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Dreams and the COVID19 lockdown: why is the pandemic giving us more vivid, unusual dreams? 

By Dr Samantha J. Brooks Ph.D.


According to recent research, social distancing and isolation during the coronavirus lockdown is giving us more time and space on our hands (and in our minds!).  We are not rushing about quite as much as we did in the pre-COVID era, and we are spending more time in the confines of an unchanging environment at home.  As a result, some neuroscientists across the world are finding that stress, isolation, and changes in sleep patterns are giving more vivid colour and imagery to our dreams! It could be that withdrawal from our usual environment is enabling our subconscious mind to draw more readily on concepts and unresolved issues from our past.  Or it could be that a lack of daily stimulation is leaving our brain searching our past for ‘stimulation fodder’ while we sleep!  Either way, it is interesting to consider the rise in vivid dreams, and to encourage more attention to be paid to dreams, in line with current research on the link between the COVID lockdown and dreaming.  Are YOU having more vivid dreams? And what can these dreams – during the lockdown – tell us about our thoughts and wishes for our present, as well as for our future?


Sigmund Freud famously said that dreams are the royal road to unconscious wishes that a person might privately hold – wishes that are not easily brought to mind during waking life. Conversely, Domhoff suggests that dreams are simply a reflection of what one is thinking about in waking life – but this does not explain why we sometimes dream about things that don’t seem to concern us, or when we don’t dream about things that are constantly on our mind during the day!  Carl Jung suggested that dreams reflect thought-processes or problems we have not yet fully worked-out, or that are under-developed aspects of our minds.  Others rather suggest that dreams are just another cognitive process producing nonsense images, or that are stimulated by somatic changes (internally in our body, including signs of disease, or from external stimulation during sleeping).  However, in his magnum opus The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud explains, in intricate detail, how our unconscious wishes run rampant in our dreams.  We have freedom to pursue what we cannot admit to ourselves during wakeful, polite society! Thank goodness for dreams!


Professor Patrick McNamara, from the Boston University School of Medicine, who is leading some COVID-era dream research, reminds us that psychedelic drugs (e.g. LSD, magic mushrooms etc) produce experiences similar to dreams (although taking drugs can be more harmful of course).  Psychedelics influence the activity of serotonin in the brain, which alters the inhibiting force of the prefrontal cortex, enabling greater emotional responsivity and creativity.  This extra creativity sometimes coincides with a time when our eyes often saccade rapidly during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep.  However, we don’t always furiously move our eyes during dreaming, as Professor Mark Solms – an expert in the neuropsychology of dreams at the University of Cape Town – describes.  The forebrain is largely responsible for our experience of dreaming, which can happen independently of REM, according to Prof. Solms.  Our dreaming forebrain is driven by dopamine reward – or SEEKING – mechanisms, and we know this, according to Prof Solms, because pharmacology that blocks or enhances dopamine function can change the quality and incidence of dreams with no change in REM.  So, what exactly is it that our dreaming brain might be SEEKING more vividly – what wishes might we be trying to fulfil – during the COVID lockdown?


We normally forget our dreams upon waking – perhaps because we find it difficult to admit our true wishes to ourselves! But researchers across the world like Prof McNamara are reporting an increase in vivid dreams during this global lockdown.  For example, according to research that began in March 2020 at the Lyon Neuroscience Research Centre in France, participants are reporting a 35% increase in the incidence of remembered dreams.  Similarly, a study in Italy has reported a rise in remembered nightmares and broken sleep (parasomnias), which often coincide with the experience of trauma. Researchers at the Lyon Centre highlight that all participants, regardless of whether they had pleasant or unpleasant dreams, report how weird and outlandish the pandemic dreams appear to be – and this could be related to the invisible menace that the virus introduces to our minds.  Perhaps our minds are trying to concoct an image of what this invisible menace is to us – and just like a Rorschach Ink-blot test – we pull out images from our past that we wish to overcome! The Coronavirus – although we don’t have a concrete, first-hand image of it ourselves – has threatened our very existence and we want to beat it, but we cannot see it!  So instead we might turn to other aspects of our lives that we wish to overcome and create images that we can see in our dreams.  In our COVID-era dreams we might more vividly play at achieving our existing wishes, to give us an emotional sense of mastery during these uncertain, challenging times – perhaps!

BUT, interpreting dreams and dream analysis is phenomenally complex, and should really be carried out with the guidance of a trained psychoanalyst (and there are many in Cape Town) That said, after the death of his father, Freud famously began self-analysing his own dreams, in order to write The Interpretation of Dreams, and fully develop his project for a scientific psychology. A project that is being updated with modern neuroscientific knowledge by Prof Solms and colleagues at Cape Town’s Neuroscience Institute, on the grounds of Groote Schuur Hospital and UCT.  And so, with the ongoing dream research in mind, it is worth paying attention to our dreams during the COVID lockdown, to self-examine what wishes we might be trying to satisfy in waking life.  My advice would be to use this enforced time of reflection to pay more attention to the images arising from our lockdown dreams!

Keep dreaming of a better future, Harfielders!


Click to read all previous articles by Dr Samantha J. Brooks Ph.D.

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