Quarantine dreams: Researcher Deirdre Barrett on the science of sleep

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"Strange times" Illustration by Deirdre Barrett.

Deirdre Barrett, dream researcher and assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University sits down with KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian to discuss how the prolonged global pandemic has worked its way into our nightly nocturnal adventures. After conducting thousands of dream surveys, she’s discovered many of us are dreaming the same thing — and many of our dreams include recurring and bizarre themes like bugs and  jail cells, tornados and hurricanes.  One correlation she has discovered is that we are all dreaming more because we are all sleeping more.  

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

At times of uncertainty and crisis do people dream more and are our dreams a safe place to live out our fears?

Barrett:All crises kind of stir up our dream lives, but also the typical person loses a little sleep and most crises. But this one is stirring up our dream lives for psychological reasons. But the stay at home order and the work furloughs have the average person sleeping more than usual and this contributes further to the vivid dreams, because the strongest correlation with dream recall is simply a number of hours that you sleep. Initially I thought, this will be like 9/11; people will be having lots of interesting, anxiety dreams but I didn't really foresee that everyone will be catching up on sleep and not using an alarm to wake up and we will see more dreams than ever.

In your research you say that the more we sleep, the more REM cycles we have and that it's the last REM cycle, early in the morning, that produces the most vivid dreams. Does the fact that some of us are sleeping later account for the heightened level of dreams? 

Barrett: The last REM cycle, it is the longest and it's got what's called REM density, which means you're seeing faster and more eye movements. That ends up correlating very much with how vivid the dreams feel subjectively. So if you're missing more than just that proportion of your dream time if you sleep one or two hours less. You're not taking off one eighth or one fourth of your dream time, you're actually taking off more than that and taking off your most vivid dreams. 

You’ve recorded thousands of dream surveys over the last two months. What did you learn about what people were dreaming about? 

Barrett: There were lots of metaphors but the biggest cluster of the metaphors were bug dreams.Dozens and dozens of dreams about bugs attacking the dreamer. All types of bugs; swarms of bees or hornets, armies of cockroaches, giant grasshoppers with vampire fangs, stink bugs and every kind of bug you can imagine. This is because we use the term bug as a slang term for an illness and even especially a virus; bug often refers to viruses. 

So the term represents the concept with a visual image, but also at a slightly deeper level. Swarms of lots of little things that cumulatively could harm or kill you is a pretty good metaphor for what the virus is doing in our body. Bugs are not something I've seen during other crises as a metaphor. 

In addition there was every other metaphor that crops up for most crises in a natural disaster; tornados, hurricanes, tsunamis and wildfires or mass shooters in the streets randomly shooting people. Everything you usually see that scares people badly. 

Then there was a smaller set of invisible monsters not nearly as numerous as the bugs. A bunch of dreams in the survey where the person is outside and they know they're monsters that could get them, but they can't see them. They either see dim shadows or they hear monster footsteps, but they can't actually see the monster itself.

Could there be something important in our dreams? Is it worth kind of keeping track of what we're going through throughout the night?  

Barrett:  Yes, you learn a lot by paying attention to your dreams and now is an especially good time to keep a dream journal if you never have. And to be sharing your dreams with family or friends or whoever you're either sheltering with or getting on zoom with, because many of us have a little more time for that than usual. And you both can learn something from just one dream in kind of informal interpretation of thinking through. Each element and kind of what is that what does that mean to me? But also keeping a dream journal teaches you something in a different way; you’ll notice your main themes and patterns and who's in your dreams most. So both the individual dream and the sort of cumulative dream history are both instructive about ourselves.

Credits

Guest:
Deirdre Barrett - Assistant professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, whose books include “The Committee of Sleep” and “Trauma and Dreams,”

Host:
Jonathan Bastian

Producer:
Andrea Brody