How the COVID-19 outbreak has affected the way we dream

On New Scientist, Rowan Hooper reports some recent studies investigating the link between dreams and the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, fear of contagion may have affected the nature of our dreams:

According to a survey conducted by King’s College London, 62 per cent of people in the UK are getting just as much sleep, if not more, than before stricter social distancing measures began on 23 March. […] It is reasonable to assume that for some of those staying at home, the time saved from getting ready for work and commuting is being used to get more sleep. […] “Lack of work schedules may be allowing individuals to wake up without an alarm clock,” says Blagrove. “Natural wake-ups are known to result in longer dreams.” At the same time, anxiety can disrupt our sleep, leading to more awakenings. When you awaken out of REM sleep, you’re much more likely to remember the dream you were having.

Likely, continues Hooper, even the content of dreams has been affected by the pandemic, as if it was an emotional elaboration of what was happening: Mark Blagrove, a psychologist at Swansea University interviewed by Hooper, argues that the function of dreams is precisely to process emotions and memories, acting as a night therapy.

Blagrove’s work also suggests that sharing one’s dreams with other people can diminish the sense of anguish and lead to greater empathy. Hooper points out that several experiences, born during the pandemic, go in this direction: for example, an online forum created by Blagrove himself, where health workers could share their dreams during the epidemic.

Along the same lines as Blagrove himself, Patrick McNamara, Associate Professor of Neurology at Boston University School of Medicine, points out that we use REM sleep and dreams to manage intense emotions, especially negative ones:

During our dream states, stress sends the brain on a trip. The neurobiological signals and reactions that produce dreams are similar to those triggered by psychedelic drugs, according to McNamara. Psychedelics activate nerve receptors called serotonin 5-HT2A, which then turn off a part of the brain called the dorsal prefrontal cortex. The result is known as “emotional disinhibition,” a state in which emotions flood the consciousness, especially during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep, when we typically dream. Though these processes happen nightly, most people don’t typically remember their dreams. Living through the coronavirus pandemic might be changing that due to heightened isolation and stress, influencing the content of dreams and allowing some dreamers to remember more of them. For one, anxiety and lack of activity decrease sleep quality. Frequent awakenings, also called parasomnias, are associated with increased dream recall. Latent emotions and memories from the previous day can also influence the content of dreams and one’s emotional response within the dream itself.

In an article on National Geographic, Rebecca Renner mentions other studies concerning the link between pandemic and dreams. In particular, Renner reports that Italian studies show that people are experiencing nightmares and parasomnias in line with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder:

“Not surprisingly, some years ago when we studied survivors of the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake, we found that sleep disorders and also nightmares strictly depended on the proximity to the epicenter,” says Luigi De Gennaro, a professor of physiological psychology at the University of Rome who is working on the Italian coronavirus study. “In other words, the seismic map mostly overlapped that of sleep disturbances. Results from De Gennaro’s ongoing research and other work such as the Lyon study suggest that people closer to the pandemic threat—health-care workers, those living in epicenters, and those with affected family members—are more likely to experience outbreak-influenced dreams.

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