One thing that everyone will agree on is that sleep, and REM sleep in particular, is important. For one thing, evolution would not have favored such a dangerous activity – where we are disconnected from reality, caught in accidents or predators – if it hadn’t been profoundly helpful to survival. It cannot be a coincidence that so many animals, including humans, devote enormous portions of their lives to sleeping. In fact, science has yet to discover an animal that doesn’t sleep at all. (One outlier is a 1967 study that suggested bullfrogs fail to sleep; it is now considered flawed.) Migratory birds and swimming dolphins manage to sleep along the way by resting one half of their brains each. Seated ducks do this too – they take turns on guard duty. 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 the first time we sleep in a new, unsafe environment which makes us wake up tired. Even jellyfish sleep without having a brain, and earthworms that survive for hours after a stressful event such as extreme heat, cold, or toxins. One study that used a magnetic device called an Insominator tested the effects of sleep deprivation on honey bees and found it made it difficult for them to communicate with the rest of their hive. Another found that sleep deprived rats will be dead within a month.
In humans, shorter sleep has been linked to heart disease, obesity, stroke, and Alzheimer’s, and various studies have shown why: Sleep is when the brain does much of its “household chores” by allowing our bodies to release growth hormones, adding antibodies produce and regulate insulin levels and help repair nerve cells and remove waste proteins that accumulate in our brain. It is also crucial for many intellectual and emotional processing; Without enough sleep, it is more difficult for us to learn new things, assess threats, deal with changes and generally control our emotions and behavior.
However, that does not mean that the dreams that happen during sleep – their content or even their existence – make sense on their own. As Zadra explained to me, “Sleep could do all of its things without us having these virtual simulations,” those elaborate narratives that pop up in our heads every night. Anyone who represents the meaning of dreams must therefore deal with this fundamental question of content. Is there any point in spending our nights tinkering with strange, phantasmagoric stories that we seldom remember the next day?
Within a week Barrett put an online poll of her library dream. Along with basic information about the dreamers who filled it out – where they lived, whether they worked in health care, whether they were sick – it gave people the space to describe their recent dreams about the pandemic. For many, the connection was obvious: dreams of working in an intensive care unit or getting a positive Covid test or hiding from illness. (Barrett collected dreams in English, which she admits led to biases in the data, as did the self-selection of participants who – presumably – cared for the pandemic, cared about dreams, and consumed the kind of news media on them they might point to their work.) Other dreams were more metaphorical, but still offered intuitive connections, the kind of transmission of emotions that dream explorers are used to identify. A common dream of this type involved monsters just lurking out of sight or invisibly attacking people around them; In a dream, the invisible monster could only kill people less than two meters from its youngest victim. Barrett also noted an increase in insect images, often frightening swarms of insects, which she attributed to the dreaming mind, looking for visual representations that matched the fear it was feeling and landed on a pun – a virus is after all as a. known insect.
Other alleged connections to the pandemic were not clear to Barrett, although they were intuitively suspected by the dreamer. (For example: a dream in which Oprah Winfrey threatened a gym full of people with a circular saw.) But many people went to great lengths to explain the connections they saw in their own dreams, like a bat entering a dreamer’s house intruded and the dreamer used a thick copy of the Washington Post to hit her. The fear during the dream was rabies, but upon waking up it was immediately realized that bats are also a possible source of the virus that causes Covid-19. The dreamer speculated that the dream “may symbolize the need to arm oneself with information, data and knowledge in order to protect oneself from an invisible virus that circulates far too close to the home”.
Some days dreams came by the hundreds and it took Barrett hours to read through them all. She began to notice subjects and similarities that she later explored through statistical and linguistic analysis. Women, who had more job losses and more pandemic stress than men, according to other studies, also saw their dreams change more: their levels of fear, sadness and anger were much higher than the prepandemic dreams Barrett compared their new sample to. (Women also had the most fearful dreams about home schooling.) And the sick dreams, as is common when the body is fighting a fever, were the most bizarre yet most similar of all – vivid but strange hallucinations that made it difficult to separate sleep from waking life. A Covid patient named Peter Fisk described feeling wide awake, curled up in bed, fondly thinking back to his days living in a cozy cave on a river bank. “But then,” he wrote, “it occurred to me that I never really did that. I had false memories of being an otter. “
As with post 9/11 dreams, the hardest hit dreamers were the closest ones to trauma. More than 600 health care workers sent dreams that Barrett recognized as often the same story, told with minor variations: “A critically ill patient is in their care, something is wrong, and the patient is dying. They feel desperately responsible and yet have no control over death. ”Research has shown that trauma victims’ dreams often begin with repeating the traumatic event in great detail, but over time they often contain more and more new elements and Storylines, thereby blunting the emotions of the original dream. (Some therapists encourage this development and coach patients to imagine a stronger ending to their trauma and then dream.) In cases of post-traumatic stress disorder, however, this process seems to break down; The classic PTSD nightmare is a realistic, retrospective trauma that repeats itself over and over again with just a few changes.