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 Covid-19 pandemic.
With many people staying at home with no nighttime activities, we’re likely to be sleeping more and getting more REM sleep, allowing vivid dreams to take place. Waking up during the other stages of sleep — thanks to alarm clocks and the sleep deprivation of life as usual — you’re less likely to remember dreams so clearly. “An eight-hour sleeper has about five dreams a night and forgets most of them,” Barrett says.
With no commute in the morning, we’re also more likely to wake up during REM sleep, allowing us to remember those dreams better. “For so many people, their conditions of awakening have radically changed” says Kelly Bulkeley, a psychologist who runs the Sleep and Dream Database. “A lot of people aren’t springing out of bed, taking a shower, running out the door,” he says. “That inevitably increases dream recall and the ability to remember those intense dreams.”
As for the content of people’s dreams, Bulkeley speculates that social distancing and the surreality of the current crisis play a key role. “To the extent that there’s some evolutionary function for dreaming, that it contributes to survival, this is the time we should be dreaming a lot, and they should be vivid,” he says. “One of the strongest signals of waking/dreaming continuity are our social relationships. The fact our social life is turned around by this crisis, we’d expect to see far more vivid dreams.”
The craving for social activity — or the fear of it — was front and center in many of the dreams I heard. One friend described a dream in which she journeyed from crowded coffee shop to coffee shop, looking for the one with the shortest line. Only upon waking up did she think how odd it was to be around so many people. Another friend told me she dreamed of going out to dinner with friends and realized mid-dream that they were putting people in danger. Yet another told me of driving home some unwanted party guests who had refused to leave even though they were violating social distancing. In the dream, the party guests attacked him.
The idea that we never care about another person’s dream is practically cliché at this point. Yet looking at the collective dream life of a people can reflect the sometimes surprising consequence of a shared trauma like 9/11 or the myriad legacies of a U.S. president.
In trying to wrap their heads around the virus and the failed response to it, people have fumbled for historical analogs and metaphors: the 1918 flu, World War II, the attack on the World Trade Center. No system of metaphor or language perfectly fits this event. Some dreams described to me reflected an attempt to think through the novel, abstract, and mostly invisible threat of Covid-19. Bulkeley pointed to an example of a dream recalled by an HIV/AIDS patient at the beginning of that epidemic who described his body being overcome by bugs. Barrett told me her ongoing survey of pandemic dreams included a growing list of bug-themed dreams within two days.
While some may be facing sleepless nights, those who are staying at home are finding themselves in yet another strange collective experience at a distance. “I’m sure there are some people who are sleeping less because of worry,” Barrett says, but she suspects they’re in the minority.
Health care providers and other essential workers may lack the luxury of sleep right now. A friend who’s an ER doctor in the Northeast told me that while she’s had more dreams lately, they’ve almost all been anxiety dreams. According to Barrett, dreams related to the crisis are likely to come after the pandemic is over. While most dreams and nightmares take place during REM, nightmares due to PTSD, Barrett explains, invade equally on all phases of sleep. “Our favorite hypothesis is that they’re… on a continuum with waking flashbacks, and you have a waking memory intruding on sleep.”
“The nightmares from watching people die in ICU are likely those that spill across sleep stages,” Barrett says. She’d expect the same for those who were seriously ill themselves, or those who have a loved one who’s been seriously sick that they may not be able to reach.
For everyone else, while combing dreams for direct symbols of everyday life is a practice that has walked some tricky lines, it’s hard for me not to be struck while listening to them.
Barrett herself told me about a recent dream in which she was safe in a library but aware of a horrible, invisible, vague catastrophe outside her window, blocked from view by a closed curtain. “I had the sense that something awful was going on outside.”
You never see a disaster that you’ve successfully prevented. The nature of epidemics is marked by invisibility. It’s a threat that lends itself to a blurred line between precaution and magical thinking. The extreme endpoints of the necessary, evidence-based preventions have a kind of dark, nightmarish, fairy-tale logic to them: Step on a crack, break your mother’s back; step too close to the woman on the street, kill someone else’s grandparent.
As Bulkely puts it, “Every physical object is potentially dangerous. Every gesture of social interaction is suddenly a mortal threat. That’s a very psychologically unsettling reality.” And dreams respond to those kinds of threats, fears, and challenges in life.
A book of dreams collected in Berlin as the Nazis came to power looked at how a people digested a then-insidious shift in reality in their sleep. In The Third Reich of Dreams, Charlotte Beradt, a German Jewish journalist, collected 75 accounts of dreams, what she called “diaries of the night,” in which people tried to process thoughts they suppressed in waking life. Dreams here gave recourse to the problems of waking life: “agency” in place of domination; free expression in place of self-censorship. In many dreams I’ve heard, gathering and community replace the solitude of social distancing.
Accounts of dreams under authoritarianism feel strangely relevant. In Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, he describes a recurring nightmare from his 27 years in prison: He is released into a ghost-town version of his hometown of Soweto and enters his house, only to find it empty. Writing about Mandela’s dream, critic Sharon Sliwinski maintains that it was a way of making his experience of oppression visible. She writes that apartheid’s effects were “camouflaged,” its mechanisms “by no means visible to all.” The dream gave concrete symbols to a problem that lacked them. It’s an incomplete analogy, as all attempts at them seem to be.
There’s something soothing about the idea that although we are cut off from one another, we are still experiencing something together. I felt comforted as people, some I hadn’t spoken to in years, sent their dreams to me, telling me of weird tableaus, nightmares, and other enigmas. There is a strange kind of solace in understanding that even though we are isolated, we are not alone.