Dreams in Quarantine: Science Focus Ponders the Ephemeral

From the first lockdown order issued in early April 2020 and places like California mid March, sleep professionals wondered about the fate of sleep. Would extra stress lead to sleepless nights? Would the need to work from home lead to better sleep, with people finally following their natural biorhythms instead of the artificial schedules imposed by corporate traditionalists? 

With many of those studies already completed, researchers have shifted their focus to the ephemeral, finding that the fleeting images of dreams are a bit less fleeting during the pandemic. An article in Science Focus by Amy Barrett points to a YouGov poll suggesting that people are recalling their dreams more than usual.

“Nearly 30% of the American adult population has experienced an increase in dream recall in the past month,” writes Kelly Bulkeley, PhD, in Psychology Today. “Twice as many younger people (ages 18-34) as older people (ages 55+) are remembering more dreams than usual.” 

Could the nightmare of a pandemic spawn more and better dreams? And why are people remembering dreams a bit more? Bulkeley believes further analysis will reveal deeper patterns, but for now “it seems clear that the COVID-19 outbreak has impacted the dream lives of younger people” more strongly than older people. 

Bulkeley offers three possible explanations for the difference. 1) Young people in general have higher dream recall. 2) The economic and social disruptions of the pandemic may have been harder on younger people, who tend to have less money and are more dependent on urban social activities. 3) Perhaps young people have been stimulated by this crisis to even more dreaming than usual, precisely because of the urgent need for visionary guidance.

In Science Focus, psychologist Mark Blagrove, director of the Sleep Laboratory at Swansea University, adds that reliance on the ubiquitous (and obnoxious) alarm clock has decreased. “We know that people are having more dreams than normal,” explains Blagrove in Barrett’s article. “It seems to be because people are sleeping longer. A lot of people are waking up without alarm clocks, so their final REM sleep period of the night is probably longer than it normally would be.”

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