By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
COVID-19 lockdowns have taken an unexpected turn: causing bad dreams, AP News reported. Many people have had anxiety dreams as a result of the sudden and seemingly endless shake-up to their daily schedules. What do we know about why we have nightmares?
With their normal lives being thrown off balance by the coronavirus stay-at-home orders, people are finding that even their unconscious isn’t spared. “The horrors of COVID-19, and the surreal and frightening ways it has upended daily life, are infecting dreams and exposing feelings of fear, loneliness, isolation, and grief that transcend culture, language, and national boundaries,” the AP article said. “Everyone from a college teacher in Pakistan to a mall cashier in Canada to an Episcopalian priest in Florida is confronting the same daytime demon. Each is waking up in a sweat in the dead of night.”
The article goes on to say that thousands are reporting nightmares related to the virus. Bad dreams of being in groups of people who suddenly get sick, or of being one of the last humans without the virus, have been described. So why do we have nightmares and what do they tell us?
Freud and Dreams
One of the world’s most famous psychologists, Sigmund Freud, often analyzed patients from a symbolic perspective, and dreams were no exception.
“Freud’s view is that the central function of dreams is wish fulfillment, but the content of our dreams is often difficult to unpack, and so Freud makes a distinction between the content that we are conscious of in the dream—the manifest content—and the content that is latent,” said Dr. Daniel Breyer, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Illinois State University. “The latent content is the obscure trigger or inspiration for a dream; it’s the symbolic side of the dream, and it captures the underlying wish that the dream functions to fulfill.”
Dr. Breyer said that, in Freud’s view, sometimes the dream can be easy to understand because its manifest content and latent content overlap fairly well. For example, a dream about winning the lottery and living large would clearly express an ideal world in which we could live without the looming troubles of paying next month’s rent, getting fired from our jobs, etc. However, sometimes—especially with nightmares—the idea that dreams express our wishes is harder to accept.
Nightmares: Emotion Processing or Chaff?
Freud’s theory about dreams as wish fulfillment dominated the psychological field for some time, but it fell out of fashion due to the things it couldn’t explain. Maybe some dreams are manifestations of wish fulfillment, but certainly nobody wants to be in a group of people who suddenly become victims of a frightening new disease. So what do nightmares do for us?
“One view is that bad dreams, in particular, might help us process our emotions,” Dr. Breyer said. “On this model, when we experience negative emotions when we’re dreaming, we might be engaging in a threat simulation process that would prepare us to handle such emotions when we’re awake. The function of our dreams is to simulate threats, rehearse threatening situations, and develop skills that will help us avoid or overcome such situations, thereby, increasing our chance of survival.”
Another view is that bad dreams and nightmares serve no direct purpose at all. Dr. Breyer said that some scientists have endorsed the view that the function of sleep is to cleanse the brain, and, therefore, dreams aren’t about their content but the mental processes involved in having them. He said that the level of cerebrospinal fluid radically increases in the brain while we sleep in order to wash out harmful proteins that have gathered.
“As for the content of our dreams, its familiarity might be explained by the fact that, during the cleansing period of sleep, neuronal firing in certain regions of the brain ends up triggering memories and emotions that work themselves into our dreams, whereas the strangeness of our dreams might be due to the fact that, as we’ve already noted, the mechanisms associated with control are deactivated, making our dreams seem haphazard and out of control,” Dr. Breyer said.
Unfortunately, the jury’s still out on some of the functions of nightmares.
Dr. Daniel Breyer contributed to this article. Dr. Breyer is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Illinois State University, where he also serves as the director of the Religious Studies program. Dr. Breyer received a B.A. in Classics from the University of Montana, an M.A. in Liberal Arts from St. John’s College, and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Fordham University.