What We Dream When We Dream About Covid-19

Several recent studies shed light on the pandemic preoccupations of sleepers.

By Benedict Carey

The swarm of insects — sometimes gnats, sometimes wasps or flying ants — arrived early in this year of nightmares. With summer came equally unsettling dreams: of being caught in a crowd, naked and mask-less; of meeting men in white lab coats who declared, “We dispose of the elders.”

Autumn has brought still other haunted-house dramas, particularly for women caring for a vulnerable relative or trying to manage virtual home-schooling.

“I am home-schooling my 10-year-old,” one mother told researchers in a recent study of pandemic dreams. “I dreamed that the school contacted me to say it had been decided that his whole class would come to my home and I was supposed to teach all of them for however long the school remained closed.”

Deirdre Barrett, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and the author of “Pandemic Dreams,” has administered dream surveys to thousands of people in the last year, including the one with the home-schooling mother. “At least qualitatively, you see some shifts in content of dreams from the beginning of the pandemic into the later months,” Dr. Barrett said. “It’s an indication of what is worrying people most at various points during the year.”

Dr. Barrett is the editor in chief of the journal Dreaming, which in its September issue posted four new reports on how the sleeping brain has incorporated the threat of Covid-19. The findings reinforce current thinking about the way that waking anxiety plays out during REM sleep: in images or metaphors representing the most urgent worries, whether these involve catching the coronavirus (those clouds of insects) or violating mask-wearing protocols. Taken together, the papers also hint at an answer to a larger question: What is the purpose of dreaming, if any?

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