Posted on Tuesday, June 1st, 2021 at 9:56 pm    

When the Covid-19 pandemic began, many people in isolation reported more frequent and vivid dreams. At Harvard Medical School, Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology, launched an online survey and discovered some common themes from participants. After reviewing the respondents’ answers, she noticed many dreams involved being stalked by an invisible monster and being chased by small insects.

Barrett discovered an increase in dreams associated with negative emotions, such as anxiety. Of the 2,888 people studied, she found that women showed higher rates of anger, anxiety, and sadness and lower rates of positive emotions in their dreams. There were also more references to death, health, and biological processes during these dreams than experienced before the pandemic started. Men also experienced higher rates of negative emotions in their dreams, but they weren’t as significant as those noted by women.

Dreams Often Reflect Conscious Thoughts and Feelings

Deirdre Barrett is the former president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams. Her studies found a correlation between daytime thoughts and feelings and the feelings of fear or anxiousness during dreams. The emotions you experience while you’re awake will often translate to the scenarios you find yourselves in while you’re dreaming.

The early weeks of the pandemic contributed to many fear-based dreams, such as being chased by swarms of insects or monsters. However, when orders for people to stay home began, dreams involving loneliness and isolation started to occur.

For example, Barrett discovered common themes of solitary confinement, imprisonment, or becoming stranded in outer space. She also noticed that people living with roommates started dreaming about a lack of privacy or feeling crowded.

Dreams Could Be Beneficial to Brain Functioning

Research assistant professor of neuroscience Erik Hoel, Ph.D., from Tufts University believes the monotony of peoples’ lives during lockdown caused increased brain activity while sleeping. He explained that humans and other animals are at risk of becoming “overfitted” to the information they learn. That means they have a hard time generalizing the information they acquire for one task to other tasks.

Dr. Hoel believes that dreams are a way to improve flexibility in the brain. Flexibility can aid the process of generalizing specific knowledge for tasks during sleeping hours. If someone performs a mundane activity at work, they’re likely to have a dream involving the same type of mundane job. He hypothesized that many peoples’ dreams reflected their lives during the lockdown. It was a way for them to utilize their cognitive abilities while preventing an overfitted brain.

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