Have you been having bizarre dreams lately? CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta talks to dream researcher Deirdre Barrett, assistant professor of psychology in Havard University’s department of psychiatry, about her Covid-19 dream survey and what happens when we close our eyes during this global crisis.
You can listen on your favorite podcast app or read the transcript below.
Zoë Saunders (producer, CNN Audio): I had this dream the other night that I was eating the tips off the top of matches, and it was like this compulsion that I couldn’t stop. I would light a match, blow it out and then bite off the burnt crispy tip. And I went through a whole box of matches. Later when I woke up, I still had this sort of nauseating, sulfurous taste in my mouth.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta: That’s one of my producers, Zoë, recalling a dream she had.
Lately, we’ve been hearing from a lot of people who have been experiencing strange or even upsetting dreams.
And I’m one of them.
I’m not sleeping very much these days, but the other night, I had a dream that I was painting. And I’m not really a painter. It was a large canvas with lots of reds and lots of oranges. As I was painting, I suddently realized that I was also standing on a stage with a huge audience watching over my shoulder. It made me feel very self-conscious, and when I woke up, I still felt anxious.
Many blame these dreams on the unique stress and circumstances of this pandemic. It is anecdotal for now, but researchers are already hard at work trying to make sense of it all.
I’m Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent. And this is Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction.
Deirdre Barrett: One of the early anxiety dreams I had as we were just getting used to this pandemic was that I dreamed that I was trying to put a hood on my cat to protect him from something toxic in the air, and the hood would make him not breathe in the toxins. And I was so scared that I wasn’t going to get the hood on him in time to protect him.
Gupta: That’s Deirdre Barrett, a psychologist and dream researcher at Harvard University. She’s currently conducting a dream survey around Covid-19 dreams.
I wanted to talk to Deirdre about what’s happening to our minds during this global crisis. And what we can do to manage the stress better.
As a student of the brain, I’ve always been fascinated with dreams, so I asked Deirde: Why do we dream?
Barrett: Our dreams occur predominantly, but not solely, in rapid eye movement sleep. We are replenishing certain neurotransmitters. We’re fine-tuning our temperature regulation. But they’re clearly serving some more psychological functions of consolidating memories, matching similar events to each other and categorizing them in our mind. And I think that dreams are just thinking in a different biochemical state. So we’re thinking about all of our usual thoughts and concerns, but in this biological state that’s much more visual, much more intuitive, much less logical and linear. So that’s why you see dreams having these fantastic visual metaphors for things.
Erika: So I had a dream last night that I felt something weird in my mouth, and all of my front teeth were gone. So it was bloody, and it was just my gums.
Gupta: Why are we experiencing this collective moment of bizarre dreams? Is there a role that anxiety is playing?
Barrett: For some people who I think feel pretty safe at home, it’s just the more time to sleep and the longing for certain things that you then have kind of bizarre, fantastic, wonderful dreams about. But lots of people are having a lot of anxiety through this.
Rachel: Every inch is covered in cockroaches. And like, we’re talking like black specks everywhere. You could not walk without sort of cockroaches like crawling on you or flying. So I’m totally freaked out. And for some reason, we can’t find anything to kill the cockroaches with, so we are taking cat litter, and we’re like pouring it on the cockroaches and they’re slowly dying. But it was absolutely horrifying.
Barrett: In the survey I’m doing online about dreams about the pandemic, bugs are the most common one. I’ve seen just dozens and dozens and dozens of dreams where the dreamer is being attacked by usually large numbers of bugs, swarms of flying insects, roaches are crawling toward you, masses of wriggling worms. The average person’s typical dream is an anxiety dream, either they’re dreaming about getting the virus or they’re dreaming some metaphor for it, like swarms of bugs attacking them.
And the health care providers are having full-on nightmares like you would see from soldiers at war. Pretty vivid images of what it’s like to have somebody on a ventilator and still not able to breathe. Their visuals are much closer to what’s really happening than the average person tends to go toward the metaphor.
Gupta: Do we all dream?
Barrett: Yes. The vast majority of dreams happen during rapid eye movement sleep, and we go into REM sleep every 90 minutes. And if you have someone sleep in a sleep lab for eight hours and awaken them during each REM period, you will get five dream accounts from most people. But our long-term memory is not turned on during REM sleep, so most dreams are forgotten because we don’t wake up and activate the transfer into our long-term storage.
Gupta: Have you ever seen anything quite like what we’re seeing now in terms of this collective moment of dreams?
