Has Covid changed the way we dream?

One thing everyone agrees on is that sleep, and REM sleep in particular, is important. On the one hand, evolution would not have fostered such a dangerous activity – in which we are disconnected from reality, ducks sitting for accidents or predators – if it had not been profoundly useful for survival. It cannot be an accident that so many animals, including humans, spend a large portion of their lives sleeping. In fact, science has yet to discover an animal that does not sleep at all. (An outlier is a 1967 study that suggested bullfrogs did not sleep; it is now considered to have flaws.) Migratory birds and swimming dolphins manage to sleep when in motion by resting one hemisphere of their brains at the same time. Sitting ducks do this too – they take turns to stand guard. There is also a less successful version of the phenomenon in humans, known as the “first night effect”, which occurs when the left hemisphere of our brain refuses to fully rest when we first sleep. times in a new uncertain environment. , making us wake up tired. Even jellyfish sleep, although they do not have a brain, and earthworms that do not have the chance to sleep for several hours after experiencing a stressful event, such as extreme heat, cold, or exposure. toxins, are less likely to survive. One study, using a magnetic device called an insominator, tested the effects of sleep deprivation on bees and found that it made them unable to communicate with the rest of their hive. Another found that sleep deprived rats would die within a month.

In humans, shorter sleep is associated with heart disease, obesity, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease. insulin levels and to repair neural cells and remove protein waste that builds up in our brain. It is also essential to many intellectual and emotional treatments; without enough sleep, it is harder for us to learn new things, assess threats, cope with change, and generally control our emotions and behavior.

Yet none of this means that dreams that occur during sleep – their content or even their existence – have meaning on their own. As Zadra explained to me, “Sleep could do all of its work without us having these virtual simulations,” these elaborate narratives that play out in our heads every night. Anyone who argues that dreams matter, therefore, must tackle this fundamental question of content. Is there any point in spending our nights in weird, spooky stories that we rarely even remember the next day?

Within a week of his library dream, Barrett published an online survey. In addition to the basic information about the dreamers that filled it out – where they lived, if they worked in healthcare, if they had been sick – she gave people the space to describe any recent dreams they had had. ‘they thought they were about the pandemic. In many, the connection was obvious: dreams of working in an intensive care unit or getting a positive Covid test or hiding from illness. (Barrett was collecting dreams in English, which she admits created biases in the data, as did the self-selection of participants who – presumably – cared about the pandemic, cared about dreams, and consumed types. media that might point to his work.) Other dreams were more metaphorical but still offered intuitive connections, the kind of emotional transference dream seekers are accustomed to identifying. A common dream of this type involved monsters hiding just out of sight or invisibly attacking people around them; in a dream, the invisible monster could only kill people who were within six feet of its last victim. Barrett also noticed an increase in images of insects, often scary insect swarms, which she attributed to the dreamy mind looking for visual representations that matched the fear he was feeling, and landing on a game. of words – a virus, after all, is known as a bug.

Other supposed links to the pandemic, although intuitioned by the dreamer, were not clear to Barrett. (For example: a dream in which Oprah Winfrey was threatening a gymnasium full of people with a hand-held circular saw.) And the dreamer used a thick copy of the Washington Post to crush it. The fear, during the dream, was that of rabies, but the awakening instantly recognized that bats were also a possible source of the virus that causes Covid-19. The dreamer hypothesized that the dream “perhaps symbolizes the need to arm oneself with information, data and knowledge to protect against an invisible virus circulating rapidly too close to home”.

Some days dreams came in the hundreds, and it took Barrett hours to read them all. She started noting themes and similarities, which she then explored through statistical and linguistic analysis. Women, who other studies have suffered more job losses and more pandemic stress than men, also saw their dreams change more: their levels of anxiety, sadness and anger were much higher. higher than the prepandemic dreams with which Barrett compared his new sample. (Women also had most anxious dreams about home schooling.) And the dreams of the sick, as is often the case when the body is fighting a fever, were the most bizarre and yet the most likely of all. all – lively but strange. hallucinations that made it difficult to separate sleep from waking life. A Covid patient named Peter Fisk has described feeling wide awake, curled up in bed and emotionally thinking back to his days living in a cozy lair by a river. “But then,” he wrote, “it occurred to me that I had never done this. I had false memories of being an otter.

As was the case with post-9/11 dreams, the dreamers most affected were those who lived closest to the trauma. Over 600 healthcare workers sent in dreams, which Barrett recognized as often being the same story, told with small variations: “There is a critically ill patient in their care, something is not working and the patient is. dying. They feel desperately responsible and yet have no control over death. Research has shown that the dreams of trauma victims often begin by replaying the traumatic event in great detail, but over time they often incorporate more and more new elements and scenarios, dampening the emotion of the trauma. original dream. (Some therapists encourage this development, training patients to imagine, and then try to dream, more empowering endings to their trauma.) However, in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder, this process seems to break down; the classic PTSD nightmare is a realistic flashback-like trauma that repeats over and over with little modification.

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