Bizarre Dreams during COVID-19: Three Scientific Explanations
Many people seem to have weird dreams lately. In fact, so many people that, according to a New York Times article, the Google searches for the term ‘Why am I having weird dreams lately’ have recently quadrupled. And yes, if not in these odd and challenging times of the pandemic, when should our dreams deserve special attention? The bizarreness of dreams has been puzzling people for thousands of years. Some assume they are a ‘royal road’ to a world otherwise inaccessible to us. Others say they just result from a desperate attempt of our unconscious mind to make sense of random brain activations and the resulting sensory impressions.
I am a sleep researcher at the Centre for Chronobiology at the University of Basel, Switzerland. In my current project, I investigate how the COVID-19 lockdown affects our sleep. Here, I provide you with three scientific explanations why many might lately feel they dream more and have more bizarre dreams.
1. More sleep
According to several reports, during the lockdown we sleep more than usually. Previously, researchers had assumed that we exclusively dream during what we call ‘rapid eye movement’ or REM sleep, a state we spend about 25% of the night in. However, nowadays we know that we virtually dream during the whole night. In a recent study, participants awoken from REM sleep reported having dreamt in 95% of the cases while this was also true in about 70% of cases when volunteers were awoken from non-REM sleep.
Simply speaking: We dream more the longer we sleep.
But how come we also seem to remember more dreams these days? Two things do the trick: First, we especially have more REM sleep the later we sleep in the morning — and REM sleep is special. Why? During this phase, dreams tend to be most bizarre, vivid, and emotional — ideal conditions for them to be remembered. Second, we are more likely to wake up from REM sleep than from other sleep stages. And, unless the dreamer wakes up, dreams are usually lost forever.
In short: The longer we sleep, the more likely it is that we remember our dreams.
2. More stress
The current situation is special and challenging for many of us. Whether it is taking care of the children while preparing an important meeting, worries about one’s financial situation or simply too many people sharing limited space — the lockdown causes stress for many people. While any kind of stressful experience or burden is known to generally worsen sleep, it specifically also leads to more awakenings. Thereby, stress makes it more likely that dreams are remembered. Additionally, stress is also known to increase the time we spend in REM sleep. Thus, it likely increases the number of vivid and bizarre dreams. But is this effort well spent?
It has repeatedly been proposed that REM sleep may help us handle and overcome intense (negative) emotions experienced during the day.
And yes, many of us currently do have a lot to cope with! In fact, an influential study demonstrated that sleep normalised the activity in brain regions associated with experiencing emotions. Likewise, participants also experienced less intense feelings towards emotional pictures they had seen the day before. This normalisation was specifically attributed to REM sleep. Note though that, although these findings underline the importance of REM sleep for psychological wellbeing, it does not tell anything about the importance of dreaming.
3. More focus
Last, it is likely that also the media —as well as many of us — now focusing on ‘weird dreams during the pandemic’ amplifies the phenomenon. Upon awakening, memory for a dream has often vanished before the first cup of coffee — unless we actively engage with its content. However, when volunteers were explicitly encouraged to remember their dreams in a scientific study, they remembered them twice as often compared with those, who expected to be asked about their dreams, but did not receive any further instructions.
This suggests that the more attention you pay to your dreams, the more likely it is that you will remember them. The media might thus fuel this phenomenon.