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Did we dream more during the pandemic?

Published: 08th March, 2022 at 13:00
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It turns out that that the emotional intensity of the last two years was reflected in our collective dreams.

Dreams got weird during the pandemic. Not only weird, but vivid. Especially during the early months, people felt they dreamt more than usual. They sought a reprieve from the stress of the pandemic in sleep, only to meet it again in their dreams. The quotes below are from idreamofcovid.com, a site that gave people a place to share their weirdest COVID-19 dreams:

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“I dreamt that I was in bed and my laptop on the desk next to me kept automatically connecting me on Zoom calls with people – some known, some random, but always with the video on. I kept getting interrupted by people watching me and laughing."

“I had a dream that ceiling fans were found to be spreading the virus and the government was going to shut them all off at midnight (with some magic kill switch) and that if ours was not shut off it would fall and break. I began to talk in my sleep and made my partner turn off the ceiling fan.”

“I dreamt all our masks became part of our physical faces. No one had mouths or noses any more.”

Man lying in bed in the middle of a lake
People reported more weird dreams during the COVID-19 pandemic © Getty Images

But were we dreaming more frequently? Or were we just remembering more of our dreams? There’s evidence it was the latter.

I co-authored a study published in the journal Nature and Science of Sleep that examined dream recall. We surveyed 19,355 people across four continents, and the results showed a glaring consistency. People around the world remembered dreams more frequently than usual during the early months of the pandemic, and the dreams themselves were not necessarily connected to COVID-19.

Why would we remember more dreams during a pandemic? For one, the world experienced communal trauma. When such things happen – as they do during times of war, earthquakes, or weather disasters – the intensity of the moment infuses greater intensity into our dreams. And when our dreams become more intense, we’re more likely to remember them, even when we wish we didn’t.

Read more about sleep:

It wasn’t just dream recall that increased during the pandemic. Sleep disturbances increased, too. Our study showed that people who remembered more dreams during the pandemic also slept more poorly. And in general, more people slept poorly during the pandemic, overall. The more frequently we wake, the more dreams we tend to remember, which is why dream recall has been associated with insomnia and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

Yet this increased dream recall became an important reminder of the importance of sleep. Dreams are proof that our brain is busy processing our memories and emotions as we sleep, even when we don’t remember our dreams. Research shows that REM sleep, the stage when we do most dreaming, is important for greater wellbeing and creativity. Getting enough REM sleep makes our minds sharper.

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Too often, we confuse sleep with rest, as if our brains turn off when our eyes close. But important work continues during sleep, work that allows us to function well when we wake. Our study shows that we need further research into the roles that dreams play in coping with crises, along with the crucial part that sleep plays in mental health. Insomnia, which deprives us of our sleep quality and emotional processing, creates effects far beyond sleepiness. The real nightmares can occur when we’re not sleeping.

Authors

Colin Espie is professor of sleep medicine at the University of Oxford, where he is director of the Experimental and Clinical Sleep Medicine research programme. He is also clinical director of the Oxford Online Programme in Sleep Medicine. He is a senior research fellow at Somerville College and author of the best-selling book Overcoming Insomnia, the 2nd edition of which was published recently.

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