(CNN)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.
In Your Dreams: Dr. Sanjay Gupta's coronavirus podcast for May 1
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