The origin of an idea – what a surreal concept. When asked about the genesis of a thought, most of us default to the answer, “Well, it just popped into my head”. But frankly, this is an unacceptable answer, from many dimensions. On one side, it is insufficient in detail, lacking clarity, explanation, and logical reasoning. But it also simply doesn’t make sense. I mean, something cannot be born from nothing, right? But the true inception of an idea, for lack of a better word, comes from our dreams.
The lockdown-period of the COVID-19 pandemic offered a setting for an experiment – an oneirology experiment. Oneirology, the scientific study of dreams, is a field thought to have been founded by neurologist Sigmund Freud. As COVID-19 moved the world into a time of isolation, scientists who study dreams quickly began designing studies and creating surveys to allow them to access “the dreamscapes unfolding inside individual brains.” As soon as the pandemic began, the first thing researchers noticed was that a majority of dream worlds were suddenly larger and more intense. One study that surveyed over 1,000 Italians (who were living through one of the strictest lockdowns the pandemic has seen) identified that approximately 60% of them were having trouble sleeping. Before the pandemic, less than 33% of Italians had trouble sleeping.
During the pandemic, people also seemed to remember more of their dreams than during the “pre-pandemic era,” reporting that these dreams felt very emotional, bizarre, and real. A study of frontline workers in Wuhan, China, reported that over 45% of them had recurring nightmares and were even diagnosed with nightmare disorders. The Lyon Neuroscience Research Center found that dream recall increased by almost 35% the month after lockdowns across the world began. Approximately ⅓ of the American population is estimated to have suddenly remembered more dreams as lockdowns began. The point is, the pandemic, especially the isolation aspect of lockdown, significantly changed the nature of our dreams and our ability to remember them.
Dream researchers believe this sudden increase in dreaming and the ability to remember dreams came from the anxiety of isolation. The emotions that a person feels when they are awake are exaggerated in dreams, and our most emotional dreams are the ones that are easier to remember. Another potential cause of this pandemic phenomenon could be timing. Humans can enter REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep every 90 minutes. REM sleep is when most of our emotional dreams occur. The duration of REM sleep becomes longer as the night goes on. Since REM sleep durations are longer in the morning, humans are more likely to remember emotional dreams that happen during REM.
However, since REM sleep is “backloaded” towards the morning, few hours of sleep means a drastically low time for emotional dreams. If you sleep 6 hours instead of 8 hours, you don’t lose ¼ of your dreaming time. You lose almost half, which is when dreams will be the most vivid and memorable. The reason humans had such unique and bizarre dreams during lockdown and why we were able to recall our dreams was because most of us got significantly more sleep during lockdown. This allowed the backloaded REM sleep to occur for longer durations, which created more emotional dreams.