I’m telling someone I just met over the phone 15 minutes ago about a dream I had last week. It’s set during the current pandemic except I’m unexpectedly (and, ahem, in stark, binary contrast to what’s actually true) pregnant. That’s all. It’s not even like Queen Elizabeth or my middle school gym teacher or Shea Stadium makes an appearance. It’s definitely too personal and not particularly interesting. I’m two and a half weeks into this indefinite stretch of social isolation and apparently overeager to talk to anyone from outside the confines of my apartment about anything other than the virus that dominates the news.
“I’m sure people tell you about their dreams all the time and you’re like, ‘Ahh, I didn’t ask,’” I say by way of apology.
Fortunately, I picked the right audience.
“I mean, look, I have one colleague who studies dreams who’s always talking about what a drag it is that if you study dreams people try to tell you dreams at cocktail parties,” says Dr. Deirdre Barrett, an assistant professor in the psychiatry department at Harvard Medical School, editor of the journal “Dreaming” and former president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams.
“But really I and most people who study dreams are in this field because we are really interested in them.”
I didn’t call Barrett (just) to tell her about my dreams — although she’s asking plenty of people to do so these days — but rather to find out why I, and seemingly so many others, are dreaming more ever since social isolation started. Or maybe it’s remembering our dreams more? They’re certainly more vivid.
It happened right away. I usually cover Major League Baseball and had been reporting at the league’s spring training camps in Arizona until mid-March, when operations were suspended over the coronavirus, which meant I flew home and immediately adopted a quasi-quarantine lifestyle. The first morning I woke up in New York, I turned to my husband and said, “I just had the wildest dream last night.” (I will not recount the dream here because you don’t care — he didn’t either.)
And then the same thing happened the next morning and the morning after. Eventually, I did what anyone experiencing something notable in social isolation would do: I tweeted about it.
hi hello just wondering if i'm the only one having insane detailed dreams every night since social isolation started
— Hannah Keyser (@HannahRKeyser) March 27, 2020
This struck a chord with enough people (who proceeded to tell me about their dreams, and frankly, as a one-off when there’s not a lot else to do, I relished them!) that it really seemed like it was A Thing.
“You know, I’ve heard a lot of that informally,” Barrett said when I presented her with this totally anecdotal data. “It’s not what I set out to study. I am interested in how the content of the virus and the epidemic and things pretty directly to that are showing up in dreams. But just informally, I’m hearing from lots of people — cause I’m in circles that talk about dreams a lot — they’re recalling more dreams and their dreams are more vivid. And for most people it’s not that the majority of them are overtly about the viral pandemic but just more and more vivid dreams in general.”
Yes, same, that. So then, the obvious next question is: Why?
In my initial email to Barrett, I had posited a bunch of pseudoscience hypotheses — consuming too much television right before bed, a lack of external stimuli forcing our brains to invent interesting scenarios, an overabundance of wondering what will happen next — but when we spoke she had a much simpler theory.
We’re sleeping more.
Maybe not that restfully! And maybe not on a schedule that has any relationship to what the sun is doing. But, ostensibly, without commutes or social lives, people have more time to lie in bed and let the REM wash over them.
As Barrett explained, REM cycles, when dreaming happens, occur every 90 minutes during sleep, and each consecutive one is a little bit longer and a little bit more “active.” Studies show the last REM cycle in a long period of sleep will exhibit more electrical activity, indicating increased “REM density” — which correlates to things like dream recall, dream length, the level of visual imagery and emotion people remember from their dreams. We’re always forgetting the vast majority of our dreams, but an abundance of sleep makes it exponentially more likely that you’ll remember a detailed dream.
So, sleeping longer definitely correlates with more dreams, and dreams that seem longer, and dreams that seem more vivid. -- Dr. Deirdre Barrett
“If you sleep for four hours instead of eight, you’re not getting half of your dream time, you’re getting about a quarter of your dream time,” Barrett explains. “So, sleeping longer definitely correlates with more dreams, and dreams that seem longer, and dreams that seem more vivid. And a time when dreams are especially more vivid is if you’re somewhat sleep-deprived and then you do a big catchup.”
And if you’ve been able to forgo the alarm clock now that there’s nowhere to literally go in the morning, that has its own amplifying effect. When we wake up naturally, we’re more likely to do so out of REM sleep and thus remember the dream we were just having.
This is not conclusive or exhaustive and might not apply to you. But Barrett mentioned that studies do show that drastic life changes (gestures broadly at everything happening) can cause more emotional and memorable dreams.
Catching up on sleep as a compounding factor, if nothing else, makes sense personally. Covering spring training involves a lot of early mornings and baseball’s regular season is all late nights. So the one upside to this global slowdown is that I’m suddenly getting a solid eight every night — maybe more if the news has been especially bad. Of course, when put that way, I’d much rather be staying up too late covering baseball games.
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