I’m standing in the green room of a stately theatre, moments before curtain. The play is Hamilton and I’ve landed a lead role. But then a horrific thought dawns on me. I haven’t memorized a single line – or learned a step of choreography. Suddenly Lin-Manuel Miranda is there, locking eyes with me. It’s not a look not of rage or panic, but rather of profound disappointment. My heart pounds wildly. I frantically scan the room, searching for an errant script … I jolt awake – and exhale a deep sigh of relief. Lin-Manuel isn’t coming for me. Everything is fine, except for the pandemic raging outside my door. But when my unsettling stress dream became a nightly affair, I began to wonder: “Is anyone else having weird dreams?”
It’s a question being posited on social media, Zoom chats, phone calls and socially distant front yard chats around the world. Type #covid19dreams into Twitter and revel in the litany of bizarre, angst-ridden scenarios we’re dreaming up on a nightly basis.
“In the last week, I’ve been drowning, driving a car while blindfolded and put in charge of steering an out-of-control ship,” writes a teacher from the American Midwest. A user in Spain describes the waves of a great tsunami beating against her windows, the water pooling around her waist. Matt Galloway, host of CBC’s The Current, is not immune to the trend either. “I was in some sort of antiquated elevator. People kept piling in.” Hearing I’m not the only one having vivid dreams prompted me to ask: Could my apparent dread at disappointing Broadway’s golden boy actually represent a deeper subconscious anxiety?
“There’s been a huge increase in dream life,” says Deirdre Barrett, a professor of psychology at Harvard University and the author of The Committee of Sleep: How Artists, Scientists, and Athletes Use Dreams for Creative Problem-Solving – and How You Can Too. Barrett has been studying dreams for decades and began collecting COVID-19-related dreams through a survey early in the pandemic.
In about a third of the thousand or so entries she’s received, the virus manifests itself quite literally. The dreamer is outside in a mask and suddenly starts to develop symptoms. He’s sick, but can’t seem to get to a hospital. Her children or elderly parents have fallen deathly ill.
For others, the manifestation is more abstract. “The virus is this unseen force, so a lot of dreams address it metaphorically,” she says. Tidal waves, zombies and invisible monsters all descend at night. Barrett has received numerous entries from people swarmed by clouds of deadly insects in their dreams.
Barrett suggests there are a number of factors driving this global flurry of nocturnal subconscious activity. With many of us working from home or not working at all, there’s a lot more sleep happening. Humans go into REM sleep every 90 minutes, and every time we go through a complete 90-minute cycle, the REM period gets longer. The first is a few minutes and the last – if you’re getting a full eight hours – is 30 minutes. More sleep equals more dreams.
Dream recall also depends on when the sleep cycle is broken. If left to our own devices, our bodies wake naturally during REM sleep and we remember our dreams best if we wake during this active period. Most of us regularly wake to an alarm clock, which can break into any stage of the sleep cycle. With no commute and an altered (or absent) work schedule, many of us are waking naturally during REM and vividly remembering our dreams.
Increased stress can also drive dream activity, and barring a few out-of-touch celebs quarantined on yachts, not many of us would describe the last few weeks as relaxing. Joe Dobkin is an audio producer in Brooklyn and has been collecting audio recordings of dreams during the pandemic for a new podcast called Quaradream. The overwhelming mood of the hundred or so entries he’s collected? Anxiety.
“The dreamer will be out in public and suddenly realize everyone is staring at them because they’re not wearing a mask or gloves,” Dobkin says. Where once we dreamed of showing up at school naked, now we dream of appearing in public with our mouths and hands uncovered. Many of the dreams Dobkin has collected aren’t about COVID-19 at all, but anxiousness and a lack of preparedness – my Hamilton nightmare – are themes that feature prominently.
But while stressful dreams and nightmares can be alarming, they may also serve a function.
“We’re all doing our best to keep it together during the day,” Sharon Sliwinski says. A professor at the University of Western Ontario and the author of Dreaming in Dark Times: Six Exercises in Political Thought, Sliwinski says that we use our dreams to process events and emotions that might be suppressed during waking hours. Difficult dreams are the processing of these undigested materials.
“Nightmares are a test of your capacity to contain the material,” Sliwinski says. She suggests that one way of working through your dreams and the emotions attached to them is to share them. So while that classic Oscar Wilde adage – that the most frightening words in the English language are "I had a very interesting dream last night” – may express a widely shared sentiment, go ahead and regale someone with your nocturnal adventures. To share your dream is to let a glimpse of your internal life – one you can’t control – out into the open. Chances are whoever you tell will have a similarly wild dream to share with you. When we live shared experiences, we dream together.
History bears this out. Barrett has studied the dreams of various historical populations and says our current collective dream state most resembles that of a particular population of British POWs held by the Germans at the end of the Second World War. These prisoners were treated well compared to other Nazi captives – they were isolated but adequately housed and fed.
The parallels play out mostly in positive dreams, of family and of food.
“These prisoners dreamed of the things they missed, coming home to mom’s apple pie, or fish and chips at the pub with friends,” Barrett says. “As our lock-down wears on, I’m seeing more comforting dreams about delicious meals and time spent with loved ones.”
In her book, Sliwinski analyzes the collection The Third Reich of Dreams, a series of dreams collected in prewar Nazi Germany by Charlotte Beradt, a young Jewish journalist. Beradt posits that these eerie accounts, with their common threads of oppression and control, were “dictated to them by the dictatorship.”
Perhaps today, our dreams are dictated by the virus. Sliwinski posits that the Beradt collection offers a very real insight into the internal life of a suppressed population during this historical period: “It is precisely through their strange, seemingly fictional guise that dreams manage to offer a veritable index of the dreamer’s lived experience.”
It is likely that the collections of Barrett and Dobkin will offer a similar record once COVID-19 is behind us. Perhaps one outcome of this crisis will be that for the first time in human history we will get a glimpse of our global subconscious as we all experience the same fears and anxieties at the same time.
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