How the lockdown is impacting our sleep
Weird pandemic dreams
Lucy van de Coevering dreamed that someone was trying to kiss her, even though the history student didn’t want them to. ‘Everyone thought I’d done it and it felt so bad’, she says. ‘I tried to tell my boyfriend, but I couldn’t reach him.’
She remembers exactly how helpless she felt in the dream. She and her boyfriend decided to look up what the dream could mean. ‘We figured out it means we were suffering from a lack of affection’, she says. ‘It made so much sense; it was during the lockdown and I had been isolated for weeks.’
Lucy gets the feeling she dreams a lot more during the lockdown than she did before. ‘I do think the lockdown is having an impact on me. I’m home all the time and I’m in my head so much more. It feels like my dreams are more intense because of that.’
‘I played a demo for a horror game, and a few days later I dreamed that I had to take these underground tunnels to get into my old high school, because we couldn’t go outside due to corona. I suddenly found myself in the city rather than my school. Except I wasn’t in Groningen but in Berlin, where I went on a weekend trip once. I ended up at this industrial area. What’s funny is that it all made sense in my head, but once you wake up you realise how random dreams are.’
She might just be right. Recent studies have shown that the pandemic is impacting our dreams, and our sleep in general. ‘On average, people sleep an extra fifty minutes on normal weekdays and an extra twenty minutes on the weekend’, says neurobiologist and sleep researcher Peter Meerlo. That doesn’t necessarily mean they dream more, says Meerlo, but they do remember their dreams better. ‘That’s partially because our REM phase is longer when we sleep longer.’
The rapid eye movement phase is when our brains are most active during sleep, as opposed to the deeper sleep in which our breathing and cardiac rhythm lower. The brains process all sorts of information during our dreams while our muscles are completely relaxed.
‘When you sleep, part of the brain shuts down, but that doesn’t mean it’s not doing anything’, says Douwe Draaisma, professor of the history of psychology and author of the book De Dromenwever (The Dreamweaver). ‘It still has to regulate a lot of things, like your breathing, heartbeat, and various other physical processes.’ Because our brains are still working while we’re asleep, it tries to turn all the information that’s floating around into a narrative.
These ‘daily remnants’, which often show up in dreams, are little pieces of everything you’ve seen that day or week, which your brain tries to put together. It usually does so during REM sleep. ‘When you wake people up during their deep sleep, they rarely report having had any dreams’, says Draaisma, ‘but if you wake them up from REM sleep, three out of four times they’ll tell you about long or short dreams they had.’
Media studies student Estelle van der Lienden dreams often, although she can’t always remember them very well. ‘Unless I fall back asleep after waking up in the morning’, she says. ‘That’s when I have the weirdest dreams.’
Ruben Spolmink, who studies artificial intelligence, knows what that’s like. ‘I’ll often wake up with a narrative in my head that I’ve forgotten by the next day’, he says.
And Laura van Meijeren, communication and information sciences student, often sleepwalks. ‘I don’t realise until the next morning, when I notice that I’ve fed my dogs, or that the door is unlocked.’ Sometimes, she eats sandwiches or chocolate in her sleep. ‘I’ll find a knife with peanut butter or chocolate spread and some crumbs on my kitchen counter. If only I could work out in my sleep. Instead, I eat.’
She doesn’t like it. ‘It feels like I’ve got no control over things’, she says. ‘I try to be healthy during the day, only to eat a whole bar of chocolate at night.’
Stress and worry
The pandemic hasn’t just impacted the frequency of our dreams, says Meerlo, it also influences what they’re about. ‘A lot of people are faced with stress and worries and problems they didn’t have to deal with before.’ He thinks the stress is making people’s dreams more emotional. ‘When dreams are more emotionally charged, we end up remembering them better.’
‘I get nightmares sometimes. I’ve woken up with tears in my eyes a few times. Once I’m awake, I realise the dreams weren’t that bad, but in the moment the emotions are so real. In one nightmare, I had been banned to a Japanese school. In another, I needed mental help but no one wanted to help me. It’s like there’s this theme where someone does something to me that I have to find a solution for myself.’
One time, Ruben dreamed that someone broke up with him, when he wasn’t even in a relationship. ‘But I did feel the emotions from the break-up when I woke up’, he says. ‘When you think about it, dreams are really personal.’
Lucy feels the same way. ‘I often wake up crying because a family member died in my dream’, she says. ‘I think almost everyone in my family has died at least once in my dreams in the past month.’
Dreams like that feel so real that people may need a lot of time to process them. ‘I tend to dwell on things, and the same goes for dreams’, says Estelle. ‘I like remembering my dreams, but it’s not as fun if it’s a bad dream.’
After one such emotional dream, Lucy decided to try and figure out the meaning behind it. Laura also thinks the narratives our brains come up with at night have a deeper meaning. ‘It might sound a bit out there’, says Laura, ‘but I often look up what my dreams might mean.’ Whenever she dreams about animals, like frogs or mice, she tries to figure out if there is any symbolism behind them.
But neither Draaisma nor Meerlo really believe in this. ‘It’s been said that in dreams, we choose which memories we want to keep’, says Draaisma. ‘But dreams are so chaotic that it’s very unlikely that we’re doing any sort of organising at night.’
Nevertheless, there are some common themes in dreams: things that keep happening to completely different people. What about the dreams where you have to give a presentation but you’re naked? Or the ones in which you have to take exams you long since passed, or the ones in which you can fly. Did you ever dream all your teeth fell out?
The type of dreams we have depends on the kind of environment we grew up in. ‘We’ve observed interesting cultural differences’, says Draaisma. ‘In our society, we often have the dream in which we’re naked, which has to do with feelings of shame. In societies where they don’t wear as many clothes, people don’t have dreams like that.’
Ultimately, though, we just don’t really know how dreams work. EEG research has taught us more about the stages of sleep and when we dream. But studying the actual content of dreams is much more difficult. ‘You can’t really instruct people to start dreaming’, says Draaisma. ‘Getting someone to sleep in an MRI machine is difficult, since the machine makes a lot of noise.’
Meerlo says sleeping and dreaming ‘are some of the most fascinating aspects of human behaviour, especially because we understand so little about it’. Since people spend a third of their lives asleep, it’s a big part of existence. ‘I love seeing our understanding of sleep develop and finding new information about it.’