Brainstorm: Dreaming in COVID-19

Why have people been having weird, vivid COVID-19-related dreams? The answer’s complicated.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: SESP junior Gabby Rios knew she was on Northwestern’s campus. But it definitely didn’t look like Evanston. Or anywhere in Illinois. The ground was rocky and crackled with heat, and Gabby could see lava flowing below her and her classmates.

JACOB FULTON: Who were all, weirdly enough, from high school, not college.

GABBY RIOS: My classmates and I were on this, not like a platform, but we were away from any lava or danger and no one instructed us to do this. It was just like, we knew that our objective was to hold hands and try and jump into this volcano. And I remember we catapulted as one into the opening, and I don’t remember what happened after that.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: But don’t worry, it was just a dream. Hi everyone, this is Neya Thanikachalam…

JACOB FULTON: …and this is Jacob Fulton.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: We’re back with another episode of Brainstorm, a podcast exploring all things health, science and tech.

JACOB FULTON: Lots of people are paying more attention to their dreams during lockdown, with many noticing that they seem to be more weird or vivid than usual.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: But why is this happening to so many people?

KAREN KONKOLY: The right answer is probably a combination of a lot of different reasons why people are having more vivid dreams.

JACOB FULTON: That’s Karen Konkoly, a graduate student at Northwestern. She researches how people’s dreams can be influenced. Mainly, she tries to induce lucid dreams, which are dreams when people know that they’re asleep.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: If someone does have a lucid dream, then the researchers try to communicate with them by asking questions.

KAREN KONKOLY: And then they communicate to us with eye movements. So, when they move their eyes in a dream, it moves in their body and we can see that by the electrical activity on their head and face. And so if they want to say yes and they’ll go like left right left right. No sometimes it’s up down up down, or something like that.

JACOB FULTON: Lucid dreams can have spiritual significance, as lucid dreaming can bridge the gap between different realities — the one that we live in, and the one we dream in.

In fact, lucid dreams can even be used as a form of therapy. Let’s say someone is having a nightmare. If they are lucid, then they might be able to control the outcome of their nightmare or resolve the problem that caused it.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: There are two basic sleep stages: REM, or rapid eye movement, sleep and non-REM sleep. When we’re sleeping deeply, we’re in the REM stage, and that’s when we tend to dream.

There’s endless possibilities to what our minds create and what we sense while we’re dreaming. But understanding exactly what our dreams mean or if they’re trying to tell us something is a little tricky.

KAREN KONKOLY: It’s not usually within the domain of science because it’s really hard to say what a metaphor means and in a dream, there’s not usually an answer. There could be an answer for the dreamer, like if you’re talking about it, they’re like, “Oh my gosh that’s what it means!” But it’s hard to do an experiment on that.

SPEAKER 1: I woke up in the middle of the night after dreaming that the virus had decimated U.S. society. There were no banks, stores, gas stations, no media, pharmacies, et cetera. I feared for my adult children and their families because I could not travel or communicate with them.

SPEAKER 2: I dreamt that there was a massive atmosphere change and everyone had to wear a mask at all times. I woke up with a hand over my husband’s face, panicking because we did not have a mask on.

SPEAKER 3: It had to be a year or so later, and things evolved where face masks were incorporated into fashion. Like, hoodies had a bottom part that acted like a facemask. Turtlenecks, tanks, you name it. It looked good, but it was weird. The new normal.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: Those were all real accounts of dreams that people had during this time. They were collected by the blog “I dream of COVID.”

JACOB FULTON: And dream experiences with COVID-19 are so new that scientists can only speculate about why so many people are noticing their dreams. One theory is that it might have something to do with our sleep patterns.

KAREN KONKOLY: If you are waking up a little bit more slowly and staying in bed a little bit longer, that just makes it more likely for you to remember your dreams.

Some people are staying inside more, they’re not going out as much, they’re not getting as much sunlight and that can give you worse sleep quality. And so if you have insomnia and you have more fractured sleep because you’re not as tired, you’re not getting as much activity. Then having more fractured sleep can also give you more dreams because your brain is more activated during the night.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: It also might be because we’re primed to dream about COVID-19.

KAREN KONKOLY: As people are thinking more about it, like if they have a coronavirus dream, and they’ve heard of it they might be like, “Oh, I’m also part of this big thing where people are having these dreams.”

JACOB FULTON: Many people might be seeing it on their Twitter timelines, where people’s accounts of their dreams have blown up. And remember that website, “I dream of COVID”? Blogs like that have popped up to showcase people’s dreams. That all seems to show that dreams are on a lot of people’s minds right now.

GABBY RIOS: I don’t feel like I’m alone. I think it’s just crazy how this is something that we’re all experiencing.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: A lot of people’s lives have been turned upside down by COVID-19. Many of us are learning or working remotely, and we’ve had to adjust to social isolation. That might be reflected in our dreams.

KAREN KONKOLY: In general, there’s not as much going on in the external world, then they might kind of be focusing more inward and kind of have more attention on their dreams. Or they might be like, if you don’t have as many new memories to think about, you might start dreaming about more older memories or bigger themes or stuff like that, so those are some ideas.

GABBY RIOS: I think it is just my brain trying to come up with these crazy scenarios to compensate for the lack of variety that I have in my daily life now.

JACOB FULTON: Karen said she thinks that no matter what people believe the reasons behind their dreams are, they can still bond over them.

KAREN KONKOLY: Because of the “metaphorical-ness” of dreams and because of the symbolism, it brings you to these bigger topics in your life that you might not necessarily go up to somebody and say, “Hey, I’m feeling really anxious about coronavirus,” but you might feel more comfortable talking about your dream.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: But for now, we don’t know for sure what’s happening to our brains during the pandemic until researchers get the chance to study them.

KAREN KONKOLY: Nobody really has a definitive reason for why we’re dreaming, and nobody can really predict what you’re going to dream next, and so I think on a personal level it’s a really interesting way to find out about yourself.

On a global level, I think it’s cool that, since we don’t know exactly what dreams are doing, there’s a lot of things that they could be doing, and there’s a lot of problems in the world that haven’t been solved yet, and dreams could relate to some of those.

NEYA THANIKACHALAM: That’s all that we have for today. Thanks for listening, and we’ll be back soon. This episode was reported and produced by me, Neya Thanikachalam and Jacob Fulton. The audio editor is Molly Lubbers, the digital managing editors are Kalen Luciano and Heena Srivastava, and the editor in chief of The Daily Northwestern is Marissa Martinez.

EMAIL: [email protected], [email protected]
TWITTER: @neyachalam, @jacobnfulton1


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