At the start of lockdown, I was an insomniac. Some nights I wasn’t able to sleep until dawn. Waking life was an episode of Black Mirror unfolding in real-time. Yet while the news was a morbid stream of statistics, being at home felt weirdly detached from reality. If you ventured out, you’d hear the supermarket tannoys echoing in unison down the empty aisles: ‘Stay home. Save lives. Stay home. Save lives.’
When I finally did sleep, my dreams were intense. I saw nurses sprint down flood-lit corridors to attend to the perpetual beeps of the ICU; people having their throats cut with kitchen knives; the Grim Reaper on a roundabout; and underground trains full of coughing people. As it turns out, I wasn’t the only one with a supercharged dreamlife.
Across the world, people have been reporting increased experiences of strange and unusually vivid dreams. When the U.S. shut down, two California-based sisters – Erin and Grace Gravely – began collecting covid dreams and archiving them online. Shortly after launching, they began receiving up to 100 submissions per day.
In Illinois, someone dreams of an alien incursion. In Oregon, someone has a recurring dream of ‘apocalypse mushrooms’, which resemble orchids and only grow in cities devoid of humans. In El Salvador, a person dreams of a hospital being attacked by molotov cocktails. While the dreams vary in content, the majority of them share one thing in common: anxiety.
Throughout history, dreams have been an endless source of intrigue. Ancient civilisations looked to dreams as messages from the gods and created lengthy manuals to decipher them. In classical Greece, dreams were seen as a powerful curative force and ‘sleep temples’ were routinely used to seek cures and revelations from deities. Centuries later, when Sigmund Freud published his seminal book, The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), attitudes towards dream interpretation began to shift. Instead of having a divine origin, dreams were thought to unmask what lurked deep within the psyche.
Science since suggests that our dreams are intrinsically linked to our wellbeing while we’re awake. During rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep, which is the restorative sleep phase and most associated with dreaming, areas of the brain are stimulated which are vital for both learning and memory.
According to Deirdre Leigh Barrett – a leading researcher in dreams – there is a surge in dreams during crises. From a survey of more than 6,000 covid dreams, Barrett quickly noticed that many dreams were metaphoric. Respondents described plagues of insects, invisible monsters and shadowy figures dominating their dreamscapes, which she ascribes to the difficulty of visualising the covid-19 virus.
Speaking to The Harvard Gazette, Barrett says she’s seen every bug imaginable attacking the dreamer: “swarms of every kind of flying insect you’ve ever heard of; armies of cockroaches; masses of wriggling worms; grasshoppers with vampire fangs.”