Bob Dylan, wearing a Celtics uniform, came up with a possible COVID-19 cure in a Boston coffee shop. Abraham Lincoln (who is much shorter in real life) was sewing face masks. I was there, too. OK, I might have dreamed this. But I’m not the only one having weird and vivid dreams these days.
So what’s happening? I asked Deirdre Leigh Barrett, dream researcher at Harvard Medical School, past president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, and author of “The Committee of Sleep.”
Barrett has created a COVID-19 dream survey, if you want to tell her about your own weird quarantine dreams. This interview was edited and condensed.
Q. In a nutshell, what’s causing this phenomenon?
A. Any big life change tends to stir up one’s dream life and result in more and more vivid dreams. The shelter-at-home situation is a big life change.
Also, one of the biggest variables in number of dreams, vividness of dreams, length of recalled dreams, etc. is hours of sleep. Many who are sleep-deprived may be catching up on sleep now.
Q. REM cycles have something to do with it, correct?
A. Yes, we go into REM every 90 minutes, but each REM period lasts longer than the one before it. When you do catch-up sleeping, you’re especially catching up on dreaming, and have some of the longest REM periods ever.
Q. I read there have been studies on weird dreams during other difficult times — 9/11, World War II. Can this be our mind’s way of working through trauma?
A. Yes, [though] I’d call it a stressor rather than a trauma for all but the health care providers, patients with COVID-19, and a few other most-affected populations.
I’m seeing dreams that focus on different stressors — threats from the virus, loneliness, confinement with a family member with whom one has conflicts, economic hardship, missing favorite foods, etc.
Q. You’re conducting a survey on COVID-19 dreams. What do you hope to learn?
A. Looking at a collection like this can tell us a lot about the world’s unconscious emotional reactions and may even give us new approaches to it. Dreams are just our brain thinking in a very different biochemical state, and that mode can be a useful complement to our usual waking linear one.
Q. Are there any major themes people are dreaming of?
A. Getting sick with COVID-19 and being about to die is a common theme. So are metaphors — bugs are by far the most common: worms, flies, bees, roaches, grasshoppers all attack dreamers. [Dreams] about curing oneself, discovering a cure for everyone — house cat saliva was the source for one dream remedy. One woman turned into a giant antibody that raced around killing the virus.
Q. Any advice?
A. If someone is bothered by a lot of anxiety dreams, [try] to think of what dreams you would like to have. With what we call “dream incubation,” you can suggest to yourself what you’d like to dream as you fall asleep. Repeat to yourself what you want to dream about as you drift off to sleep. The technique raises the odds that your dreaming mind will honor your request.