This is part of our Coronavirus Update series in which Harvard specialists in epidemiology, infectious disease, economics, politics, and other disciplines offer insights into what the latest developments in the COVID-19 outbreak may bring.
Much of Deirdre Barrett’s work has involved the study of dreams, particularly the distressing dreams and nightmares of those affected by trauma, including combat veterans, former prisoners of war, and 9/11 first responders. More recently, the assistant professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, whose books include “The Committee of Sleep” and “Trauma and Dreams,” has created an online survey to collect the dreams of people living through the coronavirus pandemic. To date she has more than 2,500 responses recounting more than 6,000 dreams. Barrett spoke with the Gazette about how she sees the outbreak affecting the quality and content of people’s dreams.
GAZETTE: What exactly is happening in our subconscious during periods of extreme stress? How is that manifesting in our dreams?
BARRETT: When we dream, our brain is in this state where visual areas are much more active than when we’re awake, and on average, emotional areas are a little more active. Our prefrontal cortex right behind our forehead, which controls the most precise linear logic and also censors inappropriate social things, as well as the right way to do things in our professional thinking, is very much damped down. Our verbal areas are somewhat less active. So, I think we’re thinking about the same things that we were most focused on by day, but in this other state of consciousness. We have more intuitive thinking and less linear thinking about things. Once in a while, we’ll see that our unconscious looks much more scared than we’re feeling by day or provides us with some optimistic perspective that we haven’t had by day. But I think in general, being anxious by day and having anxiety dreams correlate both as traits that a person carries over long periods of time, but also as a state for a short period of time when there’s a stressor.
GAZETTE: Do you think extra sleep, or lack of sleep, might contribute to vivid coronavirus dreams?
BARRETT: More sleep than usual, such as many people are getting now, means more dream time. And it’s not just proportional: Our last REM period of the night is the longest and more “dense” in REM, which correlates with long, vivid dreams, so an alarm clock chopping off a bit of sleep chops off a lot of dreaming. The relationship to insomnia is more complicated. If one is simply sleeping a shorter time, then there’s less dreaming. However, if less sleep is because of frequent awakenings — whether due to noise, anxiety, etc. — one is likely to awaken out of more REM periods, which results in more dream recall though not more actual dreaming.