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Why we’re all having bizarrely vivid dreams in quarantine
Bill Murray in Groundhog DayVia IMDb

Why we’re all having bizarrely vivid dreams in quarantine

A psychotherapist explains why our minds are taking us to strange places in our sleep during the coronavirus pandemic

Over the past few weeks, since lockdown began, I’ve had an increasing number of texts that begin: “I had the strangest dream last night”. What comes next is always both bizarre and strangely relevant to the times – a boss that won’t leave your house; being trapped in your primary school while a cult tries to kill you; smuggling or selling drugs; the list goes on.

This phenomenon isn’t just contained to my seemingly over-imaginative circle of friends, though. Researchers at both the Dream Research Institute in London and Harvard University in Massachusetts are currently conducting separate dream surveys about what they’ve labelled ‘pandemic dreams’.

According to Deirdre Leigh Barrett, the author of the Harvard dream survey, respondents have reported dreams that explicitly relate to the coronavirus, while others have detailed more metaphorical dreams that hint at the pandemic, for example about insects. Over on Twitter, a quick search for ‘vivid dreams’ brings up a plethora of people searching for solace about their nightmares.

“It’s hardly surprising that right now, people are dreaming more vividly,” Brighton-based psychotherapist Matthew Bowes tells Dazed. “People tend to attach more importance to dreams and dream more at times of transition and in times of crisis, like when changing jobs or when there’s been a death in the family. Now, we’re experiencing this in the collective because our whole world has been turned upside down.”

Bowes explains that dreams are about emotional processing; when someone is dreaming, the areas of the brain associated with this processing are 30 per cent more active in REM sleep – where most dreaming takes place – than they are while the person is awake. “At the same time,” he adds, “the part of the brain which we use for rational, logical thinking is actually switched off, so that’s why we have this sense that we’re in a dream, without being able to think about the fact that we’re in it.”

One key element of dreaming that differentiates it from reality is the lack of metaphorical constructs. When talking about emotions while awake, we often envelop them in metaphors, for example: ‘My relationship is on the rocks’, or ‘The rug has been pulled from under my feet’. Bowes says: “The difference is that when we’re asleep, we are actually on the rock – we’re participating in a trauma where we find ourselves there, rather than just thinking about it. We’re in the metaphor, so to speak.” With our day-to-day lives shifting beyond measure, we’re bound to feel lost and unstable. Instead of using phrases like, ‘I’ve lost my footing’, or expressing that quarantine has ‘shaken me to the core’, we might dream about floating off the ground into space, or enduring an earthquake.

Our heightened unconscious imagination is also linked to our mental health and well being, which is understandably – to use a metaphor – in tatters right now. “The fact that we are having more vivid dreams shows that we are having to process an enormous amount of anxiety and stress,” explains Bowes, “much greater than we would normally expect.” 

“The fact that we are having more vivid dreams shows that we are having to process an enormous amount of anxiety and stress, much greater than we would normally expect” – Matthew Bowes, psychotherapist

This stress is undeniably linked to the newly-authoritarian state we’re living in, whereby we’re actually banned from leaving our houses by the government. In this context, it wouldn’t be unusual to experience dreams that relate to authority, like imagining yourself back in school. “The language that the government has been using is derived from prison imagery – lockdown is a prison term – which taps into our early impression of authority relationships,” continues Bowes. “School is one of our first experiences of a kind of incarceration – a place where you’re very rule-bound and can’t leave the school premises without permission.”

There’s even more to Bowes’ suggestion about the link between our dreams and society’s increasingly strict restrictions. According to him, there’s a theory commonly accepted in psychotherapy which says “we are multiple”, whereby each individual has several versions of themselves inside themselves which are all based on interactions in our pasts. “A lot of us have authority figures in us,” Bowes explains, “like inner critics. Right now, what’s been going on in the outside world is tapping into the authority figure that I have within me, and this is then cropping up in my thinking and my dreams.”

Dreams have long been the fascination of psychoanalysts, most notably Sigmund Freud, who believed dreams represented wish fulfillment. With all of us trapped in isolation, missing our friends, family, and – of course – the pub, it could also be possible that our dreams reflect our yearning for normality. “There’s definitely an element of missing one’s regular life,” Bowes tells Dazed, adding that the information we take in during the day – news articles you’ve read, empty shelves in the supermarket, everyone standing six feet apart – is compared to your own historical memories when you dream. “That’s why you start having images that are derived from memory, like the nostalgia of a secure place, and it’s going to be filed against (the new and abnormal information you’re taking in).”

Whether you’re having nightmares about your loved ones dying of coronavirus or being trapped in The Chokey from Matilda, or dreaming about stroking a stranger’s dog or giving your friend a hug over an ice cold pint, one thing’s for sure: it’s all a totally normal unconscious response to a very weird IRL situation. As Bowes concludes: “We’re going through a time where there is an enormous amount to process. A lot of anxieties about the things that we might have been worried about before the coronavirus crisis are being exacerbated. We’ve got a whole world on our plate now – nobody knows where they are.”