Making Sense of Your Weird Quarantine Dreams

One of the peculiarities of online dream analysis, at least for those of us without advanced psychiatry degrees, is its tendency to get specific. On a dream interpreter like Dream-Meaning.net, where users can search imagery for its precise meaning, ambiguity is an afterthought. The image of a diaper, for example, broadly symbolizes “childish or dependent attitudes.” But the entry also breaks down into 14 subgenres, such as “Wearing Diaper” (feeling ashamed about needing help), “Getting and Receiving Diaper” (mommy issues), “Holding a Diaper With Leaks” (problems or conflicts with children), and “Soiled Poopy Diaper” (a “positive sign” that pet projects will soon become highly profitable).

Whether you believe them or not, the fun of these analyses comes from their contrast with dreams themselves, which generally speaking, trend flaky. Our sleep imaginations rarely generate clear stories, so much as stitch brain detritus into a quick montage. Tables can turn into chairs, then into Aunt Susan. Throughlines fade as quickly as they came. That’s where online analysis comes in. How clarifying to hear a nightmare about “Having a Hairy Stomach” merely portends that “your business is bringing you more wealth and expanding your influence against the competitors.”

But in early April, just weeks after social distancing measures first went into place, dream interpretation took a turn. Almost at once, sleepscapes across the globe seemed to become more vivid and specific. “Why Are My Dreams So Vivid Right Now?” one headline in The Cut asked. “Why Am I Having Weird Dreams Lately?” read another in The New York Times. In InStyle: “Why You’re Suddenly Remembering Your Dreams In The Morning.” The headline list went on in Vox, Vice, Los Angeles Times, and Wired.

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At the same time, dream meaning began to seem self-evident. The global pandemic—which has killed nearly 300,000 people worldwide, shuttered small businesses, and left countless indoors and financially insecure—radically altered the rules of waking life. Dramatic changes in routine can stimulate dream recall, as can sleeping lighter, or longer. Stress can make dreams weirder, more emotionally intense. The COVID-19 outbreak brought all of those ingredients into play, while hammering themes like isolation, sickness, or hygiene into our thoughts. If dreams index mental miscellany, by April, everyone’s miscellany had a little more in common.

As a result, researchers started keeping tabs on the shift in our collective nightlife. Harvard Medical School psychologist Dierdre Barrett, one of the leading dream researchers in the country, launched a public questionnaire to collect COVID-19 dream data. Dr. Dylan Selterman, a psychology lecturer at the University of Maryland, started soliciting participants on the subreddit r/Dreams, among other places, for a similar study. Selterman, who wouldn’t disclose his hypothesis, plans to weigh variables like relationships, wellbeing, and ethics.

If dreams once ranked somewhere between insurance and the weather on the list of boring conversation topics, they have lately become a subject of interest. Last month, the Museum of Dreams, an online archive exploring dreams through history, began to see a massive spike in traffic, according to its founder, Sharon Sliwinski. “There’s been a huge interest in dream life in the COVID period,” Sliwinski said. “The world has slowed down a bit. There’s lots of stress and hardship—of course our dream life is very active in this time.”

The cast of characters in the book, you’ve got Hitler in there, you’ve got Goebbels in there. You see the same in people’s COVID dreams—the politicians who are having a huge impact on people’s life.

The most popular project to emerge from that interest is a website called I Dream of COVID, founded by a Bay Area woman named Erin Gravely. In late March, Gravely began publishing short dream summaries quick titles like “Bees” or “Nice Family,” and a simple, black-and-white cartoon drawn by her sister, Grace. The project was inspired by Charlotte Beradt, a Jewish journalist in Nazi Germany who queried some 300 people about their dreams under the regime, later published as The Third Reich of Dreams. “Having read that book,” Gravely said, “I became aware that, in times of great stress or flattening of experience across a whole country, people will start to dream differently, and more similarly to each other.”

“There are lots of parallels [to draw] about the rise of fascism, the return of fascism,” Sliwinski, who wrote about Beradt in her own book, Dreaming In Dark Times, added. “It came out of her own experience of having nightmares. The cast of characters in the book, you’ve got Hitler in there, you’ve got Goebbels in there. You see the same in people’s COVID dreams—the politicians who are having a huge impact on people’s life.”

Joe Dobkin, a freelance audio producer in Brooklyn, has been collecting recordings of dream descriptions for an upcoming podcast, tentatively titled Quarandreams. Dobkin, who taped his own dreams for a decade, has collected 240 recordings so far. He plans to edit them into episodes by theme. The first focuses on distancing, the topic he says comes up most frequently. Hospital settings, virus motifs, absurd cures, and vaccine material also appear often. “Almost all dreams people share are relevant,” Dobkin said. “Even ones that are like, ‘I dreamed of Disneyland’ or ‘I got a haircut’ or ‘I was hanging out with my friends’—those are all products of people isolating and wondering what’s going on.”



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