Barrett: No, I think this is unique for a couple of reasons. One is that any big life event, including crises, tends to stir up our dream lives. We’re just thinking more intensely and emotionally by day, and dreams are just thinking in a different biochemical state. We’re catching up on sleep and sleeping a little longer, and we’re not setting alarms, which means that we wake up naturally out of dreams much more, whereas an alarm usually catches some other stage of sleep.
So just biologically, we’re prone to having more and more vivid dreams as we catch up on sleep. So I do think this is pretty unique, even though I certainly see many of the same patterns with the 9/11 dreams I collected, or Kuwaitis right after the Iraqi occupation, or I did a study on POWs in a German prisoner of war camp in World War II and their dreams. But this, this is unique in how global it is.
Gupta: Can you talk a little bit about your work studying the dreams of 9/11 survivors?
Barrett: The dreams I saw after 9/11 shared some patterns with this. The typical person who had seen it on TV, they weren’t living right around the towers, they had lots and lots of anxiety dreams, where they would dream of buildings falling down or planes crashing or hijackers with knives. But usually they would also have lots of other more bizarre, fantastic stuff or things from their own lives going on in it. But the first responders after 9/11 just had full-on post-traumatic nightmares.
And then gradually, some of the people who were having bad nightmares began to spontaneously have mastery dreams, where it’s kind of metaphorically solved in the dream.
There’s one that was the woman who had been the air traffic controller that guided the flight that went out of Dulles Airport, had a recurring dream where she was watching her radar screen, and she could see this plane beginning to not follow its flight plan and just veer off her screen, and then it reappeared on the screen, headed toward the Pentagon.
And she was just watching this in real time, helpless, you know, trying to send signals to tell them not to do this, but realizing more and more that it was intentional. And that had been a real-life experience, and she just relived that over and over.
And finally, at some point, in just naturally recovering from the traumatic experience without intervention, she had a dream where that was happening, and she just reached into her radar screen, and she picked the little tiny plane out of the screen and just cradled it in her hand so that it couldn’t do this. And she said she woke up feeling really relieved and healed and like the 9/11 experience was finally actually behind her.
Gupta: That’s amazing. I mean, the way you describe that, Deirdre, sounds like it was a therapy for this particular flight controller.
Barrett: I definitely think that our dreams are thinking through, trying to help us, and sometimes just like our waking mind, they are just stuck in endless anxiety cycles and are not getting us anywhere. Although we’ve also taken that kind of story and we now coach people who are having recurring trauma nightmares in the idea that you can rescript your dream and think of a way that it would feel satisfying for it to end, whether it’s a very literal, you know, somebody saves you or whether it’s a very dreamlike metaphoric thing.
Gupta: Are there ways to try and help ourselves get both better sleep and maybe more pleasant dreams?
Barrett: In general, if you’re having just lots of anxiety dreams, the best technique to stop those is to think of what you would like to dream about – like a favorite person you’d like to see or a place you’d like to visit after this is over – and then as you’re falling asleep, picture the core image for that, the person’s face or the place, and just tell yourself, “I want to dream about this,” and enjoy the image. And that will make it both likelier that you dream about your target content, but also much less likely that you have a recurring anxiety dream.
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Shannon: In my dream, I’m with a bunch of friends sitting in a restaurant having a meal. We’re sitting at these round wooden tables, and all of a sudden, the roof of the restaurant contracts, and we can see the open sky. And the tabletops are now connected. There’s these wires coming out of them, and they become hot air balloons. And we all float away into the sky.
Gupta: Do you find value in trying to record your dreams after you wake up?
Barrett: Yes, I think keeping a dream journal is a very interesting experience. You’ll notice patterns in your dreams over time that you might not get just from thinking about each individual dream. So now is the ideal time, both people are recalling more and more interested in it, but we have more time to be doing things like dream journaling. So some people like to write them down in an old-fashioned pretty journal and other people just dictate them to their phone. But I’d encourage people who are noticing more dreams lately to start a dream journal.
Gupta: Just the other day, I caught my daughters having a discussion about their dreams.
My 13-year-old daughter was describing being on the beach standing in an unemployment line. When she got to the front of the line, they told her, her jobs were to keep secrets and to knit bright yellow scarves. My younger daughter said she was dreaming about being in her bedroom and seeing a lump underneath the covers on her bed. She jumped on it to attack it and woke herself up by screaming for help.
It was at once both disturbing and fascinating. I’m glad they shared the dreams with me, because sharing your dreams with people you care about is a good way to stay connected, especially as we are all keeping a physical distance.
If your dreams have gotten more bizzare lately, keep in mind, you are not alone.
And don’t forget that dreams have value. And you still have control over your mind even when you sleep.
We’ll be back Monday. Thanks for listening. And sweet dreams.
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