What’s Going on With People’s Dreams During Quarantine?
Understanding how our "wild" dreams can serve us well during COVID-19.
Posted May 08, 2020
Since the COVID-19 pandemic started sweeping through our country, people have been enduring unprecedented changes to their lives. The way we normally eat, work, shop, or play has been turned upside down. And this is why so many folks say that their dreams are running wild. Our quarantine dreams have captured national attention.
“Wild” dreams don’t mean bizarre or random. In fact, science has shown that we usually dream about things that we regularly experience in daily life (socializing, doing a project for work/school, playing sports, having sex, etc.). So, when our normal routines get fundamentally transformed during a pandemic, then our dreams go into overtime in an attempt to help us adjust. In that sense, our dreams may reflect the mind’s coping process. We don’t just passively “have” dreams—they are deeply functional.
Rosalind Cartwright has done longitudinal research on people experiencing emotionally difficult times, such as divorce and depression. Participants who dreamt about their ex-spouse after separating were significantly less depressed five months later, compared to those who did not have such dreams. This happened even if their dreams were emotionally negative or unpleasant. For instance, one participant dreamt that her ex-husband embarrassed her in front of friends. She then felt a desire to move on from him in the dream and was subsequently “in remission” (no longer suffering from depression). This means that even moderately painful dreams can have a healing power.
Although dreams lacking emotional depth may likely be the least useful in coping with difficult circumstances, even dispassionate dreams serve a critical role in the brain’s learning and memory processes. Erin Wamsley, Bob Stickgold, and their research group ran studies where participants did a virtual maze in their lab. Then some participants were assigned to take a nap, while others stayed awake. Which group showed improved performance on the maze five hours later that day? The group that got to take a nap did—but only if they reported dreaming about the maze. Those who stayed awake and thought about the maze didn’t show improved performance. Wamsley and Stickgold recently replicated this finding in an overnight study.
These lines of research could explain why people are now having dreams about social distancing or about trying not to touch their faces. I’ve had those dreams myself.
Another relevant scientific idea is that dreams during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep may help people form and maintain close social relationships. Patrick McNamara wrote about how REM sleep facilitates attachment bonding between parents and offspring and between sexual partners. This could explain why infants spend so much of their early lives in REM sleep, and why sexual arousal in adults (e.g., erections) also occurs during REM. This period of sleep also happens to be when our most vivid, movie-like dreams tend to occur. This theory became the basis for my dissertation research.
Now, in the era of extreme social distancing, our dreams may serve as a biological signal that we must work hard to maintain our relationship bonds. Folks have been describing their “random” dreams online recently that included high school friends, exes, or folks who have passed away. When many of us can’t leave our homes or socialize the way we ordinarily would, these dreams are motivating us, as if our brains are crying out: Reconnect! Reconnect!
We’re in a uniquely challenging period now as we try to stay united but at a distance, and with significantly less time and resources. Even those fortunate to have enough food, shelter, jobs, and health care are still suffering. My wife and I are trying to balance working from home while simultaneously taking full-time care of our 2-year-old daughter. But despite feeling constantly exhausted and overworked, we’re trying to use this isolation to deepen our bond with each other. We’re reading Sue Johnson’s book, Hold Me Tight, for a few moments in the evenings after our toddler goes to sleep. I’ve sent texts to friends who live across the country, even if we haven’t spoken in a while. We're catching up on video chats and playing games together online. This may be in part because of the weird dreams we’ve been having, which have lit an emotional fire underneath us.
Remember, we don’t just have dreams like they’re an appendix—we have them for a reason. Listen to what your dreams are telling you and know that they are functional. Keep a dream journal. Even negative or unpleasant dreams may help us in the long run. And if you have a few extra moments, consider helping science by participating in research on dreams.
Cartwright, R. D. (2010). The twenty-four hour mind: The role of sleep and dreaming in our emotional lives. Oxford University Press.
Cartwright, R., Agargun, M. Y., Kirkby, J., & Friedman, J. K. (2006). Relation of dreams to waking concerns. Psychiatry Research, 141(3), 261–270. https://doi-org.proxy-um.researchport.umd.edu/10.1016/j.psychres.2005.05.013
Wamsley, E. J., Tucker, M., Payne, J. D., Benavides, J. A., & Stickgold, R. (2010). Dreaming of a learning task is associated with enhanced sleep-dependent memory consolidation. Current Biology, 20(9), 850–855. https://doi-org.proxy-um.researchport.umd.edu/10.1016/j.cub.2010.03.027
Wamsley, E. J., & Stickgold, R. (2019). Dreaming of a learning task is associated with enhanced memory consolidation: replication in an overnight sleep study. Journal of Sleep Research, 28(1). https://doi-org.proxy-um.researchport.umd.edu/10.1111/jsr.12749
McNamara, P. (1996). Rem sleep: a social bonding mechanism. New Ideas in Psychology, 14(1), 35–46. https://doi-org.proxy-um.researchport.umd.edu/10.1016/0732-118X(95)00023-A
Zborowski, M. J., & McNamara, P. (1998). Attachment hypothesis of rem sleep: toward an integration of psychoanalysis, neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology and the implications for psychopathology research. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 15(1), 115–140. https://doi-org.proxy-um.researchport.umd.edu/10.1037//0736-97184.108.40.206
Selterman, D., Apetroaia, A., & Waters, E. (2012). Script-like attachment representations in dreams containing current romantic partners. Attachment & Human Development, 14(5), 501–15. https://doi-org.proxy-um.researchport.umd.edu/10.1080/14616734.2012.706395
Selterman, D. F., Apetroaia, A. I., Riela, S., & Aron, A. (2014). Dreaming of you: behavior and emotion in dreams of significant others predict subsequent relational behavior. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 5(1), 111–118. https://doi-org.proxy-um.researchport.umd.edu/10.1177/1948550613486678