Dreams During the Pandemic

What they tell us about the functions of dreaming.

Posted Oct 12, 2020

Not surprisingly, the stress of living in these viral times has led to recent newspaper articles on its effects on sleep and dreams (1). In an earlier post, I looked at sleep and circadian rhythms during the lockdown (2). It seems appropriate to explore as well the effects of the pandemic on the content of dreams, and what they may tell us about the nature and functions of dreaming.

Sh1019 in Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Statue in Hangzhou, China: 'Dreaming of the Tiger'
Source: Sh1019 in Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Some recent reports have centered around the findings that people most impacted by the pandemic described increased dream recall, with a more negative focus, often on topics with imagery related to the virus, the head (a body part associated with becoming contaminated), and pandemic situations such as waiting in line. 

The authors believe that this continuity of waking concerns into dreaming suggests a way of identifying persons most susceptible to mental health concerns (3) and that dream interpretation might be a beneficial approach to reducing COVID-related stress (4). Certainly, these are possibilities that would have to be studied, but it may be useful to emphasize another aspect, that the act of dreaming about COVID-19 can be seen as part of a built-in healing process. 

Let’s look for a moment at some of the ways dreams have been conceptualized over the years. The Freudian view in a nutshell is that they represent a way of expressing upsetting impulses in a more acceptable manner while disguised as symbols. As such, the theory goes, interpreting them is a way of glimpsing unconscious processes. At the other extreme is the activation-synthesis hypothesis of Alan Hobson and Robert McCarley (5) which suggests that dreams result from the inability of the cerebral cortex to make sense of seemingly random information generated by deeper parts of the brain. In this view, during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, a vast amount of random information ascends from the brain stem (the pontine reticular formation), and the seemingly bizarre quality of dreams represents an unsuccessful attempt of higher centers to make sense of this influx.

An implication is that dreams may have little meaning, and are only an epiphenomenon, a kind of mental activity reflecting physiological processes during REM sleep. Though possible, it fails to explain a number of things: among them, the occurrence of repetitive dreams, and the existence of dreaming in NREM sleep (when there is not the same outflow of stimulation from the reticular formation to higher centers), and the lack of difference in dream content between the part of REM with active eye movements and the part of the REM period without eye movements. For these reasons, many researchers and clinicians believe that it continues to be worthwhile to explore possible functions of dreams, one of which may involve absorbing the impact of stressful events, leading to mastery over them. Let’s begin by looking at this from a historical perspective.

The association of dreaming and healing was expressed clearly by the ancient Greeks. At the temples of Asclepius, the god of medicine, supplicants would drink a herbal brew causing them to sleep, during which the god or his daughters would appear in dreams and advise them how to get well. The walls of the temple were adorned with murals, portraying mythical heroes slaying monsters, for instance, Perseus slaying Medusa, whose glance could turn men to stone. The implication seemed to be that the road to healing involves confronting and mastering something that is terrifying. (Or in the case of Medusa, literally petrifying a person, who then, stone-like, is unable to grow or change.) It was thought that during dreams one might find a way to move beyond such an impasse.

Jumping ahead to more recent times, psychologists such as Ernest Hartmann and Rosalind Cartwright beginning in the 1990s formulated that one function of dreaming may be to help absorb and master stressful experiences. Hartmann suggested that in dreams, emotions are depicted as visual metaphors. A dream of being on a narrow ledge above a cliff, for instance, might represent the sense of being in peril. In the process of dreaming, current feeling is connected to past memories that produced similar emotions, placing the current experience in context. The thinking starts to change, bringing up thoughts like: “Well, now that I think about it, this is sort of like the time ____ happened."  Connections are made, letting one draw on past experiences, and the guiding association is the similarity of the same emotion. In this way, a situation that appeared impossible seems a little more manageable (6).

Cartwright, in studying women in the midst of a divorce, made an observation similar to what is now being seen in the pandemic—those most affected by it with depressive mood and other features were most likely to have more unpleasant dreams. Those who did better emotionally were the ones who had the most negative dreams early at night, with the improved emotional tone as the night progressed (7). In contrast, those who remained most distressed during waking life continued to have gloomy dreams later at night.

One interpretation of this is that in the latter, there is a failure of a normal process in which negative feelings are gradually neutralized in successive REM periods across the night. This might imply that clinical improvement could come from encouraging a person to re-write dreams in a more positive way, for instance by taking an active stance instead of being a passive victim of a spouse’s bad behavior. This approach continues to be explored, for instance in a more recent study in which helping trauma survivors reimagine the endings of recurrent PTSD nightmares led to dreams with more hopeful outcomes and a more positive attitude during waking (8).

It seems unlikely that REM sleep and its associated dreaming have a single function, as so many processes involve multiple activities. One might ask what is the purpose of breathing—is it to provide oxygen to the blood, to release excessive heat or toxins, to make speech possible, singing, even to play the tuba?  In the same way, it is possible that, as various theories have it, dreaming involves some combination of memory consolidation, rehearsal for threatening situations, imaginative play, the development of social skills, and—as we focused on here—making relationships between upsetting experiences and earlier memories, so the new events seem less unique and overwhelming.

If the latter is the case, it gives a different perspective on reports that our dreams are turning to COVID-related themes. Instead of viewing this as a distressing consequence of the pandemic, it might be useful to see it as a sign of the mind dealing with stress by invoking a healing process.

References

1. Carey, B.: What we dream about when we dream about COVID-19. New York Times online October 6, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/06/health/dreams-covid-coronavirus.html?referringSource=articleShare

2.   Mendelson, W.B.: Sleep and circadian rhythms during the COVID-19 lockdown. Psychology Today, July 7, 2020. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/psychiatry-history/202007/sleep-and-circadian-rhythms-during-the-covid-19-lockdown

3.   Schredl, M., & Bulkeley, K. (2020). Dreaming and the COVID-19 pandemic: A survey in a U.S. sample. Dreaming, 30(3), 189–198. https://doi.org/10.1037/drm0000146

4.  MacKay, C., & DeCicco, T. L. (2020). Pandemic dreaming: The effect of COVID-19 on dream imagery, a pilot study. Dreaming, 30(3), 222–23. https://doi.org/10.1037/drm0000148

5.   Hobson, J. Allan; McCarley, Robert W. (1977). "The Brain as A Dream State Generator: An Activation-Synthesis Hypothesis of the Dream Process". The American Journal of Psychiatry. 134 (12): 1335–48. doi:10.1176/ajp.134.12.133

6.   Hartmann, E. Why do we dream? Scientific American July 10, 2006. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-do-we-dream/

7.  Cartwright R and Lamberg L: Crisis Dreaming. Harper-Collins, New York, 7. 1992. Also see: Cartwright, R.D.: The twenty-four hour mind: The role of sleep and dreaming in our emotional lives. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2010.

8.  Ellis, L.A.: Qualitative changes in recurrent PTSD nightmares after focusing-oriented dreamwork. Dreaming 26: 185-201, 2016.  https://doi.org/10.1037/drm0000031