The coronavirus has been a kind of waking dream, calling up our worst fears and anxieties. Yet something curious is also happening when we close our eyes at night. I have always been a vivid dreamer but, once the pandemic hit, my dream life went on overload. Many of the images were so detailed and intense it was like watching an epic film. Friends who usually paid little attention to their dreams reported strange visions that haunted them throughout the day. So I began to wonder, Are our dreams more frightening than usual? What new terrors are cropping up? Can these nocturnal horrors also be healers? And what’s the best way of dealing with them so we can feel at home in our beds and in the world again?
The Dream Collection
My first call was to Harvard psychology professor Deirdre Barrett who collected over 8,000 coronavirus dreams, comparing them to those she catalogued after 9/11.
“Back then people dreamed that they were out going about their business then suddenly a plane crashed into the side of a building,” Barrett says. “These dreams often incorporated one of visual elements shown on TV—a plane, a falling building. hijackers with knives. Our pandemic dreams are different because the virus itself is invisible. There’s no single dramatic image that everyone is reacting to.”
In the first stage of the pandemic, we began dreaming about body sensations–having trouble breathing, spiking a fever. Some of us borrowed dystopian imagery from Netflix: “I’m on a street with huge piles of trash, in a scene from Contagion.”
Insect dreams were common, too. Our fear of being attacked by the virus was represented by attacking bees and hornets, black flies swarming at the dreamer, a room filled with loathsome bugs. “There were also scenes of worms on the ground and armies of cockroaches,” Barrett says. “One woman dreamt about a giant grasshopper with vampire fangs.”
The Netflix documentary, Tiger King, inspired a dream about the grim realities of unemployment. “This guy dreamt he got furloughed and the only job he could find was working for Joe Exotic,” Barrett says. “In the show, employees had to live in hovels and eat food from Walmart’s discard bin. The animals and the people weren’t treated very well.”
At one point, Barrett began worrying about her students—psychiatric residents working in the ER or general admissions who were exposed to the virus on a daily basis,. She also dreamed about trying to protect her cat and made this computer-generated image, showing a lamb in a gas mask.
A second wave of pandemic dreams focussed on the trials of living under lockdown. “People sheltering in place alone tended to dream about being imprisoned,” says Barrett. “Those with families dreamt that a bunch of strangers had moved in. One woman who was homeschooling her only child dreamt the whole class showed up on her doorstep.”
Later, as we began to emerge from our isolation, our dreams began to carry a sense of hope and optimism.
“Mad Maxx post-apocalyptic dreams were followed by an idyllic scene where people live together in harmony, finding new ways to cooperate,” Barrett says.
Then came dreams of whales and dolphins. “These creatures started showing up in ponds or swimming pools in the dreamer’s backyard,” Barrett adds, “In one dream, the whales have learned to fly.”
A wholesale clearing of the earth has emerged as a major theme: “The dreamer walks into her backyard and sees tall mountains in the distance. She calls her mother and asks how this is possible. Her mother says they have been there all along. ‘You just couldn’t see them because of the pollution.’”
In many dreams, the rivers that run through our major cities are filled with tropical blue water. “Magical things are happening,” says Barrett. The air and water are cleaner. In short, we’re getting a glimpse of a better world.”
The Bigger Picture
How do we explain these images of regeneration? “The dreaming mind is older than the waking mind and has a broader bandwidth. It simply knows more,” says psychologist Meredith Sabini, founder of the Dream Institute of Northern California, in Berkeley. “It has access to our survival strategies—ones that have evolved for over two million years.”
When I asked about these dreams of planetary renewal, Sabini drew on the principles of evolutionary psychology. “We’re longing for a way of life we used to have, in small clans, as hunter-gatherers,” she said. “This is how we managed for 99 percent of our history as a species—living close to the earth. I think our dreams are trying to bring us back to that baseline, to reconnect us to nature and to our original sense of home.”
As the coronavirus unfolds, Sabini has been holding dream workshops on Zoom. Recently, a participant shared this dream:“I’m talking to people about the painstaking and careful work scientists do to learn more about the world. Then a trickster interrupts us, and says, ‘Yes, but what about the accidents, and the unexpected, and all the messing up?’ I’m then in my old classroom, a naturalist’s lab. I have set up a bug terrarium but there’s a plant growing in it, with a few small buds. It’s comfrey. The trickster knocks the buds off. I decide to save them: They might even be a cure for covid.”
“We talked about the word comfrey and her need for comfort,” Sabini said. “But there was a bigger message here as well. This dream is about two possible approaches to the pandemic. One involves collecting scientific data and the other, making room for the mysterious and inexplicable forces at work. We need to be open to other ways of looking at the world because the unexpected does happen, and could lead to innovation and new forms of creativity.”