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The benefits of coronavirus dreams, explained by 3 theories

"Dreams play a role in virtual reality training of personal challenges."

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The Covid-19 pandemic introduced to the world a new threat and a new social reality. In turn, dreams may reflect these novel sources of fear and frustration.

By looking at the dream diaries of people living in Brazil both before and during the first months of the coronavirus pandemic, researchers reveal these dreams can serve a counterintuitive purpose.

Though there is some debate over the exact function of dreams, a study published Monday in the journal PLOS ONE argues three theories can help explain why Covid-19 is altering dreaming and help interpret these dreams' true purpose.

They are:

  • The Threat Simulation Theory
  • The Emotion Regulation Theory
  • The Social Simulation Theory

First author Natália Mota is a researcher at the Brain Institute at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil. She argues these three theories are complementary, and the current pandemic reveals aspects of them within actual dreams.

“Fears and trauma need to be ‘metabolized,’ and dreams seem to be an important physiological mechanism to simulate and elaborate behavioral changes related to threat and new social habits,” Mota tells Inverse.

The pandemic-related dreams observed in this study were definitely not pleasant. But the three theories explain why the participants in the study associated higher awareness of their dreams with a positive impact on their daily life.

“This is the root of self-knowledge,” Mota says. “In this sense, dreams play a role in virtual-reality training of personal challenges, creating a virtual reality based on their personal memories, bringing possible insights.”

Dream theories explained — Research suggests spatial and temporal fragments of episodic memories are commonly found in dream reports — meaning that, if carefully scrutinized, the residue of the day manifests within the dream, Mota and her colleagues explain.

Essentially, dreams may act as a virtual simulation of waking life. How that simulation can benefit the dreamer depends on the boxes that the dream ticks off.

To this end, the researchers propose three theories through which to understand these dreams:

Threat Simulation Theory: This theory postulates dreaming trains the brain to learn new survival strategies, without having to protect itself against actual threats. Arguably, dreams give us an evolutionary advantage: Remembering threatening dreams prepares us in case we ever encounter those situations when awake.

Emotion Regulation Theory: The idea here is that the function of dreams is to regulate emotions, through psychological and neural mechanisms. Because a dream can increase exposure to emotionally negative situations, the theory is this actually causes “memory reconsolidation with decreased emotional load.”

Social Stimulation Theory: This theory posits dreams as a zone where the brain can train in new social-behavioral strategies. One can attempt to say or do something without having to worry about the consequence of a bad choice in real life.

The analysis of dreams — The dream reports analyzed in this study reflected each of these theories — although the content of the dreams reflected changes in habits more often than concerns over actually becoming sick from Covid-19.

The team examined the language used in 239 dream reports submitted by 67 individuals living in Brazil. Forty-two of the participants submitted their dream journals during the months of March and April 2020, while the other participants were asked about their dreams before the pandemic as part of another study assessing signs of mental suffering in dreams.

Artwork by a study volunteer, inspired by their dreams during the pandemic. Natália Mota

Mota says the team found what they expected: The individuals who submitted Covid-19 dream reports used more language related to anger and sadness, and included more mentions of contamination and cleanliness. Their dreams also reflected behavioral changes related to new social habits: In one dream, for example, Covid-19 doesn’t appear as a threat, but the subject was stressed having to be in a crowded bathroom, unable to change out of dirty clothing.

“People were dreaming and expressing in these narratives, with negative feelings linked to fear of contagion, but also training new social habits and behaviors with a daily reality full of cleanliness habits,” Mota says.

Fear of contamination and the processing of strategies to avoid infection are in line with the Threat Simulation Theory, the study explains. But more in accordance with Emotional Regulation Theory, dream reports from the pandemic period contained more negative emotions, reflecting, the authors write, “a higher emotional load to be processed.” Finally, dreams about seeking ways to stay safe and clean fits with the Social Simulation Theory; the focus on cleanliness reflects Covid-19 strategies like wearing masks, avoiding physical contact, and washing hands.

What comes next — A follow-up study is now underway to see if concerns over sickness and death will become a more common theme in dreams, especially as the pandemic continues unabated. The team also acknowledges they need to analyze a larger, more diverse group of participants to truly understand the effect of Covid-19 on dreaming.

Ultimately, these studies seek to improve our understanding of dreams as “privileged windows into our inner suffering and fears.” Dreams could act as red flags for early signs of mental health issues, the researchers argue.

Mota's team is collaborating with different research centers on studies investigating dreams around the world. This study comes on the heels of research published in October which found coronavirus lockdown dreams reported by people in Finland reflected a shared mindscape.

Those authors posited that instead of intensely personal phenomena, dreams are actually illustrative of collective experiences. It’s possible this is being reflected in the Brazilian dreams as well: If your community is hyper-concerned over hygiene, it’s likely those worries will seep into the hours you sleep. They may even leave us better prepared when we wake.

Abstract: The current global threat brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic has led to widespread social isolation, posing new challenges in dealing with mental suffering related to social distancing, and in quickly learning new social habits intended to prevent contagion. Neuroscience and psychology agree that dreaming helps people to cope with negative emotions and to learn from experience, but can dreaming effectively reveal mental suffering and changes in social behavior? To address this question, we applied natural language processing tools to study 239 dream reports by 67 individuals, made either before the Covid-19 outbreak or during the months of March and April, 2020, when lockdown was imposed in Brazil following the WHO’s declaration of the pandemic. Pandemic dreams showed a higher proportion of anger and sadness words, and higher average semantic similarities to the terms “contamination” and “cleanness”. These features seem to be associated with mental suffering linked to social isolation, as they explained 40% of the variance in the PANSS negative subscale related to socialization (p = 0.0088). These results corroborate the hypothesis that pandemic dreams reflect mental suffering, fear of contagion, and important changes in daily habits that directly impact socialization.
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