We’ve been practicing a magic trick – are you ready? We’re going to try and read your mind.
Here goes: You recently had a dream about traveling to a crowded place.
Gasp! How did we know?! Well, it may be true that a magician never reveals their secrets, but this is science – and science has peer review. A new study published in the Journal of Sleep Research has been tracking the effects of lockdown on our dreams, and let’s just say if you’ve woken up in a cold sweat lately after dreaming about an overcrowded grocery store trip, trust us, you’re not alone.
The research followed 90 subjects living under the Italian lockdown for two weeks back in April and May 2020. During the first week of the study, the country was still under a strict stay-at-home order in an effort to curb the coronavirus outbreak. But during the second week, restrictions had started to lift, and that gave the researchers a valuable opportunity to figure out the effect of lockdown on participants’ dreams.
“To the best of our knowledge, the current study provided the first within-subjects longitudinal assessment of dream activity across the pandemic in Italy,” the authors wrote. “Our results […] confirmed that both sleep and dream measures showed critical differences between the lockdown and post-lockdown periods.”
The study painted a stark picture of the effects of the pandemic on our mental health: participants were (understandably) stressed and anxious under lockdown, and that made it difficult to get a peaceful night’s sleep.
“[The lockdown period] was characterized by a higher number of awakenings and greater perceived difficulty falling asleep than the subsequent week,” the authors explained, noting that this result was in line with other studies from Italy and Canada.
“It is easy to speculate that the greater difficulty to fall asleep and the sleep fragmentation across the night may be linked with the higher arousal due to the psychological distress experienced during wakefulness.,” they added. “More than half of our sample showed clinically relevant anxiety and PTSD-related symptoms during sleep [during lockdown].”
But once the study participants finally dropped off, the study revealed something intriguing: the subjects were better able to recall their dreams during lockdown than after – and more likely to experience lucid dreams.
“On the one hand, this result is in line with our expectations,” the researchers wrote. “The relationship between traumatic events and [ability to recall dreams] replicates previous findings," they explained, clarifying that "the higher lucid dream frequency during lockdown compared with post-lockdown represents a completely original finding.”
So why would lucid dreaming be on the rise? The researchers explained that the intriguing form of dreaming can sometimes be the body’s attempt to self-regulate emotions during stressful times. Lucid dreams have been associated with a reduction in nightmares, and, said the study, “could reflect the attempt to improve the coping ability [while awake].”
“Great,” you may be thinking, “but how did you know I had that dream about getting stuck in a crowded Costco?”
Well, chances are your local lockdown restrictions have recently been easing – and according to the study, that means you’re more likely to have been dreaming about crowds. The reason, say the researchers, is simple: after such a long time living with strict limits on movement and socializing, finding yourself in a crowd is going to be a really big deal. And when something is a big deal, we can’t help but dream about it.
The study’s conclusions agree very well with the growing body of research surrounding the effects of lockdown – but it’s important to note that it had a few important limitations. Most obviously, it was carried out only on people living in Italy, where the lockdown was pretty severe. But it was also highly biased by age and gender: 80 percent of participants were women, and all were between the ages of 19 and 41. Moreover, the researchers noted, the results were all self-reported, so information like sleep quality can’t be objectively measured.
And if you’re still plagued by weird lockdown dreams, don’t worry: the study only lasted two weeks, so it can’t draw long-term conclusions. You’ll probably be back to dreaming about all your teeth falling out in no time.