How Covid-19 is impacting people’s dreams is the subject of a study being run by a cross-disciplinary team of academics from Australia, the UK and Finland.
“Pandemic dreams” are already the subject of a book of essays from Harvard research Deirdre Barrett, alongside reams of popular audience articles and social media posts.
“Certainly there were different lines of evidence that inspired this project,” says Dr Jennifer Windt, a senior research fellow in philosophy at Monash University, who will be working on the project alongside researchers from the University of Cambridge in England and Finland’s University of Turku. “People seem to be reporting weird dreams, but also generally they seem to be reporting that they’re dreaming more … and unfortunately often having more negatively toned dreams and nightmares. So that was part of it.”
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Participants in the “Covid on Mind” study, which will be anonymous, will keep a dream log and undertake a “daily mind-wandering task” over a period of two weeks.
But first, they will be asked to complete a wellbeing questionnaire that examines their mental state, and “concerns related to coronavirus specifically” to give the researchers “some measure of how people are doing, how concerned they are about the virus, and changes related to the virus in their everyday lives”.
The cross-disciplinary project involves cognitive neuroscientists, psychologists and sleep and dream researchers, many of whom study how dreams reflect people’s mental states while awake. “We have people on the team who’ve done a lot of work on emotion and dreams … the pandemic seems to be an ideal opportunity to study that,” says Widnt.
She says there is already a body of research that suggests “negatively toned” dreams are associated with issues like anxiety and depression, and wonders, “Could changes in dreams be a marker to help identify people with mental health issues?”
“We’re not interested in interpreting the dreams in any sense,” she explains. “This is really a quite different approach that tries to get objective numbers … It’s really about quantifying changes in emotion, and relating them to measures of waking thought and emotion.”
Other researchers will be investigating the number of social interactions people report, both in their dreams and mind-wandering tasks. “Dreaming has been proposed to have a possibly evolutionary function in fine-tuning social skills,” she says. “We know that many of our interactions have gone virtual … does that have an impact on how people dream?”
“Dream bizarreness”, which Windt describes as “a technical word for all of the different ways in which dreams can be weird”, will also be a focus for Melbourne-based PhD student Manuela Kirberg.
In order to quantify how bizarre, social, positive or negative a dream is, independent raters read through dream reports and score them using established criteria. They rate the occurrence of “emotion terms” and “social content”. Any comments that do not form part of a dream’s description – for instance the dreamer’s own interpretation – are discarded, and raters talk to each other to ensure there is “sufficient agreement” in how they are scoring the dreams. “You need a lot of patience and sticktoitiveness to do that scoring, as well as training,” Windt says. “A lot of dreams are pretty mundane.”
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The researchers are currently recruiting volunteers for the study – and anyone over the age of 18 who lives in the UK, Australia or Finland can participate. The study will be open for up to 12 months. The resulting dataset will feature well over 1,000 dreams and daydreams.
Windt is particularly curious about the dreams and mind-wandering of people in lockdown. “It’s obviously horrible what’s happening in Melbourne,” she says. But, “I do think it is a particularly interesting period to get people involved … How do their dreams relate to the changing outer circumstance?”
Windt’s own work as a philosopher focuses on “consciousness and cognitive science” – and she is particularly interested in the mind-wandering elements of the study. “There’s a large body of research that shows we spend 30 to 50% of waking life mind-wandering,” she says. “It really suggests that for much of waking life we aren’t in control of our thoughts and attention at all … That’s really interesting as a philosopher.”