I’m in Berlin with my partner and our toddler – some strange, dream-like version of Berlin. We’re catching up with some of my closest childhood friends, and I’m so happy to be here, to finally see them again. We walk through the streets, but then things take a darker turn – there are people in masks, and I realise we’re placing ourselves at risk of infection. We shouldn’t be here, and we shouldn’t be with my friends. We try to retreat to a safer place, but now we realise the police may come after us. From here, the details of the dream get blurry. Even after I wake up, I’m left with contrasting emotions – the aftertaste of joy and excitement about seeing my friends, nostalgia, but also worry about infection and guilt about having done something wrong.
It’s often said that our imaginations are free, but in reality, our thoughts and daydreams often gravitate towards the things that concern us most.
When our thoughts get stuck or start moving in circles, this is often associated with anxiety. It’s also often thought that the full potential of our imagination is unleashed as we slip into sleep, and our thoughts drift away from our actual surroundings.
Dreams can be described as the ultimate immersive virtual realities – as we lose touch with the real world, we feel present in an alternative world of our own making. In our dreams, we can experience strange places and bizarre fantasy worlds, or even feel like we’re a different person. And with few exceptions, we believe all of this is real. Yet despite this seemingly boundless freedom, even our dreams are often surprisingly mundane, and revolve around waking experiences, thoughts, and concerns.
So how does a global event such as the current pandemic influence our inner mental lives, both in waking and in sleep?
Surveys show that many people are concerned about the consequences of the virus for themselves and their loved ones. These concerns, together with physical distancing, isolation, and economic concerns, are associated with increased levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and sleep-related problems.
Anecdotally, people are also reporting more vivid and emotional dreams, and dream reports contain more words related to sadness and anger than was the case before the pandemic. One explanation could be that without lengthy commutes to work, school drop-offs and so on, people are getting more sleep. There is evidence that under lockdown, most people are sleeping longer and later, spending more time in bed, and getting more in tune with their natural sleep time, which is different for morning and evening types.
The current pandemic offers a unique opportunity to investigate an aspect of our mental lives that is nearly ubiquitous.
Because REM sleep periods (rapid eye movement sleep, which is associated with particularly intense dreams) increase with total sleep time, this might translate into longer and more vivid dreams. With more time on our hands in the mornings, many of us might also have more time to pay attention to our dream lives. This is significant, because spending just a few more minutes in bed in the morning and reflecting on our dreams drastically improves dream recall. Conversely, dream recall fades rapidly if we pay no attention to our dreams immediately after awakening.
Yet more sleep is not necessarily better sleep, and some evidence suggests that during lockdown, many people are reporting poorer sleep quality than usual. This makes sense, because generally, poor sleep quality is associated with depression, anxiety, and stress. People are also reporting more nightmares, which in turn are associated with sleep and mental health disturbances whose negative effects can continue in the longer term.
Generally, we also know that the emotions and moods we experience during wakefulness are related to the emotions we experience in our dreams. People who experience more positive emotions during the daytime also experience more positive emotions in their dreams, and those with more negative daytime emotions experience more negative dream emotions. Our dreams tend to be a reflection of waking wellbeing and ill-being – and we would expect this to be particularly pronounced in a situation where stress and profound change are affecting us not just individually, but collectively at a societal level.
The current pandemic offers a unique opportunity to investigate an aspect of our mental lives that is nearly ubiquitous. Though most people rarely remember their dreams, dreams are not a rare occurrence.
Sleep laboratory studies show that almost everyone experiences multiple dreams per night, and over our lifetimes, we spend several years dreaming. Yet it remains a mystery why our brains go through the trouble of creating elaborate and immersive virtual realities multiple times per night, rather than just blacking out and saving energy. Some have proposed that dreams are realistic simulations of threats (as in dreams of being chased or attacked), and that dreaming of threats might in turn improve our ability to deal with real threats.
Dreams also create interactive social environments. Even without lockdowns and social distancing, people describe more social interactions in their dream reports than in randomly-timed waking experience reports. Paradoxically, when we’re asleep and most cut off from the world, we might be fine-tuning our social skills.
Yet the implications for the current situation are unknown. As many of us cycle in and out of lockdowns, do we dream more of threats, and do our dream threats adapt to our changing situations? Do social interactions become more prominent – or perhaps more personally meaningful – in dreams as we become more physically distant from others in our waking lives, and as our modes of interaction change?
Questions about why we dream, and what we dream about, become even more pressing when we consider that dreams are just one expression of our general ability to detach from the world and engage in spontaneous thoughts and imaginings.
Even in waking, the ubiquity of spontaneous thoughts and imaginings is striking. Research shows that we spend up to 50% of our waking lives mind-wandering, or lost in spontaneous thoughts, imagery, and daydreams. Even when we try to concentrate on a task, our attention drifts, and our thoughts wander. In some cases, this can have negative effects on our ability to perform these tasks – for instance, while reading, driving, or even in airline pilots.
In other cases, mind-wandering and daydreaming might be beneficial – for instance, by supporting creative problem-solving or future planning, or even just by providing a break from an unpleasant or boring activity, such as a work meeting that has dragged on way too long.
Understanding how to maximise the beneficial kinds of mind-wandering and minimise those that are costly might even have positive effects on productivity, moods, and sleep quality.
Research shows that we spend up to 50% of our waking lives mind wandering, or lost in spontaneous thoughts, imagery, and daydreams.
And again, we would expect times of stress and changing circumstances to weave their way into our daydreams, perhaps in a similar way as is the case for our dreams. Indeed, there’s evidence that spontaneous thoughts are connected in waking and in sleep, and draw from similar mechanisms. This suggests that if we’re to make progress on understanding our complex inner lives, we can’t look at sleep and waking, dreaming and daydreaming in isolation, but need to consider them together.
We – a team of sleep and dream researchers, psychologists, and philosophers from the universities of Cambridge, Turku, and Monash – are conducting an online study on COVID-related themes in dreams and daydreams, and how they relate to different measures of well- and ill-being, COVID-related concerns, and changes to everyday life.
We hope that this research will shed light on our complex mental lives, both in sleep and in waking. Better understanding our inner mental lives and how to improve them seems particularly desirable in a situation where control over our outer lives is increasingly elusive.
If you’re interested in participating, please follow this link for more information. Please also share this article with anyone who might be interested. We’re inviting participants who are at least 18 years old and live in Australia, Finland, or the UK. Participation is anonymous, and no names, emails, or IP addresses are collected. If you choose to participate, you’ll be asked to fill in a wellbeing survey (once, approximately 30-60 minutes), and collect mind-wandering and dream reports during a two-week period (approximately 30 minutes per day for 14 days). We appreciate your support in this research.