In April, shortly after stay-at-home orders were first imposed in the UK, people reported experiencing bizarrely vivid dreams. Speaking to Dazed at the time, psychotherapist Matthew Bowes said this was because “we are having to process an enormous amount of anxiety and stress” thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.
Now, researchers have analysed the content of these dreams, revealing that most of us were experiencing more negative emotions during them, including sadness and anger.
The study, conducted by the Federal University of Rio Grande and published in PLOS, analysed hundreds of dream reports from before and during lockdown. 67 Brazilian participants submitted their dreams either in September and November 2019, or during March and April 2020.
dude my dreams during quarantine...... SO weird lmao little brain u okay— eleanor (@snitchery) April 2, 2020
Researchers discovered that dreams recalled during lockdown were longer, when measured in words, than pre-pandemic reports. “This may indicate that people are paying more attention to dream experiences at this moment in time,” proposed the authors, “but it might just as well suggest an increase in the ability to remember dream details because of the possibility that participants were staying longer in bed in the morning during lockdown.”
Pandemic dreams had more references to contamination and cleanliness, with researchers linking this to the threat simulation theory, which suggests that we overcome threats in the virtual reality of our dreams. It was also discovered that the increased sadness and anger in a person’s dreams was linked to how much mental suffering they experienced during social isolation. Researchers suggest this is because we process our emotions when we sleep.
The study does address its limitations, which include a small sample size and a lack of representative diversity in terms of gender, age, and educational level. It says further research is currently underway.
“These findings seem to show that dream contents reflect the difference sources of fear and frustration arising out of the current scenario,” the study’s authors concluded, “which involve health-related and economic fears, social distancing from relatives, friends, and peers, and the simulation of new strategies to overcome health-threatening events, and to adjust to new social rules.”
Speaking to Dazed in April, Bowes reflected on the changes to our dreams. “We’re going through a time where there is an enormous amount to process,” he said. “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.”
Last week (November 26), the Museum of London announced that it was collecting people’s pandemic dreams for its Guardians of Sleep project, which curators hope will “provide a more emotional and personal narrative of this time”. You can join the project by emailing email@example.com before January 15 – interviews will take place in February.