COVID-19 is making its way into our nightmares
More than half of people surveyed by Finnish researchers reported having pandemic-related anxiety dreams just weeks into lockdown.
A study of sleep and dreams carried out by researchers based in Helsinki, Finland has found that anxiety surrounding coronavirus features in more than half of our nightmares.
The team crowdsourced sleep and stress data from 4,000 people during the sixth week of the COVID-19 lockdown in Finland. Nearly, 800 of them also supplied information about the content of their dreams.
They then transcribed the content of the dreams from Finnish into English word lists and fed the resulting data into an AI algorithm, which scanned for frequently appearing word associations. They then used a programme to build so-called ‘dream clusters’ from the various elements that featured to identify 33 specific themes.
Of these they found that 20 could be categorised as bad dreams, with 55 per cent of the bad dreams containing pandemic-specific content such as failures in social distancing, coronavirus contagion, issues with personal protective equipment, and dystopian and apocalyptic pandemic-related scenarios.
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For example, word pairs in a dream cluster labelled "Disregard of Distancing" included mistake-hug, hug-handshake, handshake-restriction, handshake-distancing, distancing-disregard, distancing-crowd, crowd-restriction and crowd-party.
“We were thrilled to observe repeating dream content associations across individuals that reflected the apocalyptic ambience of COVID-19 lockdown," said lead author Dr Anu-Katriina Pesonen, head of the Sleep & Mind Research Group at the University of Helsinki. “The results allowed us to speculate that dreaming in extreme circumstances reveal shared visual imagery and memory traces, and in this way, dreams can indicate some form of shared mindscape across individuals.”
The study also found that more than half of the respondents reported sleeping more than before the period of self-quarantine, with 10 per cent having a harder time falling asleep and more than a quarter having more frequent nightmares.
The research could provide valuable insights for medical experts who are already assessing the toll the coronavirus is having on mental health as sleep is a central factor in most mental health issues, Dr Pesonen says.
“Repeated, intense nightmares may refer to post-traumatic stress. The content of dreams is not entirely random, but can be an important key to understanding what is the essence in the experience of stress, trauma and anxiety,” She added.
“The computational linguistics-based, AI-assisted analytics that we used is really a novel approach in dream research. We hope to see more AI-assisted dream research in future. We hope that our study opened the development towards that direction.”
Reader Q&A: What happens when we dream?
Asked by: Tasha Henson, Norwich
The whole brain is active during dreams, from the brain stem to the cortex. Most dreams occur during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. This is part of the sleep-wake cycle and is controlled by the reticular activating system whose circuits run from the brain stem through the thalamus to the cortex.
The limbic system in the mid-brain deals with emotions in both waking and dreaming and includes the amygdala, which is mostly associated with fear and is especially active during dreams.
The cortex is responsible for the content of dreams, including the monsters we flee from, the people we meet, or the experience of flying. Since we are highly visual animals the visual cortex, right at the back of the brain, is especially active, but so are many other parts of the cortex.
Least active are some parts of the frontal lobes, and this may explain why we can be so uncritical during dreams, accepting the crazy events as though they are real – until we wake up.
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Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Science Focus Podcast.