Sleep in quarantine: is the lockdown affecting our dreams?
A YouGov poll has found we’re recalling our dreams more than usual. But what, if anything, does it mean?
Nearly one in three adults is remembering more dreams, according to a YouGov poll of 2,477 Americans in April.
These aren’t just any dreams: Google searches for weird and strange dreams has spiked, and searches for the question ‘why am I having weird dreams lately?’ has tripled. So is the lockdown affecting our sleep?
There are several stages within one night’s sleep. First of all, we get drowsy. Our brain activity begins to lull and we move quickly into light, then deep sleep – these three stages together are what’s known as non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) sleep.
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After around an hour’s sleep, we move into rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Both REM and non-REM sleep are vital for the brain – any disruption to either has been observed to affect mood and memory in particular – and we cycle between the two several times during the course of the night.
While we don’t yet fully understand exactly what happens in our brains while we sleep, our current best theory is that non-REM sleep is restorative, rejuvenating our neurons, while in REM sleep our brain is focused on consolidating memories.
Why we dream
The leading theory of why we dream is that dreaming is a side effect of our brain sorting through and processing our memories. This is why we tend to associate REM sleep with dreaming – though we do dream in non-REM sleep, studies have found we are less likely to remember these dreams.
“The problem with that theory is that a lot of processing the brain does, it can do without needing to be conscious. It doesn’t need to dream to file away memories,” says psychologist Prof Mark Blagrove, director of the Sleep Laboratory at Swansea University.
“Other theories say we dream as we are altering our levels of emotions. Another is that we’re actually doing a virtual reality type of practice for future situations, like we’re acting in a safer, simulated environment. Other people say that there’s no function to it: we have evolved to have imagination when we’re awake, and that just carries on when we’re asleep.”
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So how has the coronavirus pandemic changed the way we dream?
“We know that people are having more dreams than normal,” explains Blagrove. “It seems to be because people are sleeping longer. A lot of people are waking up without alarm clocks, so their final REM sleep period of the night is probably longer than it normally would be.”
Our morning routines are also more relaxed, which means we probably have more time to stop and think about the dreams we’ve just awoken from, Blagrove explains. It is not just that we’re remembering more of our dreams, though – it seems that people are reporting having more intense dreams, either positive or negative, too.
Experiments at the University of Swansea have shown that we dream of our waking life’s emotional experiences more than non-emotional experiences. “Emotions for a lot of people may be higher over this period. There are those who are worried about their health or others’ [health], about losing pay or their jobs, or maybe they’re doing a dangerous job at the moment.” It is these people who are probably having very poor sleep, says Blagrove.
Why stress affects dreams
During the first three weeks of the lockdown period, stress was the nation’s primary emotion, a YouGov poll found. It takes longer for us to fall asleep when stressed, as we’re ruminating on our worries.
“Stress has also been found to make us have more nightmares,” says Blagrove, “although these nightmares are often not about the specific stressor occurring – instead, they may have some other theme but carry the same negative emotion from waking life.”
However, the 35 per cent of the UK population who are working at home and still being paid may be having blissful sleep. “If they’re with people they like being with, they may have more positive dreams,” notes Blagrove, putting himself in that category.
Talking to The New York Times, Harvard Medical School psychologist Dr Deirdre Barrett suggested one could ‘program dreams’ by imagining a positive scenario before you go to sleep, or by placing “a photo or other objects related to the topic on your nightstand to view as the last thing before turning off your light.”
But Blagrove isn’t convinced that simply ‘thinking happy thoughts’ before bed can change dreams.
“Everyone recommends that people reduce their anxieties before sleep. Yes, it’s possible that that may impact their dreams, but if you’re anxious for the rest of the day, it may well be that there’s little you can do just before sleep. Your dreams will be able to pick up on what recent, consuming emotions you have.”
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The main technique that therapists use for helping people address nightmares involves repeatedly reimagining the nightmare, with small aspects of it changed. This has been shown to reduce bad dreams – but only for nightmares brought on by previous stresses, not existing ones.
“For a lot of people at the moment, the stress they’re under is a very current stress. And so it may be, I’m afraid, that the nightmares will still happen. It may be that we need to have an end point to it [the pandemic] for our dreams to get back to normal.”
Amy is the Editorial Assistant at BBC Science Focus. Her BA degree specialised in science publishing and she has been working as a journalist since graduating in 2018. In 2020, Amy was named Editorial Assistant of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors. She looks after all things books, culture and media. Her interests range from natural history and wildlife, to women in STEM and accessibility tech.