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Blog 21: Patterns in pandemic dreams

7th February 2021

The pandemic has seen a global upsurge in vivid, bizarre, more negatively toned dreaming.  As discussed in Blogs 16 and 20, I propose the origins of dreaming lie in our evolutionary past when we needed to avoid threats and take advantage of opportunities to survive and reproduce. Dream associations identified the non-obvious activity patterns of competitors and predators so that we could avoid them, and those of potential mates so that we could meet them. We retained these associative patterns in vivid, bizarre dream images. Just like the predators of long ago, Covid-19 is a threat to our survival so the emergence of more vivid, bizarre, negatively-toned dreaming is no surprise.

Some  dreams incorporate pandemic features, such as masks and social distancing but, like our usual dreams, Covid- 19 dreams don’t replay memories of pandemic experiences in their entirety. Instead they seem to mix up elements of the Covid-19 threat with other anxieties. I propose this is because negatively-toned dreams portray associative patterns in our threat-related experiences. If they are related in meaningful ways, threats encountered in the past may help us deal with those in the present. So threat-related dreams often associate different threats across time. Pandemic dreams are no exception.

For example, Tore Nielsen,  a dream researcher writing in Scientific American on pandemic dreams, included the following brief dream extract: “My phone had a virus and was posting so many random pictures from my camera roll to Instagram and my anxiety was at an all time high.”  This person seems to have associated the pandemic virus with a phone virus. Although rare, phones can get viruses. The anxiety in this dream is about random Instagram posting but the association to Covid-19 may be because the dreamer fears both the phone virus and Covid-19 are out of control. Unfortunately, we can only speculate over this dream because the extract is very short and we can’t ask this dreamer to decode their dream through associating it with their memories.

The image below is from Unsplash, after searching for “pandemic dream”. One of the techniques used decode dreams in dream groups is to  invite someone to relate a dream and then ask the other dream group participants what the dream would mean- if it were theirs. I follow this technique here, but rather than using a reported dream narrative, I invite readers to associate to this pandemic dream image.

Trying to escape from the blackboard cellar

My dream associations are as follows: I see my friend, C, she is wearing a mask and  striking animal print coat. C is in a dark place – it could be a cellar. I think she wants to escape but the windows are too small. Behind her is a wall entirely covered with an enormous blackboard with lots of squiggly chalk drawings, words and noughts and crosses, which I can’t see properly. So maybe she is in a school.

In the dream C is masked, but apart from this, the dream doesn’t have any other Covid- related features. But the dream does have associations to some of my other threatening experiences. First, the dream may be situated in a cellar with small windows and C can’t get out. As a small child, I was left in a cellar which I couldn’t escape from.  Second, again as a child, newly arrived at school, I couldn’t see the blackboard. My parents hadn’t realised I was severely short-sighted. I was distressed and disorientated outside of my familiar home environment. So I found school threatening. Third,  recently, a person with an animal  print coat asked me directions. She came up very close and wasn’t wearing a mask, so I felt a bit scared about infection.

I propose that in pandemic dreams, the Covid-19 threat is often associated with other threats which are similar in ways that are meaningful for the dreamer. The Covid-19 virus is threatening: we can’t escape from it, we can’t see it and other people may infect us with it. My associations to the Unsplash pandemic dream image echo these three threats.

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