Mind and Body

Coronavirus lockdown dreams reveal a "shared mindscape"

A new study demonstrates how we collectively processed the pandemic.

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When Covid-19 morphed from a peculiar virus into a life-defining pandemic, there seemed to be nowhere the virus didn't reach. That included our dreams, with (oddly helpful) coronavirus nightmares becoming a staple of 2020 nights.

When people first started reporting pandemic-themed dreams to sleep scientists, it presented an unprecedented opportunity to learn about how our brains process shared tragedy. Now, researchers have an idea of how the pandemic created a shared dream experience, even in a socially distant world.

A recent analysis of 4,275 people's dreams performed by scientists in Finland shows that 55 percent of bad dreams during that country's lockdown were pandemic-specific. An AI analysis done on 811 of those dreams revealed 11 dream clusters around common themes, including:

  • Travel problems, like overcrowding on transit
  • A disregard for social distancing, like mistaken hug or handshake
  • Surgery or other "troubles"
  • Quarantine and disease symptoms
  • The apocalypse
  • Event cancellations
  • The elderly in trouble

The study was published Thursday in Frontiers in Psychology.

Anu-Katriina Pesonen is the study's first author and the head of the University of Helsinki's sleep and mind research group. She tells Inverse that it's not uncommon for shared tragedy to appear in people's dreams. For example, studies on the September 11th attacks revealed stress dreams in which people replay the disaster.

Now, this analysis of pandemic dreams demonstrates how quickly reality can become folded into our dreams, creating what Pesonen calls a "shared mindscape."

Typically, we think of dreams as an intensely personal phenomenon, she explains. However, if you place people in a shared environment, like a lockdown, that experience becomes less unique to personal circumstances and more illustrative of collective experience.

"This shows that if the environment is shared, then that's reflected in dreams with similar features," Pesonen explains. "In that sense, it's not entirely private."

Students return to school in Finland in May. In March, when the study was conducted, schools were closed due to the pandemic. ALESSANDRO RAMPAZZO / Getty Imagers

Shared mindscape – The dreams reported in this study came from the sixth week of Finland's coronavirus lockdown, a period beginning March when schools were closed, and gatherings of more than 10 people prohibited. The team looked at just one week of dreams in April to see if that single snapshot might be reflected in each person's dream narratives.

Then, the team used AI to look for word clusters that seemed to be more frequently connected to one another when people described their dreams.

The words most often used to describe dreams during Finland's coronavirus lockdown.Frontiers in Psychology

The team found more specific patterns when they grouped respondents by a key feature: their levels of stress due to the virus.

The most frequent words that stressed-out sleepers used to describe dreams were: coronavirus, death, or work. By comparison, those with lower levels of stress had dreams that featured: crowds, friends, and coronavirus.

Those who were more stressed also had more pandemic-themed nightmares, albeit it, ever-so-slightly. Fifty-two percent of bad dreams in the stressed out group were pandemic related, whereas 49 percent of bad dreams in the non-stressed group were pandemic related.

Those who were more stressed also had more bad dreams, a pattern that can be linked to less sleep in general. Though the team found that while more than half of those surveyed were sleeping more during the lockdown, 29 percent still reported more frequent awakenings. Twenty-six percent of people reported more nightmares than in pre-pandemic times.

"Basically, it can be kind of this vicious circle of stress and having nightmares," Pesonen says.

The ups and downs of coronavirus dreams –  There's a clear line between bad dreams that are the result of the brain consolidating new information and persistent traumatic nightmares. There's no upside to being plagued by nightmares that are borne of suffering, and continue to prolong it.

However, Pesonen and her colleagues explain in the study that these nightmares may have actually helped us adjust to the new rules of living with coronavirus.

Sleep helps us replay waking experiences and facilitates learning. Pesonen calls sleep a "powerful cognitive enhancer," adding:

"One could think, for example, that when adopting these new rules of not staying close to people, sleeping or dreaming of [social distancing] could help boost the learning experience."

There is some research suggesting that bad dreams can help people process fears in real life. A 2019 study on 89 people who kept dream diaries and consented to brain scans found that those who often had bad dreams showed fewer signs of fear during the day. When they were confronted with scary images, there was less activation in the insula or amygdala (areas associated with emotional processing, including the fear response) compared to those who didn't experience scary dreams regularly.

However, as Tore Nielsen, the director of the University of Montreal's Dream and Nightmare Laboratory, told Inverse previously, the idea that bad dreams are real-life's training wheels is a working idea. It's not simply experiencing those dreams that may lead to growth. Instead, it's learning to work through them out loud with a trusted confidant who may put them in a different context:

"If you can get it to transform, you can feel better about it," Nielsen said.

The good news is that, although the pandemic doesn't appear to be tapering off, these dreams may not continue to feel as jarring or surprising even if they do persist. Pesonen's study is a snapshot of the dreams borne of the moment when the threat of coronavirus crystallized.

"It was something really new and really touching and something that we all had to learn," Pesonen says of the dreams that occurred during Finland's lockdown.

Now, we're just learning to live with, and dream about, the virus.

"It's not a novelty anymore, it's the new normal," she says.

Abstract: We used crowdsourcing (CS) to examine how COVID-19 lockdown affects the content of dreams and nightmares. The CS took place on the 6th week of the lockdown. Over the course of one week, 4275 respondents (mean age 43, SD=14 years) assessed their sleep and 811 reported their dream content. Overall, respondents slept substantially more (54.2%) but reported an average increase of awakenings (28.6%) and nightmares (26%) from the pre-pandemic situation. We transcribed the content of the dreams into word lists and performed unsupervised computational network and cluster analysis of word associations, which suggested 33 dream clusters including 20 bad dream clusters, of which 55% were pandemic specific (e.g. Disease Management, Disregard of Distancing, Elderly in Trouble). The dream association networks were more accentuated for those who reported an increase in perceived stress. This CS survey on dream-association networks and pandemic stress introduces novel, collectively shared COVID-19 bad dream contents.

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