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COMFORT ZONE

The stories behind our weird COVID dreams? They’re now a book

One of Deirdre Barrett's COVID-19 dreams became the cover of her book.
One of Deirdre Barrett's COVID-19 dreams became the cover of her book.

The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from “Ghostbusters” tore through Boston last night — without a mask. A masked Bill Murray tackled him outside Fenway Park.

… Might’ve dreamt that one.

Pandemic dreams are bizarre, vivid, have some common themes, and are so widely experienced that Deirdre Leigh Barrett, dream researcher at Harvard Medical School, just wrote a book about the phenomenon.

“Pandemic Dreams” draws from some 9,000 dreams Barrett has collected since March in a survey. (It’s ongoing if you want to tell her about your own.) The past president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, Barrett illustrated two of her own COVID-19 dreams. One became the cover of her book.

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In her first COVID dream, Barrett was in a library in a centuries-old home, cozy among the leather-bound volumes, while outside ”a terrible plague was ravaging the world.” In another, she attempted to pull a hood over her cat, Morpheus, “to protect him from toxins in the air … he struggled vigorously with me.”

One reason we’re dreaming weirdly? We’re getting more shut-eye in quarantine, which means more REM cycles, says Barrett, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.

We had more questions for Barrett.

Q. What did you find in your survey? What were some of the most common themes?

A. At the very start, there were lots of dreams about catching the virus. Some were literal — trouble breathing, spiking a fever. Others were metaphors — tsunamis, tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires, mass shooters, etc., which I’ve seen after other disasters.

There were a lot of bug-attack dreams, which seem unique to this pandemic. I think that’s partly because of the slang term “bug” for an illness, and also that swarms of bugs make for a good representation of COVID-19 — lots of little things that, cumulatively, can harm or kill you.

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There were lots of dreams early on of being out in public and either realizing [you] didn’t have a mask or had gotten too close to others, or [that] others were unmasked.

Q. Tell us a bit about “Pandemic Dreams.”

A. I was curious to see what our dream-lives would tell us about our reactions to this disaster. I’d studied the dreams of 9/11 survivors, of Kuwaitis during the first Gulf War, and dreams from POWs in World War II concentration camps. What patterns from these past crises would we see again? What dream metaphors would be unique to the current pandemic? [H]ow might a better understanding of our collective dream-lives help us as we move through this crisis?

Q. How have COVID dreams changed from that first panic, to where we are now?

A. Through late April and May, dreams about catching the virus decreased, while dreams about the secondary effects increased: metaphors for lockdown, homeschooling, work furloughs.

People sheltering alone dreamed of themes like being locked in prison or being sent to Mars alone. People sheltering with [others] were likelier to dream that hordes of people had moved into their home.

While lockdown was fully in force, dreams about reopening were happy, wish-fulfillment dreams. [More recently] dreams about this have become anxious.

Interview was edited and condensed. Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurendaley1.


Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com. Follow her on Twiiter @laurendaley1.