People with persistent waking anxiety also tended to play scenarios that involve future work, relationships, and life in general on their minds over the course of a day. Previous research has correlated this pattern with scene changes in dreams: frequent changes of the environment from inside to outside, from town to country, from mountains to coast. Dr. MacKay and Dr. DeCicco found that during the first phase of the pandemic, dreamers saw many more such shifts in their REM mini-dramas.
"These are classic anxiety dreams," said Dr. DeCicco.
In another study, Dr. Barrett used nearly 3,000 people online to digitally track, describe, and write about their dreams. She assessed the content of these essays using a language analysis algorithm that maps words to categories such as “anger”, “sadness”, “body”, “health” and “death”. These dreams, too, had all the characteristics of increased waking anxiety, but emotions such as anger and sadness were far more common in women than in men.
"I wasn't expecting this, but the results suggest the idea that men are primarily afraid of getting sick and dying, health fears," said Dr. Barrett. “Women survived more secondary effects. They are usually the ones who care for sick family members, for example more often than men. I suspect that is the most likely reason women feel sad during these times. "
Not all dreams in both studies were filled with darkness and fear, and many were pleasant, involving reunions with friends or family, or containing and getting rid of the virus. This included wishes and threats, healthy actions and mistakes, and adjustments to news about diffusion: learning and emotional processing. There were also regular injections of hope.
"I dreamed that SARS-Cov 2 was making music as proteins. To find the cure, scientists had to compose a melody that matches that of SARS-Cov 2," wrote one respondent in Dr. Barrett's poll. "Then they injected this as a vaccine and people get well."
In short, the studies suggest that dreaming serves not one purpose but many, probably including most of the above explanations by theorists. Dr. Hobson's idea of heating the circuitry is equally impossible to rule out, given all the dream activities that are considered mental gibberish and defy even the most astute metaphorers.
For everyday dreamers during the pandemic, it may be enough to know that Covid-19 nightmares, like everyone else, are emotionally exaggerated. "It was scary in the dream, but you wake up and it's funny," said Dr. Barrett. "The crisis is smaller than you thought."