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Why your dreams have been more vivid during the outbreak

Deirdre Barrett is a Harvard University professor and an expert on dreaming who has studied the science of dreams for three decades. And with societal anxieties heightened by the global pandemic, she is now collecting accounts of COVID-19 dreams with the hopes of learning how they are influenced by big events. NewsHour Weekend's Mori Rothman has the story.

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  • Karina Mitchell:

    It's not hard to imagine worries about covid-19 keeping people up at night. But around the world people have been reporting that the pandemic is affecting their dreams as well.

    NewsHour Weekend's Mori Rothman has our report.

  • Mori Rothman:

    Deirdre Barrett has been having strange dreams lately.

  • Deirdre Barrett:

    I was in a very beautiful antique library, like the library of a home. And I knew that outside there was just some horrible thing happening. And it kind of transformed from being a war to being a riot to being something like the Black Plague.

  • Mori Rothman:

    Barrett created this eerie depiction of her dream. But she's more than an artist: Barrett is an expert on dreaming- she's studied the science of dreams for four decades, and written a book on the subject.

    Now she's collecting accounts of COVID-19 related dreams to learn about how people's dreams are being influenced by the pandemic.

  • Mori Rothman:

    What kind of dreams are you seeing people report?

  • Deirdre Barrett:

    In the survey I'm doing there's some big clusters of types of dreams. People are dreaming that they're getting short of breath, they're spiking a fever or more fantastically one woman looks down at her stomach and sees blue stripes on it. And in the dream remembers that that's the first sign of coronavirus and knows she has it.

    There's a big cluster of metaphoric ones about the virus. But representing it as something else. The biggest sub-part of that are bugs, every kind- cockroaches rushing toward the person, swarms of flying insects, masses of squirming worms. I think we see so many bugs because it's a common phrase I have a bug means I have a virus, but also because the virus is so invisible, lots of small things that cumulatively can kill you makes bugs a good metaphor.

  • Mori Rothman:

    Barrett says in the thousands of dream reports she's received, the pattern is shifting from initial fears of the virus to aspects of being in lockdown. And she's not the only one collecting dreams.

    On a website called "I dream of Covid" gathering dreams from around the world, some wrote of bizarre things including never- ending video conferences, items in a grocery store cart coughing and sneezing, and relationship troubles brought on by uncut hair.

    Barrett says most dream activity tends to occur toward the end of slumber, during a period that is often interrupted by the alarm to wake up. But because many people are home all day, some are sleeping longer. So it makes sense that more people are remembering dreams when they awaken.

  • Mori Rothman:

    You've looked at dreams of people who have gone through major events, 9/11, for example, where there was more stark imagery- how does this compare?

  • Deirdre Barrett:

    The way the 9/11 sample and this one are very similar is that in both the ordinary person who's watching this on television and is certainly stressed and worried about it, but not really experiencing what psychologists usually mean by trauma, they're mostly having anxiety dreams. they're much more unpleasant than typical dreams.

  • Mori Rothman:

    But what about the extraordinary person, the one dealing with the crisis on the frontlines?

  • Deirdre Barrett:

    In both of the samples, 9/11 and the pandemic, the first responders are the ones who have just horrible post-traumatic nightmares, much more literally about the events.

  • Mori Rothman:

    And at what point do these dreams kind of help us process what's going on and at what point are they not as helpful?

  • Deirdre Barrett:

    I think a lot of the questions that we ask about dreams, we should kind of think of the equivalent in waking thought like if you try to think about our most of your waking thoughts, helping you process what's going on.

    Well, some of them are definitely good ideas and breakthroughs about what to do and getting you somewhere. But an awful lot of waking thought is just repetitive circles, 'I've thought this over and over yesterday and I'm doing it again today.' And I think your dreams are like that also.

  • Mori Rothman:

    And if the dreams get to be overwhelming, Barrett says there are steps you can take to try to at least make them a little less upsetting.

  • Deirdre Barrett:

    If people just want to stop having bad anxiety dreams, the best method is to think of what you would like to dream about. Maybe a favorite loved one, maybe a favorite vacation spot. Lots of people love flying dreams. And so too, as you're falling asleep to form an image of that in your mind and it makes it less likely you'll have the anxiety dreams and more likely you'll have the content you're targeting.

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