This Is Your Brain on Coronavirus Dreams
Vivid dreaming is on the rise as stressed-out brains encounter a mix of sleep, uncertainty, and survival
The week before New York’s stay-at-home order, I dreamed I was at a party on a ship. Tables stacked with desserts were ringed by people I knew and liked from every stage of my life. A motley crew drawn from my subconscious and my Instagram, we were all having a great time. Then the ship caught on fire. We all realized the ship was made entirely of wood, and in a panic, I woke up.
As the Covid-19 pandemic spread to the United States and people began working from home and sheltering in place, friends started telling me they were dreaming more often and more vividly: Strange sights, sounds, situations, and feelings stayed with them when they woke up. They described dreams filled with witches, coffee shops, hostage scenarios, and murder. Online, people are describing a similar experience. Often they’re asking, “Is it just me?” The answer seems to be a resounding no.
The anecdotal uptick in vivid dreams — not always nightmares — tracks with psychologists’ expectations from research on the way changes in sleep patterns affect dreaming. While research on this particular wave of dreaming can only happen with time, there’s a strong case that dreams are yet another way the pandemic has left its mark on the collective consciousness.
The researchers I spoke to drew some connections to the way other impactful national events, like 9/11, are reflected in people’s dreams. But there’s a surprisingly simple partial answer to the question of why some people seem to be dreaming more vividly: They’re sleeping more.
During sleep, the brain cycles through different stages. Most dreaming, especially vivid dreaming, takes place during the REM (rapid-eye movement) sleep stage, which the brain first enters about 90 minutes into the night. And as you sleep, each REM stage is longer than the last and evokes more intense eye movements, which may indicate more vivid dreams. “If you sleep four instead of eight hours, you’re not getting half of your dreaming time — you’re getting more like a fourth,” says Deirdre Barrett, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School who’s been conducting a survey of dreams during the…