreams?

There’s some research in clinical psychology — and I’m not a clinical psychologist — that people who suffer from chronic nightmares or PTSD can benefit from lucid dreaming. I can only speak anecdotally from this, and I used to lucid dream a lot more frequently when I was younger. This can be a way for people to overcome negativity and experience more fulfillment in their dreams by controlling the content they encounter. Stephen LaBerge is the premier researcher on lucid dreaming, and if you’re interested, he has published several books on the topic and how to induce these dreams.

During our talk, Selterman cited several other researchers who’ve made significant contributions to dream theory, including Rosalind Cartwright, author of The Twenty-four Hour Mind, who has studied how dreaming regulates our mental health and emotions, and Robert Stickgold of the Harvard Medical School’s Division of Sleep, whose research delves into how memory is consolidated during sleep.

In several years, it’s possible that sleep researchers — those currently collecting anecdotal dream content — could come to some conclusions about our quarantine dreams. The crowdsourced I Dream of Covid blog has the potential to be a fascinating trove of dreams for future understanding, much like The Third Reich of Dreams, a record of 75 dreams compiled by Charlotte Beradt under the Nazi regime. Her book is organized by recurring symbols, and while it is not a study or psychoanalytic text, it “reinforces the premise that links between waking life and dreams are indisputable,” according to the New Yorker.

In the meantime, if you’re an avid dreamer, it could be helpful to start a dream journal, regardless of whether you believe your dreams hold intrinsic meaning or not. Selterman added: “The way that dreams are understood by people can be filtered through their own beliefs as to what those dreams mean.”

